Competencies versus Experience

“You have the skills but you don’t have experience in this job, and I need someone with experience.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard this before and I’d be interested to hear how you handled it. It is a bit like the chicken and the egg, but it does raise some interesting questions:

  • Are skills transferrable?
  • Is experience so valuable that it overrides the skills that one needs to have to do the job?

Do some jobs need skills more than experience while others require experience to learn the skills?  Definitely.

However, I believe experience is essential to any role as experience teaches you things that just knowing the skills needed can’t.

So then can one generalise as to which is the more important attribute to have if you are missing one of them?

No, you need the base skills to do a job and then experience helps you leverage those skills to do a better job.

A plumber needs to know how to put piping together, how to install a toilet or a shower.  Without those skills, you can’t be a plumber.

So, what’s the point of this post then?

Notice the title: I mentioned experience versus competencies. I wanted to start first on skills as these are different to competencies, yet the concept can get confusing.

Skills are the base knowledge one needs to do a certain job. A CFO needs to know how accounting works, what makes up an Income Statement, a balance sheet and a cash flow statement. They need to know about accounting norms and disclosure. They need to understand Treasury and controls. Both financial reporting controls and also operational controls.

Broader CFOs need to know about technology, how systems work and how you manage projects. Often they need to have communication skills and how to make a pitch or tell a story in simple, understandable ways. More often than not, they need to know how to negotiate.

All of these things can be studied and the skills can be learnt. Experience then helps one build on those skills and better exercise them.

So lets now go through competencies. compare the above list of skills to the list of competencies that a CFO should have.

A CFO needs to be able to manage in complex environments, navigate through ambiguous situations. They need to be strategic minded people with close attention to details. They need to be analytical and build relationships. They need to be able to lead and motivate teams, driving vision and purpose.

These things are very different to skills.

Once you master the skills to actually do the job, you need to work on the competencies that the job requires. While experience helps you better leverage the skills, competencies enable you to master your role and ensure that you apply your skills in the best possible manner to drive value to your organisation.

So lets look at that question again formulated differently.

“You have the skills and the competencies to do the job, but you don’t have the experience, I need some with experience.”

Hopefully you can now see the inherent error in this phrase. Any role starts with skills, then you gather experience to better use those skills and finally you master the competencies inherent in mastering the role.

Lets go through an example. I’m going to purposely use another role than a CFO: A lawyer.

A lawyer starts his career with the base skills to do the job. He then gathers experience to get better in his job. To be a great lawyer, you need to be able to build networks, you need to be a good communicator, you need to be analytical and pay attention to detail, but you also need to be able to see the bigger picture of what it at play and be a strategist.

So if our lawyer has the base skills, the knowledge of the law and then builds up experience to better apply those skills, he or she will know the law really well but he or she will be a so-so lawyer if they haven’t mastered the required competencies to be a great lawyer.

So to answer the question I set out to answer at the beginning go the post, you need experience to be better at what you do, but you need to master the competencies if you want to be great. How do you master the competencies? That is a full future post all in itself.






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