If you’ve ever watched The Apprentice you’ll know the format: “candidates” complete a series of work simulations to establish the most suitable for a new job or business partnership. It might make good entertainment but, as a selection process, it has rarely been successful.
The problem is that the assessment process has not changed. The tasks and selection criteria have pretty much remained the same during the 12 years’ tenure of the show. It’s often quoted that insanity comes from doing something over and over and expecting different results.
The assessment centre has been a staple part of recruitment in local government for more than 20 years. Many of the job adverts in this publication will have the date of an assessment centre indicated in the application details.
But does the assessment centre still add value to chief and senior officer recruitment?
The assessment centre, using ratings against a competency framework has long been held as the most reliable method of predicting job success. It is widely used for senior appointments, but its effectiveness is declining. Research by Thornton and Gibbons, for example, suggests the validity (the most important measure of quality) of assessment centres has reduced significantly.
In January 2017 a seminar at the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology concluded that organisations that use assessment centre ratings on competencies to make selection, promotion or development decisions will likely make unnecessary errors. Furthermore, candidates who are not appointed, or promoted, based wholly or partly upon competency scores are being treated unfairly.
In addition to these warnings about the use of assessment centres and competency ratings, observations from delivery over the years also indicates problems with the process.
The mix of group exercises, role plays, analysis or in-tray exercises and competency based interviews, all supported by psychometrics is tried and tested. But many applicants for key leadership appointments will have been through the process several times in their career. Candidates know what to expect and they know how to “behave” in the exercises. This is not always consistent with subsequent behaviour observed in Committee or in SMT meetings.
So, group discussions can become extended role plays as people elect to “scribe” or “direct” or “engage” others in ways they might not at work; role plays and competency interviews may become scripted dialogues, with well-rehearsed responses to the brief and questions.
Candidates with limited practical experience have online access to a huge number of “tips” on how to answer interview questions and how to handle assessment exercises (although not all of it is valuable, of course).
The difference between practised performance and real, observable, behaviour is getting more blurred and can be hard to differentiate.
Our own research shows a growing frustration with the process. The most common complaint is that the exercises bear little relation to the role in question – candidates don’t like contrived simulations. There is a suspicion among some that the drive for consistency and objectivity makes the assessment process a box ticking exercise. The competency frameworks, often used as a rating mechanism, don’t help. Some question whether the process is appropriate at all now, that some candidates are appointed because of their ability to “play the game” while others are overlooked.
Perhaps these are some of the reasons that assessment centres are less effective in picking winners than they once were?
Even putting these all these reservations aside, the job demands of local government leaders have changed dramatically in recent years. Every organisation faces its own, unique, challenges and so each Chief Executive, Corporate Director or Head of will need different skills and qualities. Using the same selection and assessment methodology is unlikely to identify the best fit.
Do we want to hire the best people or those who are the best prepared for the interview and assessment centre? More importantly, has the traditional selection process delivered a marked improvement in leadership capability and credibility?
Is there a future for the assessment centre?
There is still a place for the assessment centre. But, just as the requirement of leaders has changed, the process must move with it.
Current and relevant assessment methods include in depth 1-1 discussions and dynamic tasks which use real evidence of a candidate’s style and approach. Questionnaires exist that are based on local government leadership scenarios which increase relevance and face validity for candidates. There is much to be said for focusing on a small number of job critical dimensions rather than attempting to assess a full range of standard competencies.
This approach provides much more meaningful information about what candidates have done and how they might do the job in hand. In our volatile, complex and ambiguous world, we need more certainty about the capability of leaders and managers than ever.
Of course, this takes more time to prepare. Every role in each organisation is unique and the typical competency framework does not always reflect those individual challenges. But the results make it worthwhile. Modern “assessments” should be less artificial, more relevant to the role and provide more meaningful information to the appointments panel. Whether used in recruitment, reorganisation or in development, they should also offer a better experience to each candidate, regardless of the outcome for them.
It’s widely viewed that the assessment centre was originally used for officer selection by the German army in the 1930s. Now in its 80s, it is clearly creaking a bit and in need of some attention. But with the right adjustments, there’s plenty of life in it yet and it can continue to help organisations make informed decisions.
This article was originally published in the Municipal Journal, March 2017.