News & Insight
February 2010

Assessment Centers and Leadership Development

Mitch McCrimmon, Ph.D

No one would argue that leadership development should focus on real development needs for the best payback. But what's the best way of identifying those needs? You might consider performance data, psychometrics, 360° or assessment center simulations. The first three are currently more in vogue than conventionally run assessment centers which are time consuming for executives who serve as assessors. Although using executives in this way fosters ownership, they may not be very skilled at assessment. Hence the risk of costly investment and low return.

But assessment center techniques used by highly skilled assessors can be a very powerful diagnostic tool for identifying leadership development needs.

Assessment center simulations serve a dual purpose: (1) identification of development needs and (2) opportunity to learn. Simulations actively engage participants in identifying their own development needs because they can see for themselves how they are doing. Further, when each simulation is followed by a discussion, coaching and feedback, both purposes are equally served. Asking participants questions about the rationale behind their approach generates a fuller assessment and, on the development side, such discussion prompts self-reflection and developmental insight in participants.

Consider, for example, the need to develop delegation skills. Psychometric or 360° feedback might suggest that an executive could delegate more but the question of exactly what the executive is doing or not doing is unclear. By contrast, a role play, in which an executive is required to delegate, makes actual leadership style visible, including choice of words, tone of voice and body language, hence generating a much more microscopic assessment. This level of specificity, not afforded by any other approach, facilitates follow up coaching much better than the vague suggestion that more delegation might be in order. For example, there is a world of difference between telling team members how to do a task and asking them how they would approach it.

Benefits for participants of using assessment center simulations

  • Fuller engagement through having to tackle realistic business challenges.
  • Combined identification of development needs and an opportunity to learn.
  • A more active role in generating their own development plan.
  • A precise focus on actual, modifiable behaviour.
  • Fosters greater self-reflection and self-awareness, hence ownership.

A typical program

Case Study- This exercise offers a range of challenging leadership dilemmas. A whole organization or division is described with several strategic, commercial, operational and human resource issues. Participants develop their top 5 priorities to improve the business. Rather than assess written output, assessors engage them in a discussion of their priorities to probe their rationale. This exercise reveals a wide range of leadership styles and strengths. Strategic participants talk about looking externally and re-focusing the overall business. Those with an operational orientation major on fixing immediate problems. Results driven participants display a hard-hitting sense of urgency and set challenging timeframes, while those who value engagement call for dialogue with key stakeholders before taking concrete action. Team oriented participants call for better team work and cross-functional cooperation. They also recognize the need to fix the morale problems that are weighing the business down. Those with a strong commercial bias want to cut costs and seize new business opportunities. Those who are uncomfortable committing themselves without further analysis postpone action until they have dug into issues more deeply. Some call for greater accountability in key managers while others take too much personal ownership and do not empower anyone.

Role play with team member - The case study, just completed, makes reference to a problem team member, setting the stage for a role play. This is an essential exercise for exploring how executives handle performance issues, how they show leadership and motivate staff. Participants are faced with difficult choices, such as how to win the team member over to a key agenda while addressing performance issues. Many participants pursue one side of this challenge but ignore the other and some do both badly. This exercise is an excellent assessment tool as well as a learning experience. As with the case study, the participant's approach is probed and some initial feedback is offered. A participant's leadership style reveals itself clearly in this exercise. Some participants see themselves as supportive simply because they are not heavy-handed, but they still do most of the talking, telling the team member what to do differently. More skilled leaders know how to ask questions to draw solutions and commitment to change out of the team member. They have a talent for keeping the team member focused on solutions without dictating to them. Other participants are effective in using enthusiastic language to inspire the team member.

Role play with internal colleague/external client - As with the first role play, the case study sets this one up with a message from a colleague or client who is complaining about the team member of the first role play. Linking the exercises in this way makes them more realistic. When participants engage in the role plays they have formed some opinions about how to deal with the issues. The challenge in the second role play is to pacify the colleague/client while still defending the team member, also to build bridges with an important stakeholder. Effective performers show interest in the other party's needs and issues rather than focusing too exclusively on their own agendas. This exercise provokes weaker participants to go on the attack and defend their team member too strongly, or equally, to be overly deferential and give in to every demand made by the stakeholder. It is an excellent tool to assess influencing style, conflict resolution and relationship building skills. Again, probing, feedback and coaching follow the exercise immediately.

Taken together, the two role plays explore how participants deal with authority - down and up. Some challenge upwards while identifying too closely with their teams. Others are too deferential upwards and overly directive downwards.

Benefits for the organization of using assessment center simulations

  • A much more precise assessment of leadership talent than can be afforded by other tools.
  • More specific, behavioural feedback to help in grooming leadership skills.
  • More ownership on the part of executives of their own development plans.
  • A deeper understanding of the organization's underlying leadership model and how well it is likely to engage and empower employees, thereby retaining them and maximizing their potential.
  • The use of professional, external assessors leaves executives free.
  • The process has face validity thanks to business oriented exercises, the participative dimension and the dual benefit of assessment and development.

To achieve maximum focus on the organization's future leadership needs, simulations can be designed to mirror the actual challenges the business faces. A more cost effective approach uses off-the-shelf simulations that are just as powerful for revealing leadership style, strengths and development needs.

WJM Faculty Member Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years experience in executive

assessment and coaching, split between Canada and the UK.

He has designed assessment centers for many businesses.

Join our newsletter

Stay up to date on all things happening at WJM Associates