Practice Development Counsel

Phyllis weiss haserot
Phyllis weiss haserot

President & Founder

212 593-1549

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Time For a New Definition of Competence?

At a program I attended a few months ago sponsored by an accounting firm, I heard a psychiatrist and performance coach say that the “system” (the work world) is designed to make people “appear competent” rather than ( in my words) versatile or interesting or curious. He said that (most) people are not comfortable with their humanity and vulnerability and are not ready when the opportunity appears.

On balance, is this state of affairs emphasizing data and technical expertise a benefit or hindrance to successful professional services business development? I see the positive side as emphasizing capabilities and a focused approach, depth of experience. However, the downside is that it discourages people from pursuing outside interests and making contributions that will fulfill them, leading to their wanting to do and accomplish more. It makes them narrow individuals who don’t have places to hang out and talk with prospective clients. And it makes it more difficult to develop trusting relationships.

Does the innate need to appear “competent” help or hinder a professional’s ability to develop business and give superior service to clients? Competence is undoubtedly good, but do we need a new definition of “competence”? And do you think this is a discussion that young professionals and business executives would benefit from hearing?

The business world is changing. “We used to believe that competence meant you knew all the answers relating to your craft, whatever that was,” said a Canadian law firm marketing director. “Over the years, however, the average consumer is realizing that it is a far more human condition to be expert, but not know it all,” she added. “This is because the world around us is extremely dynamic... circumstances can change in almost an instant.” The world's knowledge-base is multiplying quickly. Under those conditions, how can anyone honestly say they have all the answers?

Those who appreciate this reality, those who are not afraid to declare that they don't necessarily have all of the answers, but are willing to continue to learn and grow and make an educated guess, are more likely to be considered credible today by an increasingly skeptical marketplace. This shift in expectations is indicated by all the client surveys responses saying essentially “I wanted a trusted advisor – someone who knows my business and understands the conditions in which I must seek solutions.” They don’t necessarily expect all the technical answers to be in the head of one person. Knowing where to find the answers and being responsive is another aspect of competence.

Another marketing director reported to me a conversation with the General Counsel of her firm’s largest client. He made an interesting observation. When he had been in private practice, he frequently did not call a client back immediately because he didn’t know the “answer” and didn’t want to appear incompetent. Now that he is on the other side, he said, “I just want the lawyers to call me and let me know they are working on it and when they expect to have the answer/recommendation for me so I can let my CEO and other executives know the status.” ( He also made the observation that male attorneys are more likely to avoid/postpone the call until they know something than females. Are women more likely to admit they don’t know something than men? Is it gender or personal style? That’s another conversation!)

This self-need to “appear competent” is prevalent in all professions and can be traced back to education and compensation. Educating people in teams is relatively recent, and rewarding on the basis of teamwork is still pretty rare in the professions and academia. I recently attended a program on ethics, integrity and humanism in the medical field. There is still a chasm between technical knowledge – which – students are filled to the brim with – and learning empathy and sensitivity. However, new curricula developed by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation now integrates humanism into the medical school experience.

Feedback in discussions I’ve participated in – clearly anecdotal, not a validated survey – indicate the impression that professionals with broader interests tend to more easily gain the confidence of their clients and patients. There is a perception that those professionals take better care, are more responsive and go the extra mile. Competence in these instances included courage to show their vulnerabilities, empathy, “soft skills,” and (diverse) cultural awareness and sensitivity.

So how do we advise, coach, mentor, and train the professional rising stars? Let’s go back to the mindset of how professionals and executives were perceived in “the good old days” before money became the dominant scorecard and “trusted adviser” became a new buzz phrase rather than an assumed main ingredient in a professional relationship. As the Canadian marketing director said, those who reach their potential “will be the ones who approach the world with a curious, rather than a pompous or overly confident nature.” Those who coach junior professionals, whether the coaches are partners, managing directors, professional development or marketing staff or outside trained coaches, need to emphasize development of the whole person: interests, personality, behavior – soft skills as well as facts, process, and strategic thinking. And they need to shift the definition of competence from “knowing it all” to knowing how to provide what the client needs, whatever and whoever that entails.

This is not an overnight epiphany or easy shift for people exhibiting some behavior styles. But with coaching and recognition mechanisms in place, significant strides can be made which will both take the pressure off individuals to put up a front of knowing it all and serve clients better while more comfortably attracting new ones.

What do you think? Do we need a new definition of competence? Are the thoughts expressed above the way to go?


© Phyllis Weiss Haserot 2004.