Developing Organizational Bench Strength

by Sean Conrad on February 7, 2011

Today’s global market requires a greater level of corporate agility than ever before. The financial, economic, environmental, regulatory and business climates are constantly changing. Competition is getting fiercer. How do you ensure your organization has the bench strength it needs to compete and succeed, both today and tomorrow?

Identify and Define the Competencies that are Critical to Organizational Success

Start by asking: What differentiates your organization? Is it customer service, product excellence, technical expertise, market awareness or value-based selling? It’s important for every organization to know and understand what sets it apart.

Once you’ve identified your differentiators, take a close look at the underlying competencies, values or behaviors.

This requires more than just identifying “Customer Service” or “Communication” or “Teamwork” as your corporate competencies. You’ll need to identify the competencies required for success in leadership roles, as well as in each area of your organization. And you should identify the skills that are needed today, and those that will be needed tomorrow.

Then take it a step further. You need to define what each of these competencies means to your organization. What does demonstration at the various levels look like? Are there examples or scenarios you can describe to help better define each competency? What learning activities or work experiences can help develop each of them? If you use generic competencies and generic descriptions, you’ll get generic results. For competencies to be true differentiators, you need to “customize” them to articulate your unique corporate values.

Systematically Assess and Develop those Competencies in your Employees

As products and services become more and more rapidly commoditized, organizations need to understand that their only true sustainable competitive advantage is their people. So your people had better embody the competencies that support your success.

To entrench these differentiating competencies in your workforce, you need to regularly assess each employee’s demonstration of organizational and job specific competencies. Where performance gaps are identified, you need to ensure that development plans are put in place. You should also follow up to ensure the development activities are actually effective in improving performance. If they’re not, you’ll need to identify new learning activities that will.

This is where all the hard work you did in identifying and defining competencies really pays off. If you’ve been thorough, you’ll have clear definitions of each competency. You can use these definitions to communicate organizational priorities and values to your employees. You can also use them to help you identify or create learning activities that truly help develop these competencies in your workforce.

Regular competency assessments and development activities will also give you a view of how your organization is performing overall, and identify performance or skill gaps in departments, divisions, or the entire organization. Using the data from your assessments, and analyzing it in this way will give you key insights into your bench strength.

Identify and Retain High Potential Employees

While you want to develop the competencies that are your differentiators in all your employees, there will always be a smaller body of employees who excel at them. Your organization will also have employees who show potential for assuming broader roles or more responsibility. These are your high potential employees.

It’s vital that you identify these high potential employees. If they’re valuable to you, they’re likely also valuable to your competitors and to companies in other industries. Consider using your performance appraisal process or a separate talent assessment process to identify your high potential employees and assess their risk of leaving.

Once you know who your high potential employees are, you’ll want to take measures to ensure you retain them. Typical retention tactics include compensation and training/development opportunities. But since everyone is unique in what they value, and in what motivates them, you should consider a more personalized approach.

You should also pay careful attention to grooming successors for your high potential employees. Developing bench strength is about developing pools or groups of employees, not just individuals.


Identifying your core, differentiating competencies, and then developing them in your entire workforce, but especially in your high potential employees helps to ensure your organization has the bench strength it needs to compete and succeed.

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