October 29, 2019

How to Build Competency-Based Professional Development Plans

More effective employees help organizations create greater impact. To build professional development plans for your nonprofit's employees, determine the competencies they need to succeed in their roles. Then, employ the 70/20/10 development method to help them learn and grow while on the job.

By: The Bridgespan Group

InfographicLack of professional development is a major driver of turnover at nonprofit organizations. Many nonprofit leaders and managers believe that going elsewhere will help them grow faster than staying where they are.

It’s a lose-lose situation: nonprofit leaders hop from place to place looking for fulfilling work, and you’re left with months of lost productivity plus recruiting costs. Combined with the general cash-strapped nature of most nonprofits, these extra burdens can put a strain on an organization.

Luckily, one of the best ways to develop staff is the 70/20/10 approach, an affordable, effective model for developing staff. First introduced by the Center for Creative Leadership, it indicates that 70 percent of learning and development comes from on-the-job training; 20 percent from coaching and mentoring; and 10 percent from formal training through conferences, classes, etc. It’s the 70 percent we focus on here. How does an organization’s leaders ensure that the plans they put into place for potential leaders include on-the-job development opportunities that both develop the individual and help the organization meet its strategic goals?

Start with Competencies

Before you sit down with a direct report to create an individualized professional development plan, start with understanding what competencies are important for them to develop. Competencies can be described as the skills, capabilities (or abilities), and behaviors that are required for individuals to do their jobs successfully. “Some leaders take the approach of ‘we know good leadership when we see it,’” says Bridgespan Partner Meera Chary. However, that approach is both ineffective and problematic. “A ‘we know it when we see it’ approach means that different leaders in an organization may have different definitions of what strong leadership looks like, which can lead to bias and inconsistency in professional development,” she adds.

A well-defined set of competencies will help you identify the things leaders need to both perform their work today and to grow in the future. “By having a clear, agreed-upon set of competencies that align with your organizational goals and values, organizations can make sure they are developing all staff effectively. This is particularly important if you have goals related to equity and inclusion in your organization, as competencies should also reflect your organization’s values.”

4 Mistakes Nonprofits Make When Using Competencies

When ill-defined and wrongly applied, competencies can undermine key parts of the talent process. Here are four common mistakes we’ve seen in working with nonprofits:

  1. Using competencies to assess an individual’s performance
  2. Thinking of competencies only in relation to the work of the individual and organization—ignoring needed leadership competencies
  3. Failing to develop a tailored set of competencies that are both organization-specific and future oriented
  4. Not defining competencies in a manner that makes them easy to use for development purposes.
For more details and examples, see “Four Mistakes Nonprofits Make When Using Competencies in Talent Management.”

Types of Competencies

Competencies generally fall into two categories: core and leadership. Core competencies are those that everybody in the organization needs to build in order to do their work. Leadership competencies enable current and future leaders to take on greater responsibility and perhaps, eventually, lead the organization. To help your staff understand what is expected of them, it’s important to clearly and transparently communicate these competencies across the organization.

Additionally, competencies aren’t binary. “It’s not that you have a competency or you don’t,” Chary says. “Rather, most competencies can be broken down into different stages based on where a leader is in their development; we call these ‘scaled competencies,’” she adds. Scaled competencies can be particularly helpful in professional development conversations. To give your staff a vision of how they can grow, think about what it means to be at an early stage of development in a competency, an intermediate stage, and an advanced stage. (Learn how to align your equity goals with a competency-based talent approach in the article “Two Ways to Align Talent Development with Your Equity Goals.”)

Choose Competencies for Professional Development

Without the right talent, your organization will struggle to achieve the impact it seeks. As you think about what core and leadership competencies are important for your staff to develop, look to your strategy to drive those decisions.

  • What is your strategy for the next 3-5 years?
  • What competencies and skills will your leaders need to achieve it?
  • Has your strategy changed, requiring leaders to build new competencies?
  • Has the environment you’re working in shifted?
  • Do you foresee any critical skill or leadership gaps in the near future that you would currently struggle to fill? (E.g., new strategic priorities, such as a new program, or current leaders retiring).

With a clear understanding of competencies needed now and in the future, you’re ready to begin developing plans that focus on the 70 percent, in the 70/20/10 approach: on-the-job learning opportunities. Look within your day-to-day operations to discover where staff can get hands-on experience. For example, to build a core competency like communication, a nonprofit leader's direct report could lead a staff meeting on new programming. To build a leadership competency like project management, a senior manager could ask a manager to help create processes to keep teams informed of their own and other’s work/deadlines (e.g. project management, weekly emails, daily “scrums”). (See 55 Competency-Based Ideas for Professional Development for example development opportunities.)

Monitor Professional Development Progress

Whatever the task and however on-the-job learning is combined with other development approaches, like coaching or outside training, you’ll want to be sure to carefully monitor your development efforts, both on an individual and organization-wide basis. Monitoring progress can mean checking in with individuals periodically on how they’re meeting their goals, what they’re learning, and whether there are areas for improvement to be addressed.

To understand how things are progressing at an organizational level, it’s important for senior team members to be in regular conversation with one another about the state of the organization’s talent. Senior team members can look holistically at the organization’s approach to development and ask similar questions: How are our people growing? What are we learning about how we can individually and collectively support our staff? Where might we have biases in our development process? What can we be doing better?

Answering these questions can keep your organization on a path of continuous improvement, and ultimately, help you build the competencies internally that will meet your organizational goals.

Sometimes you just need to create space to dive into key areas of your organization that are critical to your success. One of these areas is your talent strategy. Investing in Future Leaders, Bridgespan’s step-by-step online, team-based program helps your nonprofit executive team create inclusive, customized approaches to talent development for your staff.

To learn more, please go to Investing in Future Leaders.


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