What was your first experience of assessment centres (ACs)? How were they received by clients at the time?
My first experience of ACs goes back to the 80s. As a native German psychologist I did a 6-month internship at one of the largest UK assessment consultancies and in those days ACs were mainly used for selection purposes. This allowed me to gain initial experience in design and delivery.
ACs back then were over-engineered (too many measures in place, too many candidates, using criteria which were poorly linked to actual performance), expensive, and interestingly involved the CEO in addition to critical stakeholders, who spent up to 3-4 days on-site with the consultants. In a sense, the process was more important than the outcome. The intent was to promote a culture of feedback while allowing the organisation to reposition talent accordingly. AC providers, as such, were both experts in the deployment of assessment/diagnostic measures, as well as facilitators of this process.
I then headed a Human Resource Development (HRD) department at a steel company in the 90s and became a purchaser of AC services, which was a very useful experience that helped me gain deeper insights concerning the client’s experience of ACs.
As a client you soon realise the advantages of ACs – e.g. to get a second (and objective) opinion concerning the capabilities and qualities of a person, as well as an estimation of their probability for success and performance once in the role. We also kept into account potential risk factors associated with the candidate, like counterproductive behaviours or derailing tendencies associated with their personality.
What were the preferred methodologies at the time, and how has this changed today?
I would say that the tools of the trade have not changed significantly, but the application and scope of ACs have.
We still use a combination of multiple simulation exercises, calibrated and trained assessors, a pooling of ratings, and observation of behaviour and wash-up sessions. But the evolution and changes of the methodology appear, among other things, to be linked to changes regarding the nature of work, the globalisation of business, and the ever-evolving structures of organisations.
Additional factors to take into account when designing ACs are cross-cultural skills and mindsets, building workforce diversity, technological innovations in assessments, new self-concepts (e.g. generation y, x etc.), and thinking about how the organisation is representing itself to younger high potentials through this selection process (e.g. professional, innovative, traditional, etc.).
I think that these changes lead to the following four key principles for running effective and state-of-the-art ACs:
1) Bespoke approach: an off-the-shelf AC solution, with pre-designed exercises and formats is unlikely to meet the specific needs of the organisation
2) Understanding the role of technology: this will have an impact on the delivery and administration of AC services and will affect pre-selection processes, assessment administration, AC set-up (from recording equipment to the implementation of new technology like tablets for instance), in order to make the entire process more efficient for assessors and users
3) Sensitivity to diversity: given the global nature of business today, there is a strong requirement for understanding cultural differences and encouraging the development of a global mindset
4) Ethical considerations: this highlights the need to deploy robust assessments and methodologies – using high-quality measures and tools that have been independently validated – tools that do predict performance
In my opinion, combining these four key principles is an intelligent process that requires careful blending and integration.
Any word of advice for AC professionals?
I would say that the challenge lies in the implementation of the 4 principles, which is not always easy. Resources are scarce today, but the need for high-quality design, tools and implementation is greater than ever. The market has also become more “transactional” when it comes to buying and selling AC services, and less of a “partnership” with consultants.
But without partnership it is a bit like going back in time – the solution will likely be “bulky” and over-engineered, it won’t be bespoke and it won’t deliver or meet the requirements set by the way business is run today. The key to success is, in my opinion, in developing a collaborative and partner-like relationship with your consultants – so they become your trusted advisors. Moving forward, I think that both buyers and sellers will need to re-shape their relationship, so it can move from a transactional state to a mutually beneficial partnership.
And last but not least, we need to remember that candidates are humans and not guinea pigs – they are an integral part of the process. Whatever the outcome, attending an AC can be a formative and life changing experience for candidates and negative experiences will inevitably have an impact on how these services are perceived by the public and in the selection and assessment markets in general. I think that it is the small things that make a difference, like being able to build a rapport during feedback, and acting ethically at all times. I still receive occasional emails from candidates I have assessed years back highlighting how important the feedback session turned out to be for them regardless of whether they successfully secured the job or not. After all, it is not all about selecting “out” – rapport, handling conversations and managing impact on others is just as important. You can probably guess that my approach is potentially very humanistic, and indeed I am a strong proponent of this.
Dr. Uwe Napiersky, MBA Director of the Mindful Global Manager Programme at Aston Business School & Aston University, specialises in management diagnostic, management development and e-learning. He has lived in Europe, SE Asia and the USA and has worked for Fortune100 / blue chip companies across the globe.