What’s the Secret to a Successful Executive Assessment Program?

April 25, 2024
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We just returned from the 2024 Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) Annual Conference, where we presented “Unlocking the Secret to Successful Executive Assessment Programs” with panelists Jill Coln; vice president of talent management, development, and culture for Discover Financial Services; and Caleb Morfit, PhD, senior director of global assessment strategy for The Coca-Cola Company. RHR International’s head of assessment Dan Russell, MSc, CPsych, AFBPsS, PCC, also participated. RHR partner and Scaled Consulting team leader Jimmy Davis, PhD, facilitated the discussion.

Although most industrial/organizational psychologists grasp the fundamentals of assessment, few are equipped to lead an enterprise executive assessment program. Our panelists shared the “secret to assessment”—how experienced talent leaders steer through the complexities of executive assessment to successfully fuel succession plans and nurture development initiatives crucial for business expansion and resilience. Reading these excerpts from the event is almost as good as having been there!


Jimmy: How has assessment become part of your succession plans?

Caleb: At Coca-Cola, approximately 1,500 core leaders who occupy the upper echelons of our organizational structure have undergone executive assessment in partnership with RHR. Initially, it was introduced to a select group of 10 to 15 senior individuals and piqued interest due to its innovative insights. Over time, its adoption grew organically to eventually become an integral part of our hiring process. We have found that RHR’s assessments provide a wealth of data that offers invaluable insights into leadership qualities, facilitates informed decision-making, and enhances organizational efficiency.

Jill: When Discover embarked on this journey two years ago, we realized we had never conducted a comprehensive evaluation of our senior leadership team. Thus, we initiated the program with our senior vice presidents and senior executives to gain an objective understanding of their strengths and areas for development. As we progressed, we extended the program downward through our senior vice president population. Reflecting on our experience, we’ve recognized the importance of robust change-management practices, especially when introducing such initiatives to established teams. It’s crucial to address concerns about intelligence and reassure participants that the process focuses on holistic leadership capabilities rather than intellect alone.


Jimmy: At RHR, we emphasize the importance of transparency to ensure participant comfort with data usage. How do you handle it?

Caleb: We offer up-front clarity on access—specifying it’s only a select few individuals, including HR personnel and members of the executive leadership team, who handle the data.

Jill: We conduct orientation sessions to detail data usage and access, which includes the chief executive officer, chief human resources officer, head of talent, HR partners, and participants’ immediate supervisors.


Jimmy: How is the data being used to make other decisions?

Jill: We aimed to identify broad leadership strengths and gaps within these groups. One operational process involved executive quarterly talent reviews, where we mapped out the senior vice president population and discussed their development. This assessment data served as another factor in decision-making regarding whether individuals were in suitable roles or better suited elsewhere. For vice presidents, it provided a developmental opportunity for them and served as an additional data point in succession planning.

Caleb: It’s crucial to guide people to not make decisions based solely on the numbers. We delve into what the nine Readiness for ScaleSM dimension scores represent and view them as part of broader considerations. I’ve experienced organizations lacking access to such assessment data, but we utilize it extensively: for succession planning, development planning, determining future investments in development responses, identifying areas of enterprise leadership gaps, and analyzing career progression. We assess how swiftly individuals progress through the organization and consider rotational opportunities across different areas. Regional talent leaders often request specific insights for their areas, which enables comparisons with other regions worldwide. It’s an investment that yields valuable insights.

Jill: Following a significant change in the executive team, we welcomed many new individuals into roles. We were better able to orient those leaders to their new team members based on information generated from this process. We used this information to facilitate their understanding of the teams they joined and helped foster deeper connections, faster.

Dan: Taking a diversity lens, during a recent discussion with a business unit outside North America comprising 20 leaders—15 local talent and 10 expatriates—they aimed for 75% local leadership. We provided them with a breakdown of their current leadership that identified strengths and development opportunities for both expatriates and locals. We analyzed personality differences and suggested investments to accelerate progress toward their localization goal.


Jimmy: What assessment trends interest and/or concern you?

Dan: It’s crucial we continue to advance our approach to diversity and fairness in assessments. We need to always be looking out for less adverse alternatives to the problem-solving tools we employ. In addition, we train our assessors to ensure they are well-versed in both implicit and explicit biases so they conduct interviews as fairly as possible. We must remain vigilant of any biases that could seep into various stages of the assessment process, from deep-dive interviews to 360 evaluations and even data integration and report writing.

Jill: AI is an area. Imagine if we had a sophisticated language model that could transcribe and draft reports based on interview responses.

Caleb: AI versus insight is a consideration. We invest significant time and effort in interviews and report writing, but the true value lies in the insights we derive. If AI could streamline report generation, allowing us to focus more on analyzing and discussing insights, that would be invaluable.


Audience question: How have you broadened adoption across functions?

Jill: We’ve improved communication about the assessment process by providing more detailed explanations to participants about what to expect. Additionally, we’ve dedicated more time to personally guide individuals through the process. For instance, when briefing a new senior vice president, I outline the process, expected time commitment, and potential outcomes. Moreover, we’ve arranged sessions where senior leaders share their own experiences and plans with those who have undergone the assessment.

Dan: It’s typically a collective realization of a pressing need. The risk of not having the right talent for key leadership positions, such as general managers transitioning to country leaders or identifying potential business unit presidents, poses significant threats to organizations’ sustainability. This concern is felt at the board level, which drives the urgency for action. In most cases, such initiatives start from the top, with leadership making the initial investment. Experiencing the benefits firsthand encourages leaders to extend these opportunities to their teams—recognizing the value of informed decision-making in talent selection and development.


Audience question: What are your thoughts on conducting executive assessments internally?

Jill: My concern is internal assessors might be perceived as biased—potentially influencing people’s opinions based on interactions with them.

Caleb: I struggle with being both the assessor and the one navigating the process. It’s simpler to refer to an external group with consistent processes. Dealing with frustration over the system and scores is easier when it’s managed by an external entity.


Audience question: Although assessment data is crucial, leaders can sometimes overly rely on it. How do you mitigate this risk?

Caleb: There are instances where leaders overly emphasize the data and expect perfect scores. However, we encourage them to view it as one of many data points, especially if there are consistent low scores in specific areas.

Dan: We adopt a coaching approach with hiring managers by helping them think through what aspects of leadership are most important in this particular role at this point in the company’s journey. Instead of a binary, yes/no decision, we focus on understanding what areas need more or less attention. Unless there are major red flags, we adopt a more collaborative problem-solving approach.


Audience question: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Jill: Mastering change management by understanding the dynamics of the assessed groups.

Caleb: Conducting data analyses on individuals we invest in and observing clear differences.

Dan: Establishing a foundation of solid science, coupled with providing individuals and organizations with high-impact, relevant insights that help them make pragmatic hiring, promotion, and development decisions.

To begin a conversation about your executive assessment program, reach out to RHR’s Robert Abramo at rabramo@rhrinternational.com.

Dan Russell has more than 20 years of hands-on experience as a business consultant. He is exceptionally adept at identifying clients’ most pressing needs and creating value-enhancing, data-backed programs to help solve them.