The 4 stages of competence: What every business owner needs to know

Did you know that there are four stages of competence? When it comes to developing skills, it’s not as simple as being competent or not. And understanding the four stages is important for business owners for a number of reasons, from personal development to marketing. Let’s explore them.

Stage 01: Unconscious incompetence 

This describes the idea that “you don’t know what you don’t know” and is the real danger zone for business owners. 

If you don’t know that you’re not competent at something, you won’t be in a place to improve. You won’t believe you need to. You could continue in your incompetence indefinitely, missing out on improving your skills or getting external support.

Finance is a great example of this. A lot of business owners start out doing their own books and tax returns and believe that so long as they’ve logged their expenses and income correctly, they’ve competently managed their finances.

But what about cash flow forecasting and tax savings and ROI and depreciation? Get an expert involved and you soon realise how much you don’t know. 

Unconscious incompetence and marketing

It’s also important to understand the unconscious incompetence in your potential customers or clients. These are areas where you can target your content marketing towards education. 

Let’s say you’re a nutritionist, for example. There will be people out there with unconscious incompetence about their eating habits. People who think they’re eating healthily because they don’t eat lots of crisps or chocolate, for example, but who don’t realise that they’re consuming too much salt or not getting the right variety of vitamins and minerals.

Creating educational content for these people helps them move towards stage two – conscious incompetence – which is the point at which they may recognise that they need support to improve their skills in this area.

Stage 02: Conscious incompetence 

Now we’re onto the idea of true wisdom, which is not about knowing everything but about knowing that you know nothing.

Becoming conscious of incompetence is a real step of maturity in the life of a business owner. When you become aware that you don’t know everything you suddenly find yourself in a much stronger position.

Here you can make one of two choices – you can improve your competence or you can outsource or delegate. Whether you invest in leadership training, hire in a sales manager or engage a copywriter to manage your blog for you, you are choosing to improve the overall competence of your business.

Conscious incompetence and marketing

If your audience is aware that there is a gap in their skills or knowledge, you’ve got an opportunity to help them fix it. This is where ‘how to’ content can be so powerful. And while you’re busy solving this problem of incompetence for your audience, you’re also proving your own expertise at the same time.

There are many ways you can address conscious incompetence in your audience. You can write blog posts, ebooks, cheat sheets, guides, FAQs, top tips and more. You can create explainer videos and animations. You can hold webinars and do live Q&As on social media.

Why should you give your expertise away free of charge? Because solving a problem is a way of adding value and that’s what content marketing is all about. Position yourself as a helpful expert and, when your audience is ready to spend money, they’ll remember you were there.

Stage 03: Conscious competence 

If you invest in coaching, training or mentoring you will soon find yourself developing new skills and becoming consciously competent at whatever it is you’re working on. 

Book yourself onto a blogging course and you’ll become conscious of your competence in blogging improving. Spend time reading books about leadership and practicing what you learn, and you’ll find your leadership skills improving.

It’s worth remembering though, that you can’t necessarily go on building competence indefinitely. Entrepreneurs tend to be “I can do it myself” people but there’s a danger in this. As the saying goes, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should.

It’s worth having a basic level of competence in most aspects of your business – that way you can manage your team and your suppliers knowledgeably. But when it comes to developing core competencies and becoming an expert, be more selective.

By operating in your “zone of genius” and allowing others to do the same, you will create a far more sustainable business – and greatly reduce the risk of burning out.

Conscious competence and marketing

If your audience knows how to do what you do as a business, surely you can’t sell to them, right? Wrong. 

People don’t just buy products because they can’t make them themselves. Otherwise supermarkets wouldn’t sell ready chopped carrots and ready mashed potatoes. Likewise, people don’t just hire people to do stuff they can’t do – otherwise cleaners would be out of business.

If what you’re offering isn’t something only you can make or do, then you need to understand the benefits of you doing it versus your audience doing it. So in the case of chopped carrots or cleaners, it’s mostly about the relative importance of time versus money.

Once you know what your audience is interested in, you can focus your marketing messaging on that.

Stage 04: Unconscious competence 

You know how it feels when you’re driving a car? The way you change gear without really thinking about what your hands or feet are doing. That’s unconscious competence. The stage where you’re doing something so well that you don’t have to think about it.

This is what being an expert is about. The core skills that you have are now so natural that it’s almost incomprehensible that other people can’t do what you can do, because it just feels so easy.

The problem with this stage is that you can easily slip into undervaluing yourself and your competence. It just feels so straightforward – how can you charge people money for what you do? Especially if you enjoy it!

Although unconscious competence is something to aspire to, it’s important to take moments to consciously focus on what it is you do and remember how good you are at it. Those cakes you bake are delicious – not everyone can bake like that. The way you conceptualise a logo – it was easy enough for you but someone else wouldn’t even have come close.

Unconscious competence and marketing

At RH&Co we work with a lot of exceptionally competent people. People who have such depth of knowledge and skill that they don’t always understand that not everyone is on the same level as them.

Take the many and varied techies of the world – developers and data analysts and so on. When we start working with these sorts of clients, we usually have to do a lot of work to uncover the most effective marketing messaging for them.

They want to talk about widgets and specs and all sorts of unintelligible things. But their audience – especially if that audience isn’t technical – may well be confused or put off by too much focus on these features. They want to know what the benefits are instead, what problems the tech can solve for them.

If you’re an expert then make sure that your marketing message is packaged in a way that people will relate to. Don’t use more jargon than you have to. Put yourself in the shoes of the people you want to do business with and try to see your offering through their eyes.

Understanding conscious and unconscious competence and incompetence can be a powerful tool both in your development as a business person and your sales and marketing efforts. Spend time looking at both yourself and your audience to see where each one could help you achieve your goals.


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