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Employee Engagement Career Pathing Career Mobility

Competencies: The Building Blocks for Career Mobility

By HRSG Team on May, 20 2022

Article table of contents (jump to section):

  1. Competency 101
  2. The value of competencies in career mobility
  3. Competencies enable good talent decisions
  4. Competencies ensure better succession management decisions
  5. Competencies support more diverse career paths
  6. Competencies help employees navigate their career choices
  7. New paths, new narrative

As the labor pool continues to shrink and the quit rate continues to rise, talent professionals are dealing with challenges in retaining key talent. It is not a stretch to think that some of your very best employees may currently be considering career options outside your company. In this blog post, we’ll explore how you can use competencies to build a career pathing program designed to retain, engage, and leverage your talent.


Competency 101

Let's start by defining what competencies are before looking at how they can be used to create career pathing programs.

A competency describes the observable abilities, skills, knowledge, motivations, and traits, defined in terms of the behaviors, needed for successful job performance. They define the behaviors required for success at the different proficiency levels that are aligned with the hierarchy of roles within the organization.

A group of competencies, defined at the appropriate proficiency level, can be amalgamated into a competency profile that describes the competency requirements that predict job success. Depending on the role type, these competencies may include core competencies, leadership competencies, and functional competencies.


  • Core competencies are required in all jobs and expected of all employees. They are aligned to the vision and values of the organization.
  • Functional competencies define the competencies that are needed for success in specialized fields. Functional competencies include technical competencies, which equate to "hard" or applied knowledge and skills, or universal competencies, which equate to "soft" or transferrable skills.
  • Leadership competencies capture the essence of effective leaders and translate it into measurable behaviors.


The value of competencies in career mobility

In a traditional career pathing framework, organizations develop career ladders for each function. A career ladder is a traditional, hierarchical career movement based on an employee’s education, background, or experience. Although this is an easy and straightforward approach, it limits the employee’s options to move between functions. A lattice approach facilitates this mobility.

Competencies can enable a lattice approach to career mobility in your organization by providing the common currency that connects jobs across the organization and provides paths to both vertical and lateral career opportunities.

Let's look at some of the ways in which competencies support more flexible, "latticed" career paths.

Competency profiles ensure that validated criteria are used in career mobility decisions.


Competencies enable good talent decisions

Competencies can easily be translated into a "success profile" for each role. The success profile includes the competency profile as well as the qualifications required for success.

A success profile can be used to assess and select talent for roles. Not only do competencies assist in making objective, fair, and equitable selection decisions, but they also help predict employee success.

This is one area where role-based career ladders fail. Some organizations look at the time an employee spends in a specific role or previous experience to determine readiness for a vertical move. This thinking is flawed in many ways. It is one thing to move an employee into a role, and quite another to ensure that each employee is ready and prepared to be successful once they assume the duties of their new role. The problem with experience is that it does not necessarily equate to competence. Just because someone spent years in a role does not mean that they have acquired or demonstrated a competency to the level required. Because competencies are designed to be measurable, they provide more rigor in making talent decisions than relying on an employee's experience in a different role.

Competencies can act as a beacon to confirm that candidates are ready for a specific role by proving that they can demonstrate the necessary behaviors (the ‘how’), at the required level of proficiency, to achieve expected performance outcomes (the ‘what’).

Organizations should ask 2 critical questions:

  1. Do we enable the movement of our internal employees based on competencies?
  2. Are these employees successful in their new roles once moved?

Competencies ensure better succession management decisions

Competencies can help to identify the future leaders of your organization. One commonly held belief when it comes to succession management is: "The best performers are the best leaders." Unfortunately, this is a fallacy. Often, organizations resort to intuition and unconscious biases when categorizing employees as high-potential future leaders. But there is too much at stake to allow leadership choices to be guided by anything other than objective facts.

A better, less biased, and more equitable approach to assessing leadership potential is to use a common set of leadership competencies (including proficiency levels) to accurately assess your talent pool. This approach ensures that the executive team uses valid, observable, and measurable behaviors to assess where each employee is today, including a deeper understanding of their readiness for future leadership roles.

Competencies also provide common, consistent language to ensure that each employee receives detailed, actionable feedback on their current leadership strengths and opportunities. Developmental feedback is a critical step to help employees build specific action plans aimed at improving or strengthening identified leadership competencies.


Competencies support more diverse career paths

Well-designed competency profiles limit the number of competencies required for any one role. This simplifies the career paths because there is a limited number of competencies in which successful candidates need to be proficient.

And because every role is constructed from the same competency "building blocks," this also enlarges the potential talent pool, since you can now consider internal candidates from a variety of different backgrounds, roles and functions in your selection decisions.

Instead of looking within each function for candidates to fill the next vacancy or going outside the company to hire an external candidate, managers can use competencies to identify a broader, potentially deeper pool of interested, motivated, and skilled internal candidates to select from.

Using a competency-based approach to career pathing isn’t perfect, nor is it a magic bullet to cure all your HR ailments. Every employee has different competencies, and not every employee will be qualified for the role they are interested in. There may be barriers to entry for certain jobs—a CPA designation for accounting roles, for example, or a P.Eng. designation for engineering roles—and this will not go away regardless of the career pathing framework you employ. The good news is that if an internal candidate is not selected for their dream role, the use of competency profiles enables managers to provide transparent feedback based on the specific behaviors the candidate demonstrates in their role. In partnership with the candidate’s manager, the employee can develop an action plan to strengthen specific competencies and potentially qualify, over the longer term, for the desired role.


Ensuring that employees have the tools, resources, and support to navigate their career choices can be challenging. A lot of organizations promote the philosophy that the employee is the "CEO of their career." However, it is one thing to say this and quite another for employees to experience it. The primary goal of any internal mobility program is to ensure that employees are free to explore career opportunities without having to leave your organization to do so.

Core competencies can be seen as "transferrable" and therefore incorporated into many roles in the organization. This allows individuals to see the commonalities between different functions or career paths more easily. Competencies allow companies to identify the minimum criteria (competencies and proficiency levels) for each job, which enables broader, more diverse applicant pools. Rather than listing 15-20 specifications (i.e., qualifications, skills, education and/ or experiences) relating to the perfect candidate, a company can prioritize the most important competencies in an ideal candidate. This is an important way to foster career mobility because it reinforces that the company is open to considering employees who have diverse backgrounds and work experiences. Remember, the whole objective is to increase career mobility by creating more potential career pathways for employees to explore.

Once these success profiles are developed for each role, employees are fully empowered to:

  1. Reflect on their career interests and aspirations
  2. Identify their career destination
  3. Build a plan to get there

In other words, if you know the competencies needed in your target role, you can consider whether you are a good fit for the role today. Also, competencies (and required proficiency levels) can provide a roadmap by showing how you can develop from one role to the next, whether it is a lateral, vertical, horizontal, or downwards move.


New paths, new narrative

The effect of the "Great Resignation" is real, but it can be a catalyst for talent professionals to start developing programs that improve the workplace experience for employees.

A career pathing program built with competencies sends a powerful message that the organization recognizes the value of their employees and is committed to empowering and retaining them. The goal is to create an environment where new, non-traditional career paths are enabled in ways that have not been considered or allowed previously. With every employee career move and every subsequent success story, you are creating a new narrative in your organization—one reinforcing the importance and commitment to employee development and career growth through a sustained focus on career mobility.

Learn how to design and launch a career path in your organization. Download "The 2022 Definitive Guide to Career Pathing," a new eBook from HRSG’s expert consultants.

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