Alliance Services



Skills vs Competencies Or the Secret to Grandma’s Chocolate Cake

Amber Dawn Woods

Amber Dawn Woods

I talk a lot about Competencies – Core Competencies, Key Competencies, Critical Competencies. I sound slightly obsessed at times! Skills on the other hand don’t excite me much. So, I often get asked by clients what the difference is between Skills and Competencies, and why I care so much about one and not the other. The answer is all in how to make the perfect chocolate cake!

Yes, I’m serious. And yes, I’m craving chocolate cake!

Think of Skills as your list of ingredients and Competencies as everything else and let’s get to baking!

We all have that one family recipe that’s been passed down from generation to generation. If your family is like mine, that recipe is on an old stained index card with a list of ingredients and a couple of spidery handwritten notes about how it all goes together… and not much else. But every year we pull it out and try to duplicate great grandma’s chocolate cake with fingers crossed that we’ll remember exactly what to do to and how to hold our tongue just right to create that perfect rich and dense chocolatey cake that we’ve loved since childhood.

Our success or failure at duplicating that legendary cake is the difference between Skills and Competencies!

Traditionally job descriptions, and therefore the entire interviewing process, have been based on a set list of skills a candidate needs in order to qualify for a position. Skills are the ‘what’ someone needs to perform a specific task or activity. Skills are teachable and they’re easy to quantify. We learn skills in the classroom, through books, on the job training and experience. They’re easy to recognize and easy to search for.

So we head to the grocery store and carefully check off everything on our list and – BAM – chocolate cake!

Of course not. Once we’ve gathered all our ingredients together, we still have to make the cake.

Hiring is the same way. We create a job description with the list of skills an employee needs to have to be able to do what we need them to do. We go through dozens of interviews, pick the person with, hopefully, all the skills we’ve listed, place them in the chair and say – BAM - successful employee!

But as many of us have experienced, what checks off all the things on our list doesn’t always perform in the way we were hoping. We’ve all had those employees – perfect on paper, all the Skills needed to do exactly what we said we needed them to do, but something’s missing.

What’s missing is the ‘how’. Competencies outline how the tasks will be accomplished. Competencies incorporate Skills but are MORE than Skills. They are broader and more inclusive. They include abilities and behaviors, as well as training and experience. Often intangible and subjective, Competencies look at the bigger picture of how an employee will use their Skills to contribute to the entire organization.

My old recipe card fails to mention that butter and eggs should be brought to room temperature, you always start and end with the dry ingredients, the old cake pan should be greased and dusted with cocoa (never flour!), and whatever you do, DON’T OPEN THE OVEN until the cake is done! Those little, unwritten things make all the difference between disappointment and the chocolate cake of my dreams.

So yes, Skills are an important part of the Hiring process and they give everyone involved a good idea of what will be expected of an employee on a daily basis. But Competencies show a clearer picture of performance expectations and help you and your new employee create a road map to success.

It’s the difference between being able to DO the job and being able to SUCCEED at the job!

At Alliance Services we define a successful employee as one who adds value to, and enhances, the Company, the Culture and the Team while actively contributing to, and even driving, the organization to meet and exceed set goals. And those are the employees we want to help you find!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a cake to bake!

Amber Dawn Woods