Under the Microscope: Assessments Get Real

In most cases, a firm’s normal performance management process can be used as a baseline, but predictive measures such as personality tests occupy a larger piece of the assessment pie.

Joy Hazucha, senior vice president of leadership research and analytics at PDI Ninth House, an assessment company, said many companies use 360-degree assessments to evaluate what prospective midlevel managers are doing in their current position and if they exemplify the skills and competencies necessary to move on.

The lure of the 360, she said, is that it uses a holistic evaluation — interviews with candidates, their direct reports, peers and bosses — to paint a proven picture of performance, which is a reliable indicator of future behavior.

Spirits manufacturer Beam Inc. leans heavily on 360 assessments for midlevel managers. Sue Gannon, the company’s vice president of talent, culture and organizational development, said Beam has developed a set of leadership competencies for the midlevel that are tied to employee performance goals. The 360 is then used to determine if the individual’s performance matched those performance goals. This process best exemplifies a track record for midlevel management competencies, she said.

Still, an increasing chorus of practitioners says predictive measures, particularly scenario-based simulations, are most effective in measuring midlevel manager competencies. SHL’s Ungemah said targeted role-plays, where an individual is presented with a situation and forced to make decisions, have proven effective in determining midlevel manager competency in some client companies.

While Ungemah said many such scenario-based assessments are online, sometimes the in-person interaction of a face-to-face simulation makes the experience more authentic, “because the assessor can act with you and go with the flow of the conversation, which is just not possible with a computer.”

Personality assessments are also gaining traction. Because so much of what makes a midlevel manager successful is based on soft skills and personality — their ability to influence, network and motivate up and down — experts say it makes sense to cut through straight to an individual’s personality.

“We use personality instruments to determine a person’s motivations and interests and behavioral tendencies,” said Jana Fallon, vice president of recruiting and assessment at Prudential Financial Inc. “We also use cognitive measures to determine their problem-solving ability, their ability to make complex conclusions based on data and their ability to learn new information.”

Hogan’s Chamorro-Premuzic said the assessment company has personality instruments designed to measure an individual’s “bright” and “dark” characteristics. The bright side assessment measures positive management personality traits such as confidence and prudence, while the dark side assessment measures characteristics that sway into the extreme, such as overconfidence or arrogance, and can be potential derailers.

Chamorro-Premuzic said the advantage in personality assessments comes down to stability and sustainability of the results. When evaluating or developing a middle manager, “you don’t want to know what they’re going to be doing over the next three, four months. You want to have an idea of how they’re going to be behaving over the next three, four years.”

Despite being effective, some organizations refrain from using formal assessment tools to measure midlevel managers. One reason is cost. “It’s not practical for us to take a group of 15,000 executives or more and put them through formal assessments,” said Sherry Hollock, senior vice president for talent and organizational development at department store chain Macy’s Inc. “It just isn’t sustainable.” Instead, the company focuses formal assessments on the executive-level ranks.

Others think focusing too much on personality inhibits the ability to create a diversified midlevel management pool. “The GE stance on personality is that it’s not so much the individual’s stance on personality as it is the collection of personality styles within a team,” Biocca said.

She said she favors the DISC personality assessment because it doesn’t standardize manager personality traits. “They come from the premise that if you have too much of any one thing, it’s bad for the organization.”

Evaluation vs. Development