Why be competent when you could be excellent?

I was an experienced trainer when the competency-based training model was introduced in Australia. When I first heard the term competency-based, I thought, Why would anyone want to be competent when they could strive for excellence? Today, I believe this reaction reflected a mindset which has underpinned my success as a consultant. It also explains why I enjoy working in learning and development. I’m always thrilled to meet people who share my passion for excellence and self-improvement.


Excellence-minded people tend to stand out as leaders in their fields. They are inspiring role models for the rest of us. I’ve have worked with thousands of such people in both group and one-on-one situations. Here is what I’ve noticed sets them apart from people who are content to remain competent. I think of these characteristics as hallmarks of excellence. 

Hallmark of excellence 1. Outstanding professionals know, use and continue to develop their strengths. They focus their energy and attention on doing what they do best and continuing to master that strength area. They take pleasure in mastering their discipline. This means learning comes naturally to them. If you’re someone who demonstrates this characteristic, you can answer the question “What are you really good at?” instantly. 

Hallmark of excellence 2. Excellence-focused individuals thrive in the learning zone. They know that developing new skills can be frustrating and time consuming. They transform the energy of frustration into determination, refusing to shift direction until they’ve mastered the skill they’re focused on. This attitude is neatly summed up in the saying “Possible in the world, possible for me, it’s only a matter of how.”  

Hallmark of excellence 3. People who excel specialise strategically. They do one thing and they do it well. However, they also choose their one thing with career longevity in mind. In other words, they don’t specialise in areas which will lead to glass ceilings or career dead ends. Their passion for mastering the latest development in their field means these people tend to work at the cutting edge of their fields. This allows them to specialise without compromising their careers. 

Hallmark of excellence 4. People with excellence mindsets use their talents to add value in their work. They avoid self-indulgent behaviours such as over-engineering a project in order to do something which is of interest to them, but which adds no value for the business. This attribute makes excellence-focused employees of high value to the organisations they work in. 

Hallmark of excellence 5. People who value excellence actively seek out ouch-factor feedback. Because they’re not content to remain average, they are constantly asking “What am I doing wrong and how can I do better?” Although the first of these questions can create negative energy or stress, individuals with an excellence focus tend to use this energy to propel themselves towards success.  

Developing and retaining individuals with the excellence mindset is a role HR and OD practitioners should take seriously. A high-quality HR strategy, for example, will include processes for identifying and appraising employees who demonstrate this style of thinking. 


About the author of these tips

Eleanor Shakiba teaches smart professionals to build their social and emotional intelligence. Since 1994, she has been teaching talented people – like you- how to think, communicate and behave in ways that build success. Eleanor holds qualifications in Social Anthropology, Applied Psychology, Adult Education and Neuro Linguistic Programming.