Core Competencies for Successful Business Practice

Why transferable skills are the new recruiting tool

Human resource experts have talked about the importance of recognizing and building on transferable skills for many years. They have also lamented that not all managers are willing to embrace the concept and provide workers with a chance in a different discipline. A candidate may lack experience working with a specific tool, for example.

The HR argument is that the candidate is capable of learning a new tool quickly because it is similar to the one they are an expert at using. HR practitioners also argue that the technical aspects of a job are the easiest to teach and learn, whereas the more conceptual skills such as communication, problem solving and relationship building are more challenging to build or change.

In this day and age core competencies are what employers need to keep their eye on, rather than specific experience within a given occupation, system, process or tool. This is true for several reasons, most pointedly because of the fast pace of change and the rate at which new occupations are being born and others are made obsolete. Nowhere is this truer than in IT, where mobile applications barely existed five to seven years ago. It’s difficult to have eight years of experience when most of the industry has existed for less time than that. The title of a position and desired result of work performed may be the same as it was a decade ago in accounting, human resources, sales or any number of other occupations but if you are still doing what you did 10 years ago, in the same way, using the same tools, then chances are you are very close to going out of business.

This is where core competencies come into play. They are at the root of transferable skills, which can be taken from one role in a company into something that, on the surface looks very different, but in fact utilizes the same concepts but in a different organizational context. Transferable skills or core competencies developed by a successful practitioner in HR include relationship building, consensus building, problem-solving, listening, writing and speaking concisely, as well as the ability to deal with uncomfortable, even confrontational, situations. All of these competencies are building blocks for success in every role regardless of the nature of the organization.

Consider sales as an example. You need to build relationships, achieve consensus on needs, solve problems and listen and communicate concisely to be a successful sales person. Sometimes you need to do all of these in a hostile, perhaps confrontational situation.

When recruiting, organizations need to focus on core competencies that are the foundation for transferable skills. It is then more efficient to build organization-wide professional development programs around honing universal skills, such as communication, numeracy and problem-solving, and leave more specific skills development to each department or to specialty suppliers of training.

Clearly there is a need to hire and develop people with specific skills and certifications, especially when required by legislation. But care must be taken not to pigeonhole people too narrowly because competencies are transferable into more roles than people.

Indeed it will take time and effort to get new employees fully functional on a tool, system or process that they are not familiar with. But with strong core competencies, they will master the new area and may be able to look creatively at issues from different perspectives.

In the insurance industry, for instance, when determining the core competencies for strong performers in the business areas of underwriting, claims, marketing and sales, I strongly suspect that they would be similar and, therefore, would enable acceptable transfers between the different functions. The versatility provided by the core competency model becomes more critical as the competition for exceptional talent increases every year.

I myself am getting to test the concept of transferable skills in real time without a net. Recently retired from a senior executive HR role in a large insurance company, I founded an independent financial service advisory with a grand total of two employees. Although I am not a total neophyte to insurance, as many years ago I started in the claims function, the majority of my career has been in HR roles. So what are some of my transferable skills?

Ethical behaviour in a highly structured and regulated environment is definitely at the top of the list. The need to understand the business, how it makes money and how to decide where to spend revenue are also parallel decision processes using transferable problem-solving skills. Setting priorities, plans and knowing when to deviate from the plan are also common requirements. Understanding how the organization works as a whole and how one’s area contributes to the success of the organization is a foundational piece of understanding. Finally, building relationships and listening are key to success in both functions.

As a manager or leader, providing honest feedback to team members on how they are doing and honing the nuances of using skills in a new setting are critical to growth. Timely, constructive feedback greatly reduces the effort required to achieve mastery.

Having championed the notion of transferable skills over my career it is fascinating and instructive to be actively applying the concepts today.


Timo has enjoyed a very successful career in human resources and insurance in the private sector as well as government, healthcare and education. He is the CEO, Voima Financial Inc., serves on the Board of Kingston General Hospital and is the Chair of Imagine Kingston, a group of senior community leaders dedicated to making Kingston, Ontario a better place to live. He has an MBA, CHRP and is a Fellow, Chartered Insurance Professional.

Originally published in volume issue of Your Workplace magazine.

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