News & Insight
June 2012

The Design and Use of High-Impact Assessment and Development Centers

High performing companies increasingly use Assessment and Development Centers as a way to develop talent. These centers gather a wide array of assessment data and provide a series of development experiences that become input for identifying the 1-3 high priority areas in the individual leader’s Development Plan. The outcomes companies seek when implementing Assessment and Development centers include:

  • identifying emerging and hi-potential talent
  • validating existing “talent lists”
  • uncovering “unknown” talent
  • putting more rigor and objectivity into gathering information for talent decision-making
  • accelerating the development of talent, thereby increasing “readiness” for future roles

However the objectives are stated, these firms recognize that outstanding leadership talent is vital for execution of the business strategy, and that proactive, sustained development is an investment in the future.

Critical Success Factors
Our implementation of Centers for a wide variety of client organizations over the last 15 years, has surfaced a few key factors that consistently lead to success:

Key among these critical success factors is tailoring the Center experience to the company culture and business challenges. While the goals may be highly similar from one Center to another, taking a “one size does NOT fit all” perspective is crucial. Is the business in a growth by acquisition mode? Is globalization a key part of the strategy? Interviews with Senior executives and incumbents in the targeted leadership roles yield vital information about these and other current and future business challenges, which has direct implications for the competencies leaders need now…and for the future. These competencies in turn, drive the selection and design of assessment tools and exercises used in the Center. For example, in one client organization, innovation was a strategic driver for product growth and differentiation; assessing leaders’ ability to create and drive environments conducive to innovation was woven throughout the assessment and development experiences. This tailoring also creates positive perceptions of the business relevance of all components, and heightens views of the value of the overall experience.

Transparency about the center also plays an important role in its success, and requires well planned communications and positioning. Participants will want (have the right) to know how they were selected, the purpose of the Center, who will see the data generated, how it will be used, etc. Is the Center being positioned primarily to assess capability, or as a first step toward development? What are the expectations for the participant after the Center, and how will his/her manager be involved? We have found that time spent orienting participants and their managers sets the context for what the company is trying to achieve, and helps develop trust in the entire process. As a result, the talent you are seeking to retain is more likely to see the experience as a solid investment in their future.

C-Level Involvement
We have also found that the visible involvement of Senior Executives makes a difference in positioning the Center as a business initiative, and an investment to identify, develop, and retain key talent. A well orchestrated kick-off and close by a C-Level leader sets the stage well. In addition, as we will see shortly, there is great value in having executives observe and interact with participants at appropriate points throughout the assessment experience.

The Assessment and Development Center Experience
While the specific design varies, at the core is a set of experiences providing the participant with the opportunity to demonstrate the targeted leadership competencies. This is aimed at increasing awareness of leadership strengths and development areas, leveraging strengths, and building new skills and capabilities. The participant experiences a “Day in the Life” of a leader at a level or in a role they are being considered for in the future. The assessment tools and exercises reflect the array of people, process, and technology issues and decisions he/she will face as a leader.

Prior to arrival at the onsite session, a web-based Orientation that sets context and expectation can be conducted. Pre-work, consisting of online personality assessments, such as the Hogan Suite of Leadership Tools, and a Career Survey is also completed; several clients choose to include 360° interviews as part of the pre-work in order to provide rich, concrete feedback for each participant.

At the Center itself, executives participate in individual business simulations/role plays to demonstrate how they handle various challenges such as influencing a peer, coaching a direct report, or negotiating with a customer. A leader-less group discussion is often used to elicit the strengths and “hindering” behaviors that participants exhibit when working in teams. A business case analysis may also be used in which various facets of strategic leadership can be demonstrated. Participants often have the opportunity to “present” their business case analysis to a “Senior Board” comprised of company executives. This has proven to be a great way to involve the Senior Leaders, create exposure, and build in moments of live feedback. Participants find this to be one of the most meaningful parts of the Center. These simulations and role plays are customized to fit the company culture and the experiences that leaders face daily.

We have referred to the Center as Assessment AND Development, as the trend is toward incorporating a strong development component into the sessions, in a variety of ways. One industry leading technology company has conducted Centers with 25 global leaders, twice yearly for the last 10 years, in order to provide global leadership continuity. Development is interwoven throughout their 2+ day program, with participants receiving “in the moment” feedback after each business simulation. In addition, feedback begins right at the Center, as the participant and their assigned “coach” meet to explore the integrated assessment results, identify the key “so what and now what”, and come up with a practical plan to drive development. This feedback rich environment is well received by participants, as it provides the opportunity to get constructive, action-oriented information to shape and drive individual change. Action Learning projects, focused on business-critical challenges, are often launched as part of the Center activities, and used as a platform to develop and apply key skills, and build invaluable networks. To further emphasize development, several companies have integrated very specific ”learning modules” throughout the Center experience featuring business topics and skills critical to the business, such as Innovation, Operating in a Matrixed Environment, and Global Mindset.

Given the need to accelerate and sustain development, executive coaching is also becoming more prevalent as a follow-up component. One company that has been implementing Centers for leaders at several levels, assigns internal mentors, and also provides 3 coaching sessions with the coach who worked with the participant at the session- a way to support implementation of the development plan.


Our own experience and research indicates that the implementation of assessment and development centers yields substantial benefits at both the individual and organizational level.

Individuals who have gone through the experience are likely to be promoted more quickly than other leaders who have not had the experience. This is largely because the implementation of their development plans enables them to more quickly meet the current business needs of the company and to anticipate future business challenges and needs. Also these leaders are able to take on broader roles and responsibilities and the implementation of their development plans helps them to know what it takes to be successful in both the local and global environment. One client was able to move 75% of their GM candidates into more responsible roles within an 18 month timeframe; this was over a 50% acceleration in the “ready-now” timing, and helped them meet demand for capable leaders in areas of the business facing significant growth. For another client, the assessment and development of global leaders has enabled them to have greater flexibility to shift talent globally to meet emerging needs, as well as to provide movement and growth at lower levels across the company.

Our experience has also shown that leaders who go through the assessment and development experience have high scores in employee engagement surveys. Equally, their teams tend to have higher engagement scores than other employees. The positive connection between engagement levels and business results has been repeatedly confirmed in research studies over the last 5 years.

A further benefit is that these leaders tend to stay with the company longer and that their retention rate is higher than leaders who have not gone through the experience. They feel valued and often have a clear career trajectory.

In addition to the more direct benefits, stated above, it is worth highlighting the many “auxiliary gains” consistently cited by participants and client companies. A key step in becoming a better leader is knowing what leadership is, and specifically what it looks like in your company. To this end, for years companies have invested in the development of Leadership Competency Models, with less than desired impact. The Center provides a forum to bring competencies to life. Senior executives can communicate why these competencies are critical to the business strategy, and paint a picture of what they expect from their leaders. Participants comment that for the first time they really know what leadership at their company is all about; and, this gets constantly reinforced as they receive feedback on these competencies throughout the Center experiences.

The interactions that take place between Senior Executives and participants has huge benefits for each. For participants, hearing Senior Executives weave stories and talk candidly about their career paths, failures and learnings, and talk candidly about the business challenges and implications for leaders throughout the firm, has been of immense value to participants. Informal “fireside chats” have been designed into the Center to create these conversations that otherwise rarely happen.

When Senior Executives comprise the mock “Boards” that participants present to, it affords an incredible opportunity, (yes, somewhat stressful), for the executives to see these participants-aspiring leaders in action, and for them, in turn, to receive invaluable feedback.

Finally, in every Center, the ability to meet and network with new colleagues is touted as a much valued outcome. In today’s highly networked organizations, in which leveraging expertise and resources, and influencing without authority are vital to success, relationships are more crucial than ever. Our follow-ups with participants yield story after story of projects being expedited due to networks being leveraged, as well as careers being guided with the support and advice of contacts established at a Center

Getting Started

The list below may help you begin to address your leadership talent needs.

  • Are the CEO and the leadership team committed to the development of high potential leaders?
  • Does the organization have a clear business strategy, together with the numbers and types of leadership required to implement this strategy?
  • Has an honest conversation taken place at various levels of the organization regarding the current list of potential successors?
  • Are successors provided with development experiences that will ensure that they can take on the strategic challenges?
  • Is the organization doing all it can to retain the top talent in terms of development and providing stretch opportunities?
  • Is the organization known for developing its high potential staff which is necessary to attract high potential people?

WJM Faculty members Margaret Butteriss and Alan Siegel are organizational consultants and executive coaches in practice for over 25 years. The focus of their work, writings, and presentations is the assessment and development of business leaders.

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