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How do we use competencies to find great talent?

If you’ve worked with the Talent team on hiring or performance management, you’ve probably heard the word “competency” quite a bit. You may know that things like flexibility, humility, problem solving, and public speaking are competencies, but you might not be sure what distinguishes a competency from other important parts of a job description, ideal candidate profile, or staff plan. You’re not alone, so this article is here to help.

What is a competency?

By definition, to be competent is to have the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully. If you simply spin that definition into a noun, you have a competency. Competencies are measurable or observable knowledge, skills, abilities, behaviors, or personality traits that are necessary in order to perform well in a particular job.

You may find competencies in a list of qualifications, but not all qualifications are competencies. For example, a list of qualifications may include:

  • 5-10 years of experience in education reform organizations
  • A master’s degree in public policy
  • Having successfully solicited six-figure gifts from major donors in the Chicago area

The above are qualifications (and they are important), but they are not competencies. iMentor relies on responsibilities, qualifications, and competencies when we map out the ideal candidate for a role.

Here are some examples of competencies and their definitions, according to Commongood Careers: 

  • Strategic thinking: Ability to take into account and analyze various points of view and pieces of data to form a perspective appropriate to a particular context.
  • Professional judgment: Ability to envision and consider the possible results or repercussions of a particular action or decision and make the choice that is most appropriate for the situation and in the best interests of the organization and its stakeholders.
  • Humility: Regardless of one's own level of knowledge or expertise, ability to recognize value and strengths in others and areas for own continued learning.
  • Project management: Ability to identify the steps of a project, set appropriate deadlines, identify required participants, and hold self and others accountable to outcomes and deadlines.

How do we choose competencies for a role?

Competencies are one of the smallest units of measurement, so to speak, when we describe what we are looking for in an ideal candidate for a specific job. Here’s what that means:

When we meet with a hiring manager to develop an ideal candidate profile, we generally ask:

“What are the most difficult parts of this job going to be? What will the hardest days look like?”

When we’ve generated a few scenarios, we analyze those and ask:

“What kinds of skills, abilities, and traits will the perfect candidate need to have in order to successfully navigate those tough situations?”

We don’t just want to know what a day on the job will look like, or even what the hardest parts of the job will be, or what results the person will be responsible for delivering. We want to break that down into smaller and smaller parts until we know exactly what skills, abilities, knowledge, and personality traits someone will need in order to deliver those results. If we stopped at responsibilities, there might be disagreement about who we’re looking for. Here’s an example:

Let’s say that we’re hiring someone for the Mentor Recruitment team, and that we know what the responsibilities will be for that role. Here’s how we might pull competencies out of those responsibilities:


Competencies necessary to do this well

Drive iMentor’s volunteer recruitment strategy to grow the number of mentors significantly, while increasing the gender, racial/ethnic, and professional diversity of our mentor community.

Strategic thinking


Results orientation

Identify and pursue high potential recruitment opportunities, which may include attending speaking engagements, networking events, and virtual/social media tactics.

Public speaking

Relationship building / Interpersonal skills

Targeting message to audience


Analyze program performance data to isolate trends, report on progress toward goals, and inform recruitment, screening and training efforts.

Quantitative analysis

Qualitative analysis


How do competencies make it easier for Talent and hiring managers to collaborate?

If multiple people involved in a hiring process know the responsibilities of the job, they may disagree on what kind of person can do them well. By breaking those responsibilities down into what it truly takes to deliver results, we have greater clarity and agreement around who we are looking to hire.

Competencies are also transferrable between jobs, organizations, and responsibilities. We may find a candidate who has never had a job that involved driving volunteer recruitment strategy while increasing the diversity of mentors, but if we can clearly identify that the candidate possesses strategic thinking, vision, and results orientation, we may come to the conclusion that this is the right person for the job. If we were only looking for someone with that bullet on his or her resume, we might have missed a truly wonderful person who can achieve incredible results.

If you have additional questions about competencies, please don’t hesitate to ask the Talent team!