Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
December 1, 2016

How to Get the Most From Executive Assessments

Few decisions are more important for an organization than hiring a senior executive. The right leader has the power to energize the entire enterprise. The wrong choice can quickly erode a reputation it took decades to build. While a number of factors can contribute to an executive failure, the executive assessment should serve as a reliable safeguard. However, the problem with traditional assessment approaches is that they evaluate leaders based on their existing skills and experiences, not whether they can stretch beyond their current capabilities to grow into a new role.

My colleagues and I have observed and studied leadership in various contexts and have developed a perspective on how to choose senior executives who will be able to make a lasting impact on the business.

So how do the most effective assessments drive at more predictive insights?

They focus on the most critical leadership capabilities. Thousands of tools exist to assess leaders on all sorts of dimensions from IQ to professional competencies. An effective assessment scores leaders on a core set of leadership capabilities — for example, driving results and strategic thinking — against an objective scale so individuals can be compared to one another and to the requirements of the role. One executive had outstanding results when it came to leading change at the company he had “grown up” in, but lacked the collaboration skills necessary to rapidly build the relationships needed to do the same at a new organization.

They consider the context. How can the same person facing similar demands perform successfully in one situation and fail in another? Simply put: Context matters. Performance largely hinges upon how well the executive's capabilities, leadership style and expertise align with the specific nature of the role and situation. A high-performing senior HR leader from a leading multinational industrial and technology organization shifted to a role with a financial services company, which lacked the same robust infrastructure, expecting him to build it. Unable to do so, this leader leaned heavily on a more junior direct report to complete the bulk of the work, resulting in the direct report’s burnout and departure.

They evaluate future potential with an eye on development. A leader’s existing knowledge and relationships can only go so far when navigating new challenges or moving higher in the organization. That’s why an assessment should also examine an individual’s ability to develop new capabilities and adapt to changing conditions and priorities. This also is where a leader’s learning intelligence comes into play. Learning intelligence is not just the ability to absorb new information, it’s the ability to look critically at one’s own thinking, be open to and actively pursue new and contrasting perspectives, and change one’s own stance in response. With so many tools relying on self-reporting or focusing exclusively on results, learning intelligence can be extremely difficult to assess without a comprehensive methodology.

They embrace multiple methods. Research has shown that one assessment method is never enough. To provide a fuller and more accurate picture of an executive’s potential and abilities, assessments should combine experience-based interviews, interpersonal-style questionnaires, live-case-based demonstrations, 360-degree referencing and/or surveys.

A holistic approach to assessment

Based on our vast research and experience, we have developed a framework for thinking about what leadership does for an organization and what type of person is needed to lead in certain contexts. Our model looks at:

  • The organizational context: the near-term and long-term demands and constraints from the team, organization and business environment to which a leader must respond
  • Character and interpersonal style: the kind of person he or she is, his or her emotional drives, values and leadership style, which are vital when considering alignment with the organizational culture
  • Current and potential capability: the knowledge, skills and deeper characteristics that make up the overall competence of a leader relative to a role
  • Leadership outcomes: the various outcomes expected of a leader based on the intersection of the person’s character and capability in context

The importance of who conducts the assessment should not be underestimated. Executives at this level are highly accomplished. As a group, they score high on general intelligence tests, speak compellingly about their capabilities and tend to be strong influencers. This combination makes for capable leaders, but also makes comprehensive, accurate assessment an extremely difficult task. Therefore, it’s critical that assessments be administered by assessment experts who truly understand the nuances of what makes leaders exceptional and how they would perform given the specific demands of the role, industry and market. 

While it may seem obvious, it’s important to note that different assessments serve different needs. When making a “triage” decision, it isn’t necessary to dig as far into someone’s developmental potential, whereas the reverse is true for talent management benchmarking. For example, an M&A assessment or search would be more focused on selection and near-term performance, whereas a succession plan or talent benchmark would be more focused on development and long-term potential. An assessment can place greater emphasis on one aspect over another, or be conducted by a different assessor depending on the specific situation.

Ultimately, what makes an assessment so powerful is that it provides insight about the whole person, not just individual attributes. When the stakes are at their highest, seeing the full picture is essential.