The 5 Levels Of Professional Competence
Advice Processes & Best Practice Advice & Compliance & Financial Advice

The 5 Levels Of Professional Competence

July 7, 2023

by Tony Vidler  CFP logo   CLU logo  ChFC logo

Professional competence is now a clearly demonstrable thing isn’t it? Or is it?  Can an adviser be considered as having competence and incompetence simultaneously?

I think so.

Competence has been a primary focus of regulatory reform, and that’s fair enough.  Consumers have a right to expect it from their advisers and any career-focussed advisers have accepted the logic of needing to BE demonstrably competent in their area of expertise.  However, competence has been very narrowly defined in reality by the rule-makers. One is deemed competent for having completed and passed a course.  Often those courses are, in my experience, designed and delivered by inexperienced and incompetent folk, and are generally totally impractical when it comes to arming a professional with the skills and knowledge required to be deemed competent by their customers.  So that as a benchmark for professional competence is questionable to begin with.

The are 5 levels of competence – or incompetence – that you might use to describe the professional knowledge and skills.  They would be:

1.  Ignorance  (I know nothing and cannot advise)

2.  Awareness (I am aware of issues associated with it, but not how to fix them)

3.  Knowledgeable (I understand the issues and many of the solutions, but not all)

4.  Competent (I have excellent working knowledge of issues & solutions and can help)

5.  Expertise (I am an authority with deep technical understanding and will find the optimal solution)

It is entirely possible – in fact it is highly probable – that any professional will have ALL of these levels of expertise (including “ignorance”) in some area.  

The key for professionals is to understand what level of competence they have in any particular area.  For example, on my most optimistic self assessment I could not rate myself as anything better than having a level of “awareness” when it comes to currency trading/forex.  Frankly, it would be downright dangerous to give me your Yen and ask me to begin trading in international currencies on your behalf….it will almost certainly end in tears for everyone.

Yet, I could nominate other areas where I think I can claim to have absolute expertise….and plenty where I am competent but by no means an authority.  Every adviser would be in the same position I believe, with a range of professional knowledge and skill that runs from “ignorance” to “expertise” in different elements of their profession.
And this is why it matters that an adviser can honestly self-assess and accept where they have genuine expertise and indisputable competency: if an adviser focuses upon that alone they will have a more successful business and career.
A regulator may well be content that you are knowledgeable and can practice in a particular area, and consumers themselves may well accept “knowledgeable” as being good enough. But nobody will pay premium pricing or form queues to listen to you if you are more or less only as knowledgeable as the bulk of the market.
There is nothing exceptional there that consumers would particularly value.
From a purely commercial perspective you will be better off working only in areas of true “expertise”, where you are an absolute authority.
Being competent (or even just knowledgeable) will get you a job and you’ll be able to earn a living (probably).  That is a point in personal and professional development though where an adviser is largely doomed to being treated rather like a commodity by the market.  That’s ok for a period of time while developing the knowledge and skillset, but I’d argue that it is a tough place to eke out a career.
So if there is no area where you could claim absolute authority yet, then all your professional development and personal growth activities should be focussed on attaining precisely that.
You might also be interested in this related article:
The Maximum Value Zone For Advisers
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