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Secrets of Assessment Center Design

An Assessment Center is an excellent tool for identifying leadership potential, executive development or succession planning.

Assessment Centers can be made up of job simulations alone or combined with other tools such as psychometrics, 360-degree feedback and a competency-based interview. Where the aim is development only, self-report questionnaires and periodic feedback during the program are also useful.

To be effective, an Assessment Center needs to mirror a target job or level in the organization. It needs to present participants with stretching challenges similar to those they would face in that job or at that level. Assessment Center exercises are simulations of the most critical challenges that must be dealt with effectively at the target level.

Assessment Centers can simulate any job, including sales or customer service roles and all levels of management. For the latter, maximum benefit is obtained when the first level of management is the target. This is where we get the classic problem: "When I promoted Jim, I lost my best sales person and gained a poor manager."

The Transition from Individual Contributor to Manager

To decide how best to assess the potential to move successfully to a first management role we need to explore why failure is so common in this context.

Usually, employees are promoted because they excel at their current jobs. Following orthodox wisdom, they like to play to their strengths. Under the pressure of a higher profile role, many revert to type and continue to do what they do best, failing to realize that they need new skills for an entirely new role. Being good at their individual contributor roles means having high standards of performance. This positive work ethic, however, can combine negatively with their need to prove themselves in their new role as manager, leading them to do too much, be too directive and over use their formal authority.

With the pressure to prove themselves, it is tempting to manage the newly inherited team too closely, thus working more as a lead hand than as a leader. When their controlling approach runs into resistance, the frequently used way out is to "sweep aside" inherited team members, hence the widely used label: "new broom". This is a huge waste of talent and money.

No doubt replacing some team members can make sense but it is often rationalized by the claim that some team members cannot get on board with the new vision or are resistant to change. Too often the real problem is the way the new vision was imposed on the team and the newcomer's failure to engage inherited team members effectively. In their anxiety and rush to prove themselves, new managers cannot tolerate seeming to be wrong; hence the high casualty rate among inherited team members.

The failure to make the transition from individual contributor to manager is partly a cultural problem. Organizations that define management as an authoritative position where incumbents are expected to have the answers can hinder any inclination new managers might have to use a more facilitative, coaching approach.

Assessing the Ability to use a Facilitative Style of Leadership

In order to assess how employees will handle the transition to management, we need to simulate a situation where they are given authority over a new team and where that authority is challenged by existing team members. In addition, exercises must be set up so that participants are under pressure to turn around a poorly performing business unit quickly.

Thus it is essential that Assessment Center exercises give participants authority for a fictitious business unit. A common failing in such exercises is to put participants in an advisory role. They are asked to analyze the problems facing a business and present their solutions to a fictitious executive who owns those issues. This approach is less effective because the participant's neck is not sufficiently on the line. Where the requirement is only to recommend solutions to someone else, participants do not feel the pressure of ownership necessary to really challenge them.

Further, the simulated business unit must contain people problems, political dynamics, personality conflicts, difficult employees and unhappy customers. Exercises that only present participants with marketing and financial information to analyze fail to simulate the challenge of a full-blooded organization. As a result, such exercises over emphasize analytical ability at the expense of interpersonal leadership skills and emotional intelligence.

Henry Mintzberg criticized exercises that are dry case studies in his book, Managers Not MBAs where he argued that MBA programs are guilty of training students to be analysts not managers precisely because of their heavy reliance on business case studies.

Finally, exercises that simulate the full emotional dynamics of a real organization must require participants to reply to challenging emails, hard-hitting messages that require participants to show emotional intelligence, leadership and coaching skills. If participants are merely asked to make recommendations, they escape having to deal with real people, real conflicts and the need to show real interpersonal leadership.

The best exercise for this purpose is an In Box exercise, what used to be called an In Basket before the days of email. Participants work on their own in this exercise, analyzing the issues and responding to emails. They can also be asked to make recommendations to their boss on how they plan to deal with the 3 to 5 most pressing issues facing the business, but this is an add-on task, not the only, or most important, requirement.

When exercises succeed in simulating a full-blooded organization, less effective participants either postpone dealing with the hard emotional issues or they take an overly directive, confrontational approach.

Such participants also often fail to delegate, motivate, empower and inspire their team members in such exercises because, being individual contributors, they narrowly focus on task problems, generally over emphasizing content at the expense of process. Less effective participants also tend to restrict themselves to asking team members to gather information for them rather than empowering them to use their own judgement.

A good way to challenge a participant's authority in an In Box exercise is to include a senior team member who felt that he or she should have got the job that the participant is given. A number of emails suggest that this individual is a problem in a variety of ways but also a highly skilled, essential team member who may just be a little demotivated and feeling unappreciated.

The key to this exercise is to strike a balance between provoking a heavy-handed response from the participant, on the one hand, while also providing sufficient stimulus to induce emotionally intelligent leaders to attempt to forge a partnership with the problem individual.

This challenge needs to be dealt with in the In Box exercise, but it is also carried over to a role play between the participant as manager and the problem team member. In this meeting, the role player strikes a balance between challenging the participant's authority and providing openings for relationship building. The big question posed by this exercise is whether the participant will use a coaching style in an effort to build a relationship or resort to a disciplinary approach with an over reliance on formal authority, thus likely making the situation worse.

There can also be an email in the In Box exercise from a disgruntled internal or external customer complaining about the problem employee, suggesting that the offending individual should be fired.

This scenario sets the stage for a second role play in which participants meet this customer with the aim of repairing a damaged relationship. If participants tell the customer that they tried to turn the employee around in the first role play, the customer reacts angrily while, if participants took a disciplinary approach, the customer can say that he has since learned how valuable this person is and that there is a rumour going around that the employee is leaving. Now, the customer demands to know how the manager plans to salvage this employee.

The three exercises discussed above are excellent for assessing interpersonal leadership and emotional intelligence: the In Box, a role play with a difficult team member and a role play with a disgruntled customer. Basing all three exercises on a single scenario where the participant is in the hot seat creates greater realism and ownership. Less effective exercises are set in totally different contexts, sometimes even different industries, which can leave participants feeling less involved in the issues.

Why so much emphasis on interpersonal leadership and emotional intelligence? Well, it is ineptness in these areas that is the primary cause of failure to make the transition to management, especially when under the pressure of a challenge to their newly gained authority.

What about assessing their analytical thinking or ability to function in a team? If you are considering engineers for the role of engineering supervisor, you may already have some pretty good evidence of how they analyze information and propose solutions. Similarly, you may have already observed your candidates functioning well or poorly in meetings.

Analytical and team working exercises can add value to an Assessment Center, no doubt, but where time and cost are tight, it is essential to focus on those competencies about which you have the least information and which are most likely to spell the difference between success and failure at the next level.

This is just being strategic about how you apply this technique. Where time and cost are tight, it may be necessary to eliminate kinds of exercises that do not simulate the most critical challenges to be faced by new managers rather than try to cover all of your competencies with equal emphasis.

Your Model of Management

Your model of management or leadership should also drive the choice of which kinds of exercises to use in an Assessment Center. If your culture is top down and managers are expected to have the answers, you may want to test analytical thinking with exercises that throw a lot of complex information at participants.

If, however, you are a knowledge driven business where knowledge workers expect to have their brains engaged, as opposed to managers doing all the thinking, then you might want a more facilitative style of leadership. The latter is akin to the level 5 leadership model of Jim Collins in Good to Great where leaders have the humility to recognize that they don't have all the answers and thus need to facilitate the thinking of their teams by asking the most engaging question: "What do you think?"

In conclusion, when designing an Assessment Center, consideration must be given to the particular challenges facing the target level and the model of management or leadership the organization wants to adopt going forward.

For any role where it is essential to demonstrate interpersonal leadership skills and emotional intelligence, participants must be challenged in these areas. Other than time pressure, the most stressful challenge questions the new manager's authority. It is not just that this is a tough challenge, the important point is that how they use their authority is the key to the success or failure of their transition to management.

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