For Businesses

Much has been written and discussed about core competencies and how they are used to define the uniqueness of a company or organization.  Core competencies, however, are not critical skills – even though a particular company will have its own set of critical skills that are similar to or even congruent with the definitions provided in this book.  The difference between companies, however, is that those critical skills might be organized in different orders of priority from company to company or organization to organization.

For example, a medical clinic composed of MDs specialized in internal medicine would certainly have their information and analysis skills near the top of the list, mainly because the nature of their business is conducting examinations, performing tests, and providing diagnoses of patient disorders.

A consumer packaged goods company, on the other hand, would have a different order of the critical skills mainly because the many marketing factors influence the consumer’s purchase decision.  Elements such as pricing, packaging, shelf placement, that appeal to the consumer are the keys to success in that business.

Determining a company’s critical skills is a rewarding project.  Such an effort can point the company toward effective training programs for employees, sharply define their recruiting criteria for entry level employees, and the like.  The process is quite straight forward.

Suppose, for example, a company has many stores or outlets where the bulk of their products are sold.  The key source of income for the company is the profitability of each store, so the individual who is the manager of such a store is the individual whose critical skills are the keys to the business.

In order to determine the critical skills that make such an individual successful, the company would identify perhaps 30 stores where the managers are known to be quite effective through their demonstrated performance.  Additionally, they would identify perhaps 5-10 stores which have managers who are known to be average or even below average.

The question then is, what are the critical skills of those individuals who are successful and how did they develop such skills; and, what is the skill profile of those who are not so successful?

The answers to these questions can be addressed effectively by non-threatening in depth interviews with the managers.  Preferably the company would select the individuals to be interviewed and inform them that they will be interviewed by an individual outside the company whose mission is to determine what makes them successful.  This communication should go to all of the managers – including those whose performance has been sub par.  The company should communicate that the content of the interviews would not be used to evaluate them and that everything they communicated with the interviewer would be held in strict confidence.  The company should say that the only thing they are interested in is a determination of the skill set that makes each individual successful.

I had the pleasure of conducting several such assignments for large organizations.  All of the companies set up the interviews in the same non-threatening way, and the individuals who were interviewed (including the sub-performers) opened up with great candor about what made them successful.  Additionally they had substantive suggestions about how their organizations should recruit and train individuals to ensure their success.

One of the organizations was in the building materials business.  They had about 150 stores around the United States and catered only to building contractors.  While their critical skill set contained most of those presented in this book, it is understandable that the production skill was one of the top priority skills for success.  Additionally, they included work ethic which, in my view, is not a skill but more of a characteristic or trait of an individual.  Nevertheless, the work ethic was very important to these individuals and made an impact about how the company should go about recruiting new people into the organization.  Instead of recruiting at the four-year colleges, they shifted their recruiting focus to the community colleges where they would have a greater chance of finding individuals who had to work hard to get an education – going to school while holding down a job.  They also concluded that individuals they wanted to hire did not have to have any knowledge of or experience in the building materials industry.  The company concluded that they, themselves, knew that business well and could train their recruits better than relying on finding someone who had experience in some lesser organization.

Another large organization was in the food business.  Specifically, they specialized in managing the private label programs for large supermarket chains, and would place their own team within the supermarket chain headquarters and literally take over management of the private label business.

This organization was interested in determining the critical skill set of the general managers who would be in charge of the team for a specific supermarket chain because it was this individual who would determine the profitability of their efforts with each organization.

I followed the same general process in interviewing approximately 35 individuals comprised mostly of highly successful general managers and a few marginal performers.  The results were similar to those discovered with the building materials and other companies with the critical skills slightly changed in terms of priorities.  Interestingly, one of the key skills identified was the analysis skill.  The business was essentially consumer marketing and highly dependent on market research and information about the supermarket consumer – what he/she purchased, why they purchased what they did, and what influenced their purchase decision.  We found (as with the building materials company) that the client did not need to find individuals who had experience in the food industry.  In fact, the company actually knew more about food marketing than most competitors, and concluded that they would focus their internal training programs on the food marketing business and recruit individuals who had strong analytical skills as well as a good mix of the other critical skills in their skill set.

This sort of critical skill determination is, in my view, much more effective and ultimately profitable than spending time trying to identify a set of core competencies that differentiate one company from another.  Such as set of core competencies is fine for marketing and perhaps investor relations purposes, and perhaps to help focus training programs, but not much else.  With critical skill sets such as these, however, companies can actually do something – such as sharply focus their recruiting, focus their internal training, and the like.


When recruiting new people in entry level positions that position them for future growth in the company, it is wise to include the critical skills as part of if not the major criteria for hiring.  The trick is that critical skills are hard to assess and must be accomplished by skilled interviewers or recruiters who can ask the kind of questions that will enable the individual to demonstrate these skills or provide an explanation of the kind of production skills he/she has accomplished.

When recruiting executives at a higher level than first capstone, the critical skills should also be assessed because of their increased importance at higher levels of management.  Make sure that whatever executive recruiter you use knows how to assess these skills.






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