Assessment Centers to Choose Leaders

Blue pen pointing to a graph showing scores on multiple things.

Leadership isn’t easy. It takes a special set of talents for someone to be a good leader. Unfortunately, in many organizations it is assumed that great employees make great leaders. This leads them to promote their best individual contributors into leadership roles, often with poor results. Leadership requires a set of talents that is different from those that make someone a good accountant, engineer, or nurse. Determining who has leadership potential requires specialized tools. That is why so many organizations use assessment centers to choose leaders.

Leadership Requires Many Talents

When you break it down, leadership is about influencing other people. Organization leaders coordinate, direct, inspire, motivate, and support those they lead. Good leaders have the knowledge, skill, ability, and other characteristics (KSAOs) necessary for success in leading people. These include:

  • Knowledge: Understanding the principles of good leadership.
  • Skill: Inspiring others by articulating a vision.
  • Ability: Emotional intelligence, that is, being able to recognize and manage emotions in self and others.
  • Other Characteristics: Having empathy that enables the leader to relate to others.

What Is an Assessment Center?

An assessment center is a multi-day event during which prospective leaders go through a series of assessments and exercises designed to measure important leadership talents. Some assessments are done by individuals and others by groups of individuals. In addition to a battery of psychological tests, people might go through:

  • In-Basket Exercise. This is a simulation exercise in which the person role plays their first day on the job as a new leader. They are given a set of materials that might include emails, letters, memos, and texts. Their job is to go through the materials and indicate how they would deal with each. The exercise is good for assessing whether the person can prioritize issues and decide which need immediate attention, and whether they have good judgment about how to handle issues.
  • Interview. Each person is interviewed about their background and experience that is relevant to leadership.
  • Leaderless Group Exercise. Several people are placed in a group and are given a problem to solve. This is a good exercise to assess how well people work with others in a group, and whether they exhibit leadership skills.
  • Role Play Exercise. The person is given a situation and is asked to enact how they would deal with it, such as providing negative feedback to a poor performing employee.

Each person is scored by a panel of experts on how well they performed and the extent to which they demonstrated leadership talent.

Assessment Centers to Choose Leaders

An assessment center is a labor-intensive operation requiring the coordinated effort of several experts, not to mention the time of prospective leaders. Some companies have developed their own in-house centers, but more typically they rely on external consulting firms that specialize in them. In the U.S. and many other countries, they are widely used because they can provide insights into who does and does not have the talent to be a good leader. They are sometimes used to hire people in other roles, ranging from account executives in financial services to police officers. Their high cost can be justified for many jobs in which poor performance can be expensive. They are used because they have the best track record of identifying who has the right set of talents to become a successful leader.

Photo by Lukas from Pexels

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