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Core Competencies Described as a Tree.
How to Build a Core Competency
Your Core Competency is made of the 3 or 4 basic things you do that set the foundation for what you can accomplish. This Lesson helps you develop your Core Competencies. Core Competencies offer access to a wide variety of markets. Contribute significantly to your success. And, are difficult for competitors to imitate. Updated March 2024.

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Ira Gorelick

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June 17, 2020

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This lesson will help you build the core competencies to help you outrun your competition.

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There is an old joke about 2 campers in the 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 to combine our individual special talents (competencies) into a more powerful and productive whole.

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, sports, or parenting.

It doesn’t matter what it is as long as you and others would consider it the foundation of who you are.

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 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 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 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 a 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.

Core Competencies as a Tree
Core Competencies as a Tree

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

The big difference between trees and us is that we can anticipate the future and move to find more sunshine or more nutrients.

Trees are pretty much fixed in place. Where they start growing is where they will grow.

Roots and Leaves as Learning

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, and the leaves find sunshine. They both find water.

Trunk as Key Structure

When you think of the trunk, think about 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. And start rotting from the inside.

Branches as Skills

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 find food to feed yourself.

Fruit as The Product

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 Build a Core Competency

To thrive, you need the ability to find and exploit your core competencies effectively.

To thrive, you need to 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 years of 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 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 that, after nourishment, develops into a strong tree with core competencies as its trunk.

This core competency trunk helps in growing branches of different specializations and then these specializations grow opportunities as fruit.

To Build a Core Competency, use the following steps:

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

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

For the list of your own competencies, screen them against the three tests below and see if any of the competencies you’ve listed are core competencies:

  • relevance
  • difficulty of imitation
  • breadth of application,

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 competencies.

Review the two screened lists and think about them:

  • If you’ve identified core competencies 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 that are not your core competencies. If your 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 competencies, then look at ones that you could develop and work to build them.
  • If you have no core competencies 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 competencies.

Think of the most time-consuming and costly things that you do.

If any of these things do not contribute to core competence, ask yourself if you can outsource them effectively, clearing down time so that you can focus on core competencies.

For example, as an individual, are you still doing your own cleaning, ironing, and decorating?

As a small business, are you doing your own accounts, HR, and payroll?

As a bigger business, are you manufacturing non-core product components or performing non-core activities?

What do you do when no one is watching?

The one question I ask in trying to find a person’s 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.

What is not a core competency

Honesty, dependability, assertiveness, or similar values cannot be core competencies because they are not difficult to imitate.

Anyone can, and everyone should, be honest, dependable, and assertive.

Going into an interview and saying that the reason you should be hired is that you are honest is not going to be effective.

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.

Additional Tips to Help You Develop Your Core 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 competencies. However, keep this idea in mind and work to develop unique core competencies.
  • 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.

Applying the Three Tests When You Build a Core Competency

Test # 1 – Competency 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 a 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. (Outstanding design can be applied to a wide variety of situations.)

Their design competency 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 the design that made the iPod a wild success.

Great design gives one the ability to access lots of markets in ways that no one thought possible.

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.

Test #2 – Competency is 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.

As I mentioned above, “high level designing” is an Apple core competency and “high level designing applies to a large variety of markets. It is also extremely Difficult to Imitate well, as demonstrated by the sheer number of failed iPod, iPad, and MacBook knockoffs and imitations that fail to capture any market share.

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 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 – Competency Directly Contributes to Success

Your core competency should contribute directly to your success.

If you have a singing core competency, but you’re working as an accountant, then that singing core competency does not help you in your career.

Or, if you’re a singer, then a mathcore 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.

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 communications, my graduate degree is in communications, I worked for GTE/Verizon for 35+ years, where I gained my telecommunications core competencies, and I taught at various colleges for over 30 years.

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.