Increasingly organizations are becoming obsessed with the use of assessment centres (AC) as a tool for evaluation of their employees’ potential on desired competencies. Its results have been used for the purpose of recruitment, internal mobility, development and succession planning. As a process that is based on empirical data, it brings objectivity and a rigor to assessment. All assessors use the same set of criteria to rate a candidate’s potential based on pre-defined behavioral indicators, thereby minimizing the element of assessor bias. The use of different formats (e.g. behavioral event interview, role play, presentation and questionnaire) allows the candidate more than a single opportunity to exhibit the required competencies.
As someone who has been part of several ACs over the years, my belief in it as a tool for leadership development has waned considerably.
In a recent conversation with a senior operations head of a leading bank, he shared candidly how the reports serve as a mirror for the candidate. Many a times it’s a mere reaffirmation of what they already know. He agreed that while an integrated developmental journey is drafted on paper, the reality is very different. Running an AC entails heavy investment in terms of time, effort (planning, extended normalization sessions, detailed report writing), resources (number of assessors, costs per candidate, venue etc). I wonder if there is a proportionate return on this investment in terms of development and a subsequent change in behavior in candidates.
Simulated activities in a single day are hardly a good enough window to accurately capture a candidate’s potential. There could be several factors that may prevent his peak performance in a centre. In the pre workshop briefing, it is emphasized amply to the befuddled candidates that this is a training program of a different kind. They are advised to ignore the panel of assessors and be themselves. This further accentuates their anxiety and it’s palpable by the awkward silence and seriousness on their faces. Those familiar with the format, make a well thought out attempt to act in the desired fashion, mouthing the most perfect responses. Some senior candidates look at this as a respite from work and treat the centre with casualness.
I remember an instance where a candidate had failed miserably on the ‘result orientation’ competency. In the normalization session when the ratings were being calibrated, he fell way below the standard benchmark of 3 on a scale of 1 to 5. His reporting manager who valued him as a high performing employee was up in arms. He rejected the scores and fought tooth and nail in his favor. He was also worried of the possible impact that such a low score would have on a high performer. For a candidate who is good at his work, what were we trying to assess in a one day centre? With such an erroneous score on this competency, isn’t the veracity of the AC in question?
In some other assessments that I have been a part of, most candidates scored several notches below the benchmark. While the assessors take immense pride in their over critical stance, it leaves me wondering whether the design is at fault. Should not a design be such that at least half the candidates are competent enough to make the cut? If 80 per cent of the candidates fail to meet the minimum benchmark of competencies for that band or a level higher, then the hiring process needs a rethink.
Over a period of time, assessors too tend to get more clinical and judgmental in their analysis –a complete antithesis for an assessment of a subjective quality such as leadership potential. Are we as assessors even mindful of our slip into a critical, fact oriented process that impairs our discerning, intuitive ability to go beyond what meets the eye?
Given the several pitfalls associated with an AC, I would urge my fellow practitioners to take a step back and question its purpose before commissioning one. Mapping the results of the AC with other tools such personality profile instruments, a 360 degree feedback report; performance appraisal report would better serve the purpose of assessment and subsequent development. When one looks at several data points comprehensively and combines these with our sense of intuition, we will be more accurate in our analysis of the individual’s potential.
As a next step one needs to look at what may be some of the development opportunities that would plug the need gap competencies. Business simulation exercises may be a powerful way to help address competencies such as strategic orientation, business acumen and problem solving. However for competencies such as personal effectiveness and team leadership, coaching and mentoring would be a more appropriate tool. This may be followed up by regular monitoring to ensure timely progression on this developmental journey. Threading the entire journey from assessment to development would ensure a better bang for the buck.