Circles of Competence

In the professions of counseling and executive mentoring we often speak of our scope of competence. What that means is this: we know what we can do and work to expand that scope, but we also understand what we cannot do and work to refer our clients to others who have that (whatever it is) in their scope of competence.

Warren Buffet calls this the circle of competence. In business, it is often referred to as a firm’s “core competency.” Knowing what that is, and outsourcing the rest, is the key to sustainable business excellence.

As an aside, yesterday Cindy, Julietta, and I, were stuck in a traffic backup on Interstate 80. As we looked at the many large trucks idling around us, waiting as we were for the accident ahead to be cleared, Julietta asked about a truck’s insignia, parked next to us, which read: Logistics.

I am not sure when the term logistics took off. Surely, as a concept, it has been around for a long time. In brief, logistics companies do for you what you would rather not do for yourself. They do for you what you are not good at. They allow you to focus on those things that you do do well – your core competency.

What an investor needs is the ability to correctly evaluate selected businesses. Note that word “selected”: You don’t have to be an expert on every company, or even many. You only have to be able to evaluate companies within your circle of competence. The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.

Thus began Warren Buffett in a shareholder letter of many years ago.  And the concept of a Circle of Competence is simple: Each of us, through experience or study, has built up useful knowledge on certain areas of the world. Some areas are understood by most of us, while some areas require a lot more specialty to evaluate.

For example, most of us have a basic understanding of the economics of a restaurant: You rent or buy space, spend money to outfit the place and then hire employees to seat, serve, cook, and clean. (And, if you don’t want to do it yourself, to manage.)

From there it’s a matter of generating enough traffic and setting the appropriate prices to generate a profit on the food and drinks you serve—after all of your operating expenses have been paid. Though the cuisine, atmosphere, and price points will vary by restaurant, they all have to follow the same economic formula.

That basic knowledge, along with some understanding of accounting and a little bit of study, would enable one to evaluate and invest in any number of restaurants and restaurant chains; public or private. It’s not all that complicated.

However, can most of us say we understand the workings of a microchip company or a biotech drug company at the same level? Perhaps not.









But as Buffett so eloquently put it, we do not necessarily need to understand these more esoteric areas to invest capital. Far more important is to honestly define what we do know and stick to those areas. Our circle of competence can be widened, but only slowly and over time. Mistakes are most often made when straying from this discipline.

The essential question he sought to answer: Where should we devote our limited time in life, in order to achieve the most success? Here’s a simple prescription:

You have to figure out what your own aptitudes are. If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.

If you want to be the best tennis player in the world, you may start out trying and soon find out that it’s hopeless—that other people blow right by you. However, if you want to become the best plumber in Pittsburgh, that is probably doable by two-thirds of you. It takes a will. It takes the intelligence. But after a while, you’d gradually know all about plumbing in Pittsburgh and master the art. That is an attainable objective, given enough discipline. And people who could never win a chess tournament or stand in center court in a respectable tennis tournament can rise quite high in life by slowly developing a circle of competence—which results partly from what they were born with and partly from what they slowly develop through work.

So, the simple takeaway here is clear. If you want to improve your odds of success in life and business then define the perimeter of your circle of competence, and operate inside. Over time, work to expand that circle but never fool yourself about where it stands today, and never be afraid to say “I don’t know.”

Or, as Dirty Harry has said, “A man’s GOT to know his limitations.”

About Dr Joseph Russo

Born and raised in Woodland Hills, California; now residing in Laramie, Wyoming (or "Laradise" as we call it, for good reason), with my wife Cindy, our little schnauzer, Macy Mae, and a cat named Markie. I hold a BBA from Cal State Northridge and an MBA from the University of Nevada at Reno. My first career was in business, for some 25+ years. In 2007, I shifted gears and entered the helping professions as a mental health counselor. I earned an MA in Educational Psychology and a Doctorate (PhD) in Counselor Education and Supervision. In my spare time I enjoy mentoring young and not-so-young business and non-profit executives as they go about growing their businesses and presence. I also teach part-time at the University of Wyoming, in both the Colleges of Education and Business.
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One Response to Circles of Competence

  1. Cindy Brock says:

    I really like this post, Joe! Is helpful to think about this relative to my own work. Here’s my question: What your suggestions for thoughtfully and honestly figuring out our own circles of competence?

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