Practice Makes Proficient: Developing Your Competencies

By Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP January 23, 2019

​Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP

​The conversation about what HR competencies are has evolved over the last 10 years. People are finally beginning to get the ideas and terminology straight.

HR professionals understand that, for the most part, competencies represent the ability to do more than just follow formulas or repeat facts. Being proficient in a competency means the ability to respond and perform effectively every day, as waves of change wash over us in HR and business. It's all about adapting and applying knowledge to any situation that comes your way. 

There is still some confusion, though. My conversations with many highly qualified and effective peers in HR have provided me with some examples.

When I ask these HR professionals which competencies are most critical in their organizations, they talk about talent management or total rewards. When I ask what it means to be proficient in a particular competency—say, Leadership—they describe someone who has a broad knowledge of leadership theories, who is charismatic or who operates as an effective leader. When I ask how that leader became proficient to that level, they focus on the leader's intelligence or personality.

These answers reflect a poor understanding of development. They recognize the proficiency in the professional, but how does the professional develop that proficiency? What I see is a lack of direction about developing HR competencies. This limits our potential in growing the competencies that lead to HR professional success.

The key, I believe, is to focus on actions.

Activities Grow Proficiencies

Competencies are more than knowledge. They are a combination of knowledge and skills, matched with abilities and attributes, which allow the professional to apply them correctly in the right situations.

You can't just take a class to develop your level of proficiency in a competency. Knowledge is, of course, still important because it is the foundation of any competency. But you need to do more than gain knowledge; you need to actively work on improving skills, abilities and attributes.

Therefore, competency development is all about activities. To become fully proficient, you need to know when and how to use a competency in a business situation. For this reason, competency development requires opportunities to use knowledge, skills and experience in real-world situations.

Actions Contribute to Success 

Take the competency of Communication. One of its subcompetencies is Listening. To develop your proficiency in this subcompetency, you might do some research to better understand what listening is and how it fits into the act of communicating. You might learn the technique of "active listening" and practice it. Try out the technique in work situations; the resulting successes or failures will help you to learn when to use it. By performing these actions, you will further develop your Communication proficiency. (See a full list of suggested activities below.)

The activities you engage in to practice a competency may provide direct support for your day-to-day job and/or a community group with which you volunteer. In many cases, the activities will qualify for professional development credits (PDCs) toward recertification of your SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP. The time you spend on these activities is not a drain, but a contribution.

Your competency development activities should include getting feedback from peers, management, reports or students. Feedback allows you to evaluate your level of proficiency and gives you ideas for further development.

Ideas for Developing Competency in Communication 

On the job:

  • Ask your boss/co-workers/employees what information they'd like to receive regularly from you. Then tell them what information you'd like to hear from them.
  • Lead a team meeting.
  • Summarize notes from meetings. Distribute the summaries to others and ask for their feedback.
  • Write an article for your department or organization. Have a skilled editor or your manager review it and give suggestions for improvement.
  • Seek opportunities to speak or give presentations in front of groups or at meetings.
  • Create and deliver a presentation that communicates the vision of the HR team or the organization. 

With a mentor or coach:

  • Identify someone in your organization who is recognized as a great presenter or communicator. Ask to shadow that person to capture their techniques for effective communication. Have them work with you to develop your communication skills.
  • Before making a presentation, practice in front of peers. Solicit feedback and incorporate it into the final presentation.
  • Ask a colleague or manager to observe and critique your listening skills when you interact with others. Focus on improving any deficiencies. 

On your own:

  • Read articles in professional or technical journals. Summarize the information or write a critique.
  • Read books on HR topics. Pick a concept to apply to the job or discuss with colleagues. Suggestions:
    • Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High (McGraw-Hill Education, 2011) by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler
    • Up, Down, and Sideways: High-Impact Verbal Communication for HR Professionals (SHRM, 2013) by Patricia M. Buhler and Joel D. Worden
  • As you read, look up and learn unfamiliar words in the dictionary. Use them regularly.
  • Listen to an HR audiobook. Write a summary or discuss the main ideas with others.
  • Try a free college course online through Coursera or OpenCourseWare.

In the profession and community:

  • Network online with other HR professionals via the SHRM Connect platform.
  • Write an article or technical report related to your field and submit it for publication.
  • Take a communication skills course at a local college.
  • Join Toastmasters International.
  • Speak at a local school or professional or community organization. Talk about what you do or a timely topic of interest. 

Phyllis G. Hartman, SHRM-SCP, is an HR consultant in Freedom, Pa. She is the author of several books for the profession, including A Manager's Guide to Developing Competencies in HR Staff (SHRM, 2017).



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