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What to Assess When You’re Assessing

The use of some type of assessment methodology has been on the increase in the executive selection process over the past several years. While executive assessment is nothing new in Corporate America and tools such as Assessment Centers have been in use for well over 30 years, the proliferation of the use of assessment tools in the selection of external leaders is a relatively new phenomenon. In my experience, assessment tools for external candidates have become fashionable over the past decade and can be tied to the increasing focus that many corporations place on talent management.

Traditionally, and in my opinion incorrectly, corporations have held the recruitment and selection of external leaders as separate and distinct from such company pillars as its culture, leadership development and succession planning process. The attributes by which an external candidate wins a leadership position in a new company are often at odds with the process by which an internal executive would receive a promotion in that same company.

Take the Julie Roehm/Wal-Mart debacle as an example. If Ms. Roehm had been subjected to an assessment process that included a review of how she would fit within the Wal-Mart corporate culture, would the company have hired her in the first place? Not just to Wal-Mart’s benefit either, as Ms. Roehm herself told Fast Company in 2009 for an article titled “Behind the Rebranding Campaign of Wal-Mart’s Scarlet Woman”: “She now ranks cultural fit — geographic and corporate — at the top of her list, adding that her ‘aggressive-aggressive’ personality, as she describes it, doesn’t jibe with the ‘passive-aggressive’ politeness of the South.” A company wastes millions in budget and opportunity and a high-powered executive’s career is derailed because Wal-Mart got overly enamored with Ms. Roehm’s results without stopping to think if the methods to achieve them fit with the company’s culture and values.

Companies more and more are thinking of the talent acquisition process as the first step in an employee life cycle, beginning when a candidate is called about a potential opportunity and ending when that individual leaves the company several years later after a hopefully successful tenure. As such, the evaluation of a potential external executive hire must in some way connect to the way in which that executive will be evaluated, developed and groomed for more senior roles when she or he arrives as an employee. One company that does a great job in this area is ARAMARK Corporation.

Once a final candidate is identified for an executive role, ARAMARK engages the services of RHR International, an international consultancy and executive coaching firm, to meet with that candidate to assess how he or she fits within the ARAMARK culture and decision-making structure. There are a few things, in my opinion, that set this process apart from others I have seen. First, RHR has a deep understanding of ARAMARK, its culture, and the leadership competencies required for success in the organization. Second, the process begins with an RHR interview with the hiring manager, with input from Talent Acquisition and Human Resources, to highlight the specific requirements of the position and areas for RHR to explore with the potential candidate. Third, the results of the RHR assessment are used not so much in the hiring decision as they are in the onboarding process for the new executive; the data is used to help facilitate a productive assimilation of her or him into the company. Lastly, this data is used as the beginnings of the development plan that will guide the executive’s career at ARAMARK. This is a great example of true integration of the hiring process into ARAMARK’s overall talent management processes and has significantly reduced mis-hires at the executive level.

On the other side of the equation, I have seen the misuse of assessments over and over again during my career in executive search. One company, overly enamored with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), would only hire NT’s (iNtuitive-Thinkers) into its executive ranks (being an NT myself, I cannot fault their reasoning). Another company subjected final candidates to a day-long assessment process which I can only describe as part IQ test, part typing test and part therapy session. The tools in and of themselves were not the problem for the companies that used them. The problem was that the last time anyone inside the organizations looked at the results was on the day they decided to hire the executive. The assessment process existed in a vacuum, unconnected to any development plan or business objective by which that executive’s performance would be measured moving forward. These cases are symptomatic of the traditionally transactional nature of the hiring process, even at the executive level. In my opinion, utilizing an assessment methodology in this type of hiring environment is, at best, neutral and often harmful as potentially successful hires are eliminated because of a test that will have no bearing on their success if selected.

As the discipline of talent management matures, it can and should have a positive impact on executive selection; a well-thought-out assessment process will contribute to this success. But, in order to be truly effective, the process must be linked to the leadership attributes that are valued by the culture and by which an executive’s success will be gauged after hire. ARAMARK’s process is a shining example of the potential for an integrated approach. Conversely, a tool that is only used in the hiring process where results are never looked at again is best left in the box it came out of.

2 Responses

  1. Garrick,

    Couldn’t agree more with the caveat that their context should be specific to the company and hopefully part of a broader talent process.

    Thanks for reading.


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