Executive Assessment—More Than a Risk Mitigation Tool

August 27, 2019
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Executive assessment is a commonplace tool used by organizations to make informed decisions on hiring critical talent. There are many variations out there, but most established human capital consulting firms use a multimethod approach. That is, they use psychometric testing to gain insights on problem-solving capabilities and leadership style combined with a biographical interview and experience benchmarking if needed. This data provides insight on fit to role and should also identify developmental gaps and areas of focus for effective onboarding.

Organizations spend a lot of money mitigating the risk of hiring the wrong executive. However, our sense is that not all get the full value inherent in a strong executive assessment. The reality of fast-moving business life is that once a hiring manager or head of HR sees a positive-sounding report, they accelerate to make an offer, and shortly thereafter, a new executive joins and optimism generally abounds. But what happens to the nuanced insights and information embedded in that executive assessment? Too often reports gather dust because they are viewed as risk-mitigation tools rather than integration and developmental roadmaps or data inputs to begin building a coherent picture of organizational talent. So, what do best-in-class companies do with their executive assessments?

The starting point: Getting clear on the 30%

We all know that certain leadership traits are generically relevant across all industry contexts, functions, and verticals. For example, all strong leaders understand their weaknesses and how to compensate for them through others. We generally assume about 70% of effective leadership traits and behaviors are generalizable. The additional 30% is more specific to the cultural context of the organization and the lift required in the role (e.g., leading a transformation or turnaround). An effective executive assessment must factor in a leader’s fit to the cultural landscape in addition to the leader’s fluency in delivering the kind of impact needed (generally associated with previous track record, experience, and scope of roles). We also need to understand the plasticity of the leader—i.e., their degree of leadership agility and ability to shift and change to overcome new challenges. Best practice is taking the time (before an executive assessment takes place) to get clear on the 30%—the critical ingredients to success that are nuanced to a particular organizational context and culture. Without this, assessments risk being boilerplate and not addressing the most critical questions needed to understand fit.

Getting to the most critical information

I hear that busy hiring managers and HR professionals don’t have the time to read through a full executive assessment report these days and prefer a pithy summary. I fully appreciate the phenomenon of “my eyes glaze over,” or MEGO. The onus is on your assessment provider to ensure the most critical bullets are underlined and served up early . . . no argument. However, a verbal feedback to thread the needle and bring nuanced data to light is so important to getting the most from an executive assessment. The written word struggles to always paint a clear picture, connect multiple dots, and bring a person fully to life. Yet, many organizations are happy to just move on when they have their hands on a report, and a verbal feedback slips into the nice-to-have category. In my mind, a feedback to the hiring manager and head of HR is more critical than a static report. It is a chance to ask clarifying questions and, more importantly, to talk through implications for onboarding and leadership development. Ideally, it’s a planning meeting focused on setting up a new executive for success versus a data dump.

Playing insights forward

Building on the idea of an assessment debrief as a planning session, I have seen that organizations that leverage companies like RHR most effectively want to talk through myriad “what ifs” and want to get at potential leadership challenges before they become realities. They are turning assessment insights into robust onboarding plans that identify a game plan for well-known barriers to successful executive integration: role clarity, relationship building and stakeholder management, navigating the culture, accelerating learning, and identifying early wins. They are inquiring into ways to accelerate performance, whether that be via an executive-coaching relationship or exposure to a part of the business that the executive needs but doesn’t currently have. Savvy hiring managers and HR professionals know that there are no perfect candidates out there. The key is to recognize leadership gaps and bridge them thoughtfully and quickly versus hoping they’ll fix themselves.

Integrating assessment data into talent systems

Every executive assessment provides an array of data insights with the individual as the unit of analysis. However, if leaders are assessed against a common set of criteria, a holistic view of talent strengths and gaps at the cohort level begins to build. Focusing training and development on shared leadership gaps, e.g., effective team development or change management, can help an organization pinpoint and accelerate talent capabilities in line with business strategy. In addition, building a database of leaders who have been assessed enables the organization to get much clearer on its talent pipeline and bench for succession-planning purposes. Each new executive assessment provides data to gauge upticks in leadership health and capability at different organizational levels and can help pinpoint assessment criteria for future hires. For example, recognizing that a critical group of general managers are great operational tacticians but are underdeveloped as strategy developers should weigh future hiring criteria and focus the leadership-development agenda.

Great companies leverage executive assessment as a tool beyond risk mitigation. They leverage the myriad data insights each assessment unit provides to focus leadership development, accelerate performance, and track the health and depth of your succession bench.

Steven Gilbert has more than two decades of experience delivering and leading executive assessment, coaching, team development, and organizational-change initiatives across a broad swath of industries.