Which are the critical competencies for my function to achieve its’ targets and deliver on our corporate strategy in the most productive way? This is a question many functional leaders are wrestling with as we speak.

Historically, functional competencies have been seen as job-specific competencies that drive proven high-performance, quality results for a given position, often being very technical or operational in their nature and therefore, taking the form of specific skills.

However, the thinking around this concept has been evolving rapidly in recent years. In today’s work environment, progressive companies select a forward-looking, behavioral approach when implementing functional competency models.

Remaining advocates of the more ‘traditional’ interpretation of functional competencies often argue that specific job outcomes or abilities to perform some technical task can be measured easier and more objectively than workplace behaviors. However, in the present day, there are much more robust arguments for choosing a behavioral framework when striving for functional excellence.

Ever increasing amount of research evidence suggests that the differing factors between high performers and average performers are typically behavioral and not related to the level of pure skill as such. Other key reasons behind the changed mindset have been simplification and maintainability. As overly extensive and complex skill catalogues and detailed descriptions of required knowledge – which in many cases may be multi-tiered – are extremely challenging to keep properly updated, many organizations have accepted their failure and just buried them in silence.

Additionally, automation and digitalization have had – and will continue to have – an immense impact on industrial trade jobs, shifting workforce balance from simple technical tasks to more demanding specialist roles. This is where behavior clearly starts outweighing mere technical skills as a predictor of capability and high performance. As a functional leader, you would want to see your people demonstrating the key behaviors. Because that’s what matters.

Even if you were the most skilled and accredited expert in your field, it would not alone guarantee your job performance. You might not be fully motivated or your working style would not necessarily support the required behavior.

That being said, modernizing the approach does not downplay or diminish the importance of core skills in any way. A behavioral competency may still incorporate a skill, as well as they incorporate motivation, personality and cognitive abilities. If you didn’t have the skill and knowledge to use your employer’s access control, you would be locked out in the morning, hence unable to demonstrate any kind of workplace behavior.

It is more about a modern, simpler and more robust ‘interface’ to your function’s people performance. If someone is not performing up to the expectations, you should base your feedback on clear behavioral examples and discuss why that particular behavior is not being demonstrated to the extent you would expect. This conversation may lead you to mutually explore motivational drivers, working style, remit of the job role or potentially, needs for upskilling. There are many factors which can cause someone’s potential remaining untapped. If it boils down to a lack of skill, good news is that it’s something most people can improve!

There are some off-the-shelf competency libraries which claim to capture just the right behavioral ingredients of world-class functional performance. In most cases however, these libraries are based on research done on the top quartile of Fortune 500 companies. As we strongly believe that there is not a feasible ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to successful leadership but it is highly contextual instead, why would there be such an approach to functional behavior? If you were running a finance or procurement function in a mid-sized business, why would you replicate the key competencies of Exxon, Ford Motor or General Electric? Your function’s core behaviors should reflect your company’s strategy and not someone else’s.

When defining competencies (including the functional ones), it is essential to start with a proper job analysis.  A common mistake is to adopt a view which is too narrow, and focus only on measurable targets and KPIs – and while doing so, to neglect a decent analysis of the environment. A well-founded competency model crystallizes the key behaviors that will lead to success in a specific functional job role, in a certain work environment. For finding the avenue to high performance, it is essential to possess a good understanding about the relevant surrounding factors also, such as culture of the immediate work community and the whole company.

According to our experience – and backed up research – the best approach to defining competencies is multi methodical. Expectations of all relevant stakeholders, especially (internal) customers in the case of functional roles, should be uncovered for the job role in focus. Best outcome is typically achieved by applying different interview and workshop methods, such as competency mapping, repertory grid and visionary interview. It must be kept in mind that successful competency models are very compact in order to be easily learned by heart and get readily adopted as a daily ‘vocabularies’ for feedback.

Our firm recommendation is to keep functional competencies simple and easily understandable – chances of driving high performance in your function will increase rapidly. Build the framework and associated development processes on behavioral level and deep-dive into required skills (or other enablers of behavior) when necessary. Do not adopt a generic approach but account for your company’s strategy and nuances of organizational culture. Use external expertise, when necessary, to validate your thinking and help out with methodologies.

What will be written in the competency models for functional key roles can have a huge impact on a company’s success. Be aware, you may well get what you are asking for!

Jukka Rautiainen, Anssi Saxelin