Plato, Competencies, and the Ideal Employee

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Mark Vickers

Maybe you have a vague recollection of Plato from your college days. You know, the Greek philosopher who believed in the existence of some ideal world that's separate from our physical world? He is, of course, the source of the term "Platonic ideal."

Whether we know it or not, most modern managers have a Platonist streak in them, a streak that often shows up in the way we think about talent these days.

The term "talent" is in itself a useful abstraction, shorthand for employees who have the kinds of skills, potential, attitudes and values that companies need to succeed. It suggests that a lot of organizations have an ideal employee in mind when it comes to their labor needs.

In fact, in a recent i4cp study that was requested by one of our member companies, four of five respondents indicated that their organizations have a sophisticated notion of the characteristics of that ideal employee; that is, their companies have identified a set of competencies that people throughout the organization need in order to be effective.

Our Talent Management Competencies Survey also found that, among the large majority that have such a set of competencies, 70% said that those competencies apply to all positions, not just leaders or high potentials.

"Establishing competencies has become standard practice, and it's a helpful one at that, associated with better performance," notes Senior VP of Research Jay Jamrog. "We found that about nine out of ten participants said such competencies are an important element of their talent management programs. They help define what talent actually means. Otherwise, talent management is just another meaningless business buzzword."

"But," warns Jamrog, "organizations have to keep in mind that making a list of crucial competencies is just one step in the process. Our research shows that there's a lot more to it than that."

Even the process of creating and maintaining the list requires good decision-making and logistical know-how. For example, should an organization apply these competencies to every employee, or is it more effective to apply them to a subset? The answer isn't cut and dried. Our research shows that, while nearly 80% of lower-performing organizations apply such competencies to all positions, only about 70% of higher performers do. Higher performers are twice as likely as lower performers to say such competencies apply to "all leadership positions, but not individual contributor positions."

So, the best practice in this area hinges on the specific needs of the organization. In some cases, confining these competencies to leadership or other key professional roles could be the right way to go.

i4cp's research also suggests that some combination of central control and flexibility is a winning combination when it comes to managing a list of competencies; that is, higher performers are more likely to say that there is a "central authority that controls variations in the list(s) of competencies considered crucial in specific units of [our] organization," but they're less likely to say that such a list is "completely standardized" and so beyond the influence of individual functions and business units.

This combination makes sense. Although a list of competencies helps anchor and define the meaning of talent, certain business units or departments may need to add to or even modify such a list to meet their specific needs.

So, the Platonic ideal of the perfect employee—one who has a complete set of essential competencies—is compelling and even useful, but organizations must also accommodate the real world, the place where unique individuals must be recruited, trained, and managed in ways that help them approach, but probably never quite attain, that ideal.

i4cp's 4-Part Recommendation:

1. Define the competencies that employees should have in order to be effective, recognizing that your organization will need to revisit and modify this list as your business and industry change.

2. Decide to whom the competencies should apply. Perhaps it is to all employees, or perhaps it is to some core subset of personnel who wield the greatest influence over your corporate culture.

3. Communicate the competencies well throughout the organization, integrating them into your array of talent management components, including recruitment, succession planning, learning and development, performance management, and the like.

4. Design your talent management competencies system so that there is some decision-making individual or group. Decide whether it's wise, given the context of your organization, to allow individual functions or business units to adjust these competencies to meet their own needs.

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About the Author(s)

Mark Vickers, Institute for Corporate Productivity
Mark Vickers is vice president of research at the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp).