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How to Build a Core Competency
There is an old joke about 2 campers in woods. A bear approaches. One of the campers starts putting on his running shoes. The other camper asks, “Why are you putting on running shoes? You can’t outrun a bear!”  To which the first camper replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have […]

Added By: Ira Gorelick

June 17, 2020

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There is an old joke about 2 campers in woods.

A bear approaches. One of the campers starts putting on his running shoes. The other camper asks, “Why are you putting on running shoes? You can’t outrun a bear!”  To which the first camper replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you!”


We are not the fastest or strongest animal in the jungle. We don’t see the farthest, smell the best, or hear every sound.
The thing that puts us on top of the food chain is our ability to work together in teams. What puts us on top of the food chain is our ability combine our individual special talents (competencies) into a more powerful and productive wholes.

Core Competency Defined

There are two ways to look at Core Competencies:

  1. Unique Skills
  2. Sustainable Competitive Advantage.

The first way is to look at your core competencies as the unique set of skills that make you you. For Einstein it was Math. For Jesse Owens it was Track. For Pavarotti it was singing. But, you don’t have to be famous to have core competencies. Your core competency could be cooking, or sports, or parenting. It does not matter what it is as long as you, and others, would consider it the foundation of who you are.
The other way to look at core competencies is to see them as the thing(s) that gives you a “Sustainable Competitive Advantage.” Gaining a “sustainable competitive advantage” may or may not be central to you as a person. You may not see the world in this competitive narrative. However, many people do. And most companies do. There is nothing wrong with seeing the world as a competition. (I would reference back to the bear in the woods joke.) When you apply for a job or seek out a mate you are selling your core competencies in a competitive market. In this case, core competencies are the skills you need to succeed in a career or business sense.

Your Core Competency is made of the 3 or 4 few basic things you do that set the foundation for what you can accomplish.

The more you understand your personal and professional core competencies the more you can reach and stretch towards new goals.

Everyone is unique. We all bring unique talents to the world. By understanding and building on “your” specific core competencies you are able to better recognize your strengths and weaknesses and better able to contribute to the whole.

By understanding your core competencies you can decide which skills require further development, which skills can be exploited, and, as importantly, which skills can be left to wither on their own.

By focusing on competencies you can better manage your day to day activities and if necessary eliminate the areas that are not beneficial.

Three Tests of a Core Competency
There are three tests to identify your core competencies:

  • Potential to wide variety of markets.
  • Contribute significantly to your success.
  • Difficult for competitors to imitate.

I’ll go over each one of these tests in detail.

But, first I describe How to Find your Core Competencies
One way to look at core competencies is to think of a Tree.


When you think of this tree think of the roots and leaves as learning. The Trunk as the core competencies. The branches of the tree as the sub-core competencies. And the fruit as the output or product of the core competencies.

When you think of the roots and leaves think about how they draw in the nutrients the tree needs to live. The roots find minerals the leaves find sunshine. They both find water. The big difference between tree and us is that we can move to find more sunshine or more nutrients. Trees are pretty much limited to where they start growing is where they are locked in.

When you think of the trunk think how this is the key structure that supports the production of fruit. When the tree is young the trunk is supple and dynamic. But, as the tree grows the trunk becomes more rigid.

When you think of the branches think about all the little skills you need to thrive. Your competency may be in computers, but you still need to cook in order to feed yourself.

Finally, when you think of the fruit of the tree think about how the fruit is the output of all the effort the roots, leaves, trunk, and branches go through. Just as you are the product of your core competencies.

Tips to develop your Core Competencies
Here’s a possible framework to stay true to one’s core competency and at the same time grow.
Many of us have traversed career paths where we start in an entry level, then move on to team leaders, then to project managers, and then to higher managerial roles. Until, a day arrives when we realize we are far removed from our core competency, we find ourselves far removed from what we are good at and enjoy doing.
While there could be several reasons for this, the underlying cause could be attributed to our inability to affective find and exploit our core competencies. The cause could be that you did not see managing and developing your core competencies as a lifelong learning opportunity.

The first few years of one’s career, typically 3-5 years, should be spent discovering the career and specialization options available and what core competencies are valued in that career.
The competencies we thought were appropriate when we started out, may not seem so after a few year working.
The goal is to find a career that excites you and benefits any employer as well.
Do not wait for someone to give you varied opportunities, create them yourself.
You will reach a point when you have gathered experiences and really enjoy what you are doing.

When you have taken up an area of interest, at least the next 7 to 10 years should be spent carving your niche in that area.
It means diving into the minutest details, learning not just on the job but also from like-minded people outside the organization, and participating in technology or industry or academic forums.
This phase is not just about getting exposure to multiple areas or about the number of people one may manage or one’s revenue targets, but also about learning, becoming the best at something and creating a unique identity.
When you are recognized as a specialist, after having spent years in a field of work, you can choose to continue what you are doing or aspire to make a bigger impact.

It is important to retain our specialist skills while honing other skills that may lead to opportunities in leadership roles.
The specialization remains one’s core competency, adds credibility and forms the distinguishing character of one’s team and organization.

Specialization keeps us relevant, and provides more personal satisfaction and professional growth, than most of us would imagine.
You could think of your life as a small sapling which after nourishment develops into a strong tree with core competences as its trunk.
This core competency trunk helps in growing branches of different specializations and then these specializations grow opportunities as fruit.

To identify your core competences, use the following steps:

  • Think about what the marketplace wants.
  • Think about the factors that influence people’s hiring decisions.
  • Think about the factors (for example) that people use in assessing you for annual performance reviews or promotion, or for new roles you want. Then dig into these factors, and identify the competences that lie behind them.

Think about your existing competences and the things you do well.

For the list of your own competences, screen them against the three tests I list, 1) relevance, 2) difficulty of imitation, and 3)breadth of application, and see if any of the competences you’ve listed are core competences.

For the list of factors that are important to employers or clients, screen them using the three tests to see if you could develop these as core competences.

Review the two screened lists, and think about them:

  • If you’ve identified core competences that you already have, then great! Work on them and make sure that you build them as far as sensibly possible.
  • Spend most of your time focusing on your core competencies.
  • Don’t waste time on things are not your core competencies. If you computers are not your core competency and you don’t have to be a computer expert to do your job (A dentist for example) then don’t spend time trying to master the computer.
  • If you have no core competences, then look at ones that you could develop, and work to build them.
  • If you have no core competences and it doesn’t look as if you can build any that customers would value, then either there’s something else that you can use to create uniqueness in the market or think about finding a new environment that suits your competences.

Think of the most time-consuming and costly things that you do. If any of these things do not contribute to a core competence, ask yourself if you can outsource them effectively, clearing down time so that you can focus on core competences.

For example, as an individual, are you still doing your own cleaning, ironing and decorating? As a small Business, are you doing you own accounts, HR and payroll? As a bigger business, are you manufacturing non-core product components, or performing non-core activities?
The one question I always ask in trying find a persons core competency is, “What do you do when no one is watching?” If the answer is they play video games, then I would look to core competencies in marketing or developing video games. If the answer is writing, then I would look to core competencies in writing, Public Relations, Journalism, Teaching, or managing.

Additional Tips to help you develop your competencies

  • Tip 1: You’ll get better results if you involve other (carefully-chosen) people.
  • Tip 2: On a personal basis and in the short term, it might be difficult to come up with truly unique core competences. However, keep this idea in mind and work to develop unique core competences.
  • Tip 3: As ever, if you’re going to put more effort into some areas, you’re going to have to put less effort into others. You only have a finite amount of time, and if you try to do too much, you’ll do little really well.


Test # 1 – Can Be Applied In A Wide Variety Of Situations

A great core competency applies to a wide variety of situations.
If your core competency is teaching, you can teach in a lot of different situations. You don’t even have to be a teacher. You can be a manager that focuses on teaching. Or, you can be a mentor.
If your core competency is math, you can be an engineer or an accountant.
The point is that a great core competency is core because it applies in so many situations.

Business examples of core competencies?
Apple is one of the most valuable companies in the world. Why? Their core competency is outstanding design. Great design gives them the ability to access lots of markets in ways that no one thought possible. Design provides the essence of many Apple products.
The tablet computer has been around for years but it wasn’t until the iPad that the market exploded. There were plenty of MP3 players before the iPod, but it was design that made the iPod a wild success. Design is also extremely Difficult to Imitate (see Chapter four) well, as demonstrated by the sheer number of failed iPod, iPad, and MacBook knockoffs and imitations that
fail to capture any market share.
Consider the period when Steve Jobs wasn’t at Apple, from the late 1980s through 1997. Was Apple a paragon of outstanding design? No – and they nearly vanished because they lost sight of their core competency.

Google is another company with a deep core competency: the understanding and development of algorithms. Algorithms are the heart of the company, from search results to contextual advertising to in-home products like Google Assistant. Their ability to develop great algorithms provides them access to markets and allows for eventual dominance in those markets. Algorithms drive all their successful products and services. And their algorithms are so secret that entire communities of SEO experts spend most of their careers trying to stay ahead of and decode Google algorithms, often to no avail.
Google also stumbles frequently when they step outside their core competency, with tools like Google Glass, Google+, etc.
These are two examples of core competencies by companies that understand their core competencies and execute on them very well. Note that in both cases, these competencies aren’t products or features – they’re attributes of the companies themselves, characteristics of their culture and people.
Personal Examples of Core Competencies
The best example of this is me. My core competencies are communication theory, telecommunication networking, and education.
My undergraduate degree is in Communicatons, my graduate degree is in communications, I worked for GTE/Verizon for 35+ years where I gain my telecommunications core competencies, and I taught at various colleges for over 30 year. And I love these core competencies. All the websites and books I am doing are the result of combining all these core competencies.
Here is another example. My son Paul. He has an undergraduate degree in Economics. He then got his first job in Healthcare. So, combining the two he is developing a core competency in Healthcare Economics.
Now he is building on his core competency by getting an advanced degree in Healthcare Economics. Here is how he sells this.

Test #2 – Difficult to Imitate

A good core competency is difficult for your competitors to imitate.
When you apply for a job, most likely there are many others applying for that job.
An advantage you can bring to an employer is a set of skills that most others cannot compete with.

What is not a core competency
Honesty, dependability, assertiveness or similar values cannot be core competencies because they are not difficult to imitate. Any can, and everyone should, be honest, dependable, and assertive. Going into an interview and saying that the reason you should be hired is that your are honest is not going to be effective. Because everyone is going to say the same thing and everyone can be as honest as you.
Another example of not a core competency is something broad like marketing or finance. Many, if not most people could be experts in marketing and finance.

What is a core competency
A core competency is difficult to imitate.
Having a degree is important, but it is not difficult to get a degree. However a degree from a top university is difficult to imitate. That is the reason these top universities can be so selective. They understand the value of the degree in terms of being difficult to imitate. A degree from MIT or Cal Tech, or Georgia Tech is difficult to imitate and hence a great builder of competencies.
Another example is having 30 years of experience. Clearly not everyone can have 30 years of experience and as a result it is difficult to imitate.
Finally, a unique talent is difficult to imitate.

Test #3 – Directly Contributes to Success

Your core competency should contribute directly to your success.
If you have a singing core competency, but your working as an accountant, then that singing core competency does not help you in your career.
Or, if you’re a singer, than a math core competency will not help you achieve singing success.
Now, if let’s say you are an accountant, but you consider your core competency singing, then you should change careers to allow your core competency to contribute to your success.