A Case for Competency Development

by Nancy Hunter Denney

Going to college was a game changer.  This is where I learned just how much it was I still didn’t know.  This is where I messed up, made up and moved on.  College represented a place to “find myself” while growing as a human being.  A liberal arts education stood on its own merits.  I was free to choose a major based upon my unraveling interests, change majors five times and figure it out as I went along.  A college degree would guarantee a host of career options and success.

If that jog down memory lane resonated with you, you are most likely from the Gen X, Baby Boomer or beyond generations.  Fast forward to today.  Generation Z students question whether a college degree is even necessary; is it worth the cost?  Are they better off than if they didn’t have a degree or the enormous accompanying debt?  Will they do better in the workforce? 

After almost 40 years in higher education, I humbly answer “No.”  There is a reality to be reckoned with; let’s focus on what matters most.  Specifically, what are you doing in your work with students (and colleagues) that is truly preparing them to be successful in their work environments and careers?  Are they properly equipped?

The more you know about today’s students, the more you recognize the need to encourage their exploration of self, provide candid feedback, teach problem-solving strategies and encourage initiative.  Each of these represent a leadership competency as defined by Dr. Corey Seemiller in the Student Leadership Competencies Guidebook (Jossey-Bass).  By using actual “competency language” and familiarizing yourself with the competencies Dr. Seemiller’s research notes as the most important to today’s employers, you provide yourself with the knowledge, language and content from which to program and train.

According to Seemiller, a competency is a “cluster of related abilities, commitments, knowledge, understandings, and skills that enable a person (or an organization) to act professionally and effectively in their jobs.”  Because they are used in interviews, promotion considerations, evaluations and position placement by approximately 85% of employers, referencing a particular competency proficiency or deficiency with the accompanying “evidence” or “proof” is significantly more beneficial than “job well done.” In other words, you offer up specific observations suggesting the need for growth of a particular competency or you identify signs that growth has occured.

Not only is the incorporation of competency language valuable, Seemiller notes the use of competencies for your program development, inventory efforts, program transparency, and program assessment.  In addition, it provides a common language for strategic planning and can be used to promote programs by making a connection to career readiness.

Another application is the use of competencies as a guide for your leadership programming.  From one-day conference formats to workshop series, by selecting the most relevant competencies for your particular population, you can identify or create programs that develop the understanding, knowledge and skills around a particular competency or group of competencies.  In other words, the competency drives the program selection. 

With the assistance of leadership practitioners and researchers (including Dr. Seemiller) I created the Lead365 National Conference held in Orlando.  This annual conference is for undergraduates, graduate students, and professionals dedicated to the development of collegiate leaders.  The undergraduate curriculum offerings, learning outcomes and general sessions are completely linked to specific competencies.  The professional and graduate student track focuses on innovative program designs, and the application of current leadership research.  In addition, electronic credentials are available through the SLC Badging program.

What can you do to incorporate competencies into your work?  How can you alter your language to include “competency speak” more often?  A wonderful resource to get you started is www.studentleadershipcompetencies.com where you can find free assessment tools, inventories and more ideas on the application of Dr. Seemiller’s work.

College needs to be a game changer where we honor the true and never changing role of the educator; to teach students just how much it is they still don’t know while preparing them to be productive and contributing members of society.  Our own proficiency at the competencies of self-awareness, providing feedback, problem-solving and taking initiative, for example, will either help or hurt those we serve to learn these same skills.  What did your college experience teach you?

About the Author

Nancy Hunter Denney is a nationally recognized keynote speaker, author, and educator dedicated to empowering others to maximize their personal influence, inspire others and seek happiness. She seeks to encourage a personal sense of responsibility (and obligation) for serving a greater social good by sharing strategies for enhanced engagement in one’s work place, areas of study, organizations, communities and relationships.

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