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Cultivate competence in your career

Your competence is the input that you bring to every position you hold in your career. What makes you competent for one role, doesn't necessarily make you competent for the next role in your career though. When planning for your next role, or when you have already made the leap into your next role, ask yourself "are the competencies that got me here, going to be the competencies that make be successful there?"

If the answer is no, then start assessing what competencies you need to be working on now, to stay relevant and successful in the future.

In 2022 I joined a beginners pottery class with the desire to get away from my computer and be in the company of people, while doing something creative. I gravitated to pottery because I wanted to do something tactile and as a child, I'd played with clay and made some elementary figurines and vessels.

I assumed my childhood experiences gave me basic competence that would stand me in good stead.

I arrived at the first class, armed with images from Pinterest, thinking I'd leave 3 hours later having crafted a beautiful ceramic vessel.

*insert hysterical laughter here!

As I'm sure you can imagine, that was a humbling afternoon. 40 years of not touching clay had resulted in my competence remaining at the level of making childish basic vessels.

I developed a great appreciation for the many thousands of hours that the finest craftsmen have invested in their work, and quickly started referring to the classes, as my "afternoons of patience and humility'.

I quickly started referring to the classes, as my "afternoons of patience and humility'.

We all know that competence takes time and practice to develop - no one is born an expert after all.

My experience in my pottery class, is much like the experiences that we all have when starting anything new.

We "graduate" from one set of circumstances with a set of competencies honed over time in that context.

In the process of developing our skillset we become comfortable and unconscious that, once upon a time, that context was new to us, and we were incompetent. We embark on the next step armed with skills, experiences and knowledge and the memory of having been deemed competent.

But the competence that made us successful in one set of circumstances is not necessarily sufficient to make us competent in the next set of circumstances - and frequently lulls us into a false sense of security.

The skillset required to make elementary vessels as a child, is very different to the skillset required to make some of the beautiful ceramic items that we see on Pinterest and Instagram. The circumstances and the requirements had changed.

I went into the class unconsciously incompetent and came out acutely conscious, and in no doubt of my incompetence.

Competence for what?

Over the course of your career, what you need to be competent for, will change vastly. There will be times when you simultaneously feel incompetent in one area of your work, and overly competent in other areas.

There will be times where, in a new set of circumstances, you may experience feeling so incompetent that it's hard to conceive why anyone thought you were up for the challenge, and the desire to retreat back into your comfort zone where you could do things skilfully without exerting much energy, will become quite tantalising.

I know this because in almost every transition in my career, there have been moments of wanting to retreat back to where I have felt capable. "I think I need to go back to where I was more comfortable" is something I hear frequently from almost all of my clients too.

What we have in common is having embarked on a journey into the unknown and stepped into the first stage of the 4 Stages of Learning Model, developed by Noel Burch.

I went into the class unconsciously incompetent and came our of it acutely conscious, and in no doubt of my incompetence.

What is competence?

If you know me well, you know I talk often about managing your career like a business and understanding how to leverage and strengthen your career value chain. If raw materials are the inputs to a business, then your competencies are the raw materials that are the inputs to your career. But your career does not stay static - your responsibilities and direction change over time and what you need to be competent for, will change.

Your competence is not a static attribute (if it is you are at risk of becoming irrelevant really quickly). Developing competence involves a continuous process of learning and improvement, where one gains new skills and knowledge through training, practice, and experience.

The four stages of learning (or developing competence)

Whenever we start a learning process we enter a process of change as we acquire new knowledge and skills and broaden our range of experience. The Conscious Competence Model, otherwise known as the 4 Stages of Learning Model, developed by Noel Burch, provides a framework for understanding the stages that we go through when we learn.

The model helps us understand why it can sometimes feel uncomfortable and at the same time very exciting. This is all very normal! It also helps bring awareness to the risks and opportunities we face in each quadrant of the model that we can mitigate for and leverage respectively because of that awareness.

When you understand the stages of learning it can help you place yourself on the learning journey, knowing that where you are is perfectly normal and that if you continue on the learning journey, no matter where you are on the journey, you are learning and growing and making gains in your competence.

Stage 1: Unconscious incompetence

This is the stage that you're in before you learn something new or have a new experience. In this stage you don’t know what you don’t know. You are unconscious or unaware of how the learning experience is going to emerge and how you are going to integrate and implement your learning.

Most often people in this stage are excited about the opportunity to learn and experience something new, but also nervous about the novelty of the experience.

Some jump into this stage assuming that they are already competent (because they were competent in the skill that led them to this new stage of learning) and tend to take risks – sometimes risks that are beyond their competence and result in failure.

Others cautiously enter this stage afraid to take risks and limit their learning.

In this stage you don’t know what you don’t know.

You are also in this stage when you start a new job, transition from university into the world of work, move from managing yourself to managing others, pivot from one career into another, start a new relationship. You don’t know what you don’t know.

The risk of this stage (ie not knowing what you don’t know) is assuming that you're already competent in this aspect of your career journey and have nothing else to learn. Overconfidence, lack of self awareness and poor decision making tend to be part of this stage and can be the cause of costly mistakes, not meeting expectations, missed opportunities for promotion, lack of personal growth and development.

In this stage embrace:

  • an attitude of lifelong learning,

  • noticing when you assume you are already competent in something and have nothing to learn, and get curious about whether that assumption is true,

  • curiosity – ask questions – there are no stupid questions, and may be the catalyst for your own and others learning,

  • listening to learn rather than listening to respond,

  • the vulnerability of not knowing and being able to say "I don't know but I'd like to learn".

Reflection question: In which aspects of your career might you be in the unconscious incompetence stage?

Stage 2: Conscious incompetence

This is the stage where you develop an awareness of what you don’t yet know or have the competence to do. You know what you don’t know.

This awareness can feel uncomfortable and unsettling and can cause you to question your competence.

This is the stage at which you realise that what got you here might not be relevant to being able to perform competently in this stage. This is normal. This is you experiencing the reality of having stepped out of your comfort zone and into a zone of learning, and that is exactly where you should be!

You know what you don’t know, and this awareness can cause you to question your competence.

The risk in this stage is acting on the desire to return to your comfort zone to avoid the discomfort of being in the zone of learning – taking this step backward may cut short your learning.

In this stage embrace:

  • the vulnerability of not knowing;

  • the opportunity to learn from failure;

  • the opportunity to be mentored, guided and to learn from others;

  • feedback – and taking information from that feedback that you can apply as part of your journey of learning and growth.

Reflection question: In which aspects of your career might you be in the conscious incompetence stage?

Stage 3: Conscious competence

In this stage you have started to develop and apply the new knowledge and skill that you have been learning – but it takes effort. It’s not yet something you can perform without having to think – it’s not yet an automated action. In this stage you are consciously thinking about how to perform the skills.

This is where I was after several months of pottery lessons - I could construct a pretty good vessel, give it a smooth (or smooth enough) finish and even glaze it but it still took a lot of conscious effort to make the vessel and I was nowhere close to having created anything I was willing to give to any loved ones as a gift. I was also feeling a little demoralised that after 3 months of weekly lessons and close to R8,000 in fees I had not much more than 7 fairly amateur vessels to show for my efforts. Yet I was also finding that other new students were asking me more advice and guidance and I was able to share what I had learned with them - I hovered between totally demoralised and strangely proud of my progress.

The risk of this stage is that it's energy sapping and may deplete your energy if too many aspects of your career and other aspects of your life, are all in this stage. The opportunity of this stage is that it is the space in which it is easy to teach someone else the skill (because you can consciously identify each step required to perform the skill properly), and in the process can grow and deeply embed the skill for yourself.

The opportunity of this stage is that it is the space in which it is easy to teach someone else the skill.

In this stage embrace:

  • performing a new skill even though it takes effort;

  • reflecting regularly on what you are learning and how you are improving;

  • the chance to teach someone else the skill to the level at which you are competent;

  • the opportunity to be coached through the task rather than directed.

Reflection question: In which aspects of your career might you be in the conscious competence stage?

Stage 4: Unconscious competence

This is the stage at which you've mastered a skill through practice and much of what you do in performing the skill takes place unconsciously and with little exertion of mental energy. It’s at this stage that you stop being conscious of every step that you have to take to perform the skill, you've identified effective shortcuts and can do the work effectively and efficiently.

This might sound like the ideal stage to be in after all this is the stage at which you have developed a high level of skill or expertise in a particular area without having to consciously think about it. However this comes with the risk of complacency and boredom – in the absence of challenge, there is the potential to get stuck in a rut, to forget certain steps and take too many shortcuts and to stop innovating and learning.

Another risk of being unconsciously competent is that you can do the work so unconsciously that sometimes it's a struggle to teach someone else how to do the work - you do the work well but you may lose awareness of how you do it. When you stop being able to methodically explain a task to someone it becomes difficult to transfer knowledge to others.

An added risk of being unconsciously competent is that it can make adaptation to change quite challenging. When you are so accustomed to doing things a certain way, it can be a struggle to learn new skills or adopt new technologies.

In this stage embrace:

  • your ability to perform tasks efficiently and with little energy;

  • leverage your spare energy in transferring the skill to others through mentoring and coaching – this helps retain a level of consciousness;

  • look for opportunities where you can innovate and improve the way in which you perform the task.

Reflection question: In which aspects of your career might you be in the unconscious competence stage?


I thrive on conversations and would love to engage with you on your career and how you are managing yourself and your career like a business.

I believe "managing your career like a business" means:

  • having insight on where you want to go in your career,

  • the agility and resilience to change track when necessary,

  • competence to navigate transition points, and

  • self-awareness to manage yourself.

I've built a coaching business around helping my clients who are mostly professionals in STEM careers, to leverage their career value chain, develop courage, compassion and creativity in the way they lead themselves and others, and unlearn the stories in their head that hold them back so that they can rewrite and start advocating for themselves using a narrative that is more reflective of their true selves.


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