My Day in the Hot Seat

Managing Editor Kristen B. Frasch gives simulated executive assessment a shot . . . and lives to tell about it. The purpose of such assessments is to get the most complete look possible at how someone works, with both customized and standard assessment centers available.

Saturday, June 16, 2007
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Let me start by making this perfectly clear: I majored in English literature, not business. I'm an editor, not a corporate executive. So when I offered myself up for a six-hour evaluation at Development Dimensions International Inc.'s Bridgeville, Pa. headquarters (near Pittsburgh) to gain some perspective on a total-immersion assessment-center experience, I had even more reason to panic than the "real" subjects there that day.

There were six such candidates, in addition to myself, when I arrived at 8 a.m. -- each one tucked away in one of the 12 "mock" offices fully equipped with desks, computers, phones, fax machines . . . and, oh yes, video cameras for capturing our best, and worst, moments.

Walking toward my "office for the day" through halls tastefully punctuated with paintings, sculptures, even a food-and-coffee bar (real snacks for the taking, should you dare to grant yourself a break), I felt I was already being immersed in as professional and corporate a setting as possible -- without its really being that, of course.

By the time I reached my door, unpacked my briefcase and belongings, and readied myself for instructions from Jean Denuzzio, the executive coach and team leader in charge of the assessment exercise, I was already breaking into a cold sweat.

Granted, in the weeks leading up to my trip, I had pored over my "role" (my name would be Kelly Myers) and the mock company I would be joining that day -- my first on the job -- as vice president of commercial operations for a robotics manufacturer, GS Robotics Inc., a division of Global Solutions Inc., in the year 2025.

The material was impressively thorough -- reams of financials, company histories, hierarchy charts, product descriptions, global breakdowns -- enough serious business concerns and details to make a former English major and longtime journalist yearn for some other approach to this story than a firsthand account.

Curiosity got the best of me, though, and I decided not to chicken out. I was as interested in witnessing the simulation assessment-center concept -- a method dating back to the U.S. Army's War Office Selection Boards and post-World War II Office of Strategic Services, and later initially put to corporate use by AT&T -- as I was in seeing how a non-business-schooled candidate might pull this off.

As unreal as the company and its products were by today's standards, its challenges and problems were very real. Clearly, I thought, some keen business heads went to great lengths to put together the kind of company background, organizational design, financial pressures and concerns, and even petty politics and scenarios that could test any would-be executive with exceptional MBA-graduate-level capabilities.

Revenue goals were not being met and some divisions were becoming obsolete, while not enough creativity and innovation was being applied to new-product design, overseas opportunities and companywide commitment to shared goals.

Once I was set up, the e-mails started coming, one on top of the other. I had fires to put out. Long-time division chiefs were waging turf wars and I'd be getting a phone call in precisely 15 minutes (Say what?!) to consult one bearer of ruffled feathers -- the longtime managing director of a European company we had acquired a year before.

Cig Chevalier, my boss let me know in an e-mail, "continues to ignore the commercial possibilities and is reluctant to share technology" and the expertise of his people with our internationally expanding corporation. I had some comforting to do: I was to assure him his company's name, Robotiques Astral Chevalier Limitee (RAC), and reputation would stay intact.

I had some cajoling to do: I had to think of a way we could tap into his company's talent without depleting his ranks and productivity. And I had some tough managing to do: He needed to hear from me that being an active, collaborative part of our company was not an option anymore. We expected his cooperation.

With the clock ticking and my mouth drying, I tried combing through the company chart to make sure I had the divisions and players straight.

But wait! Other e-mails were appearing in my bin. I'd be getting a visitor in 45 minutes (Oh boy!), a disgruntled divisional director in my unit by the name of Marty Kane, whose manufacturing arm -- under his leadership -- needed some stern pointers on how to adhere to the newly aligned corporate structure.

Seems Marty was hardly inspiring support for the new corporate sales and marketing efforts that went into effect about six months ago, and, as a result, the reputation of Commercial Robotics -- my baby -- was suffering.

There were other problems I had to digest, some PR nightmares surrounding malfunctions and mixed signals in certain robots -- including the "English-speaking" domestic model sold to a wealthy Frenchman. According to various news reports, the robot mistook the English word "shoe" for the French "chou," which means cabbage. The customer had ordered cabbage for dinner. The robot cooked and served up his shoes.

The name "GS Robotics" was all over a snide but humorous account in a French daily newspaper. (These guys at DDI thought of everything.) What was dawning on me through the course of my information onslaught was the clear and pressing need for better synergy between technical and marketing teams throughout the company, and the potential this had to boost sagging margins. How I would translate and oversee this was another matter.

Long story short, I got through my meetings and phone calls, and even schmoozed my way through presenting a business plan to my "boss," Terry Turner, at the end of the day -- something I, personally, had never written in my life until then.

I basically summoned up all the research, organizational, intuitive and persuasive skills in my arsenal to get through it. Granted, I was in over my head in terms of viable bottom-line solutions an executive might drum up to solve some very real and pressing business challenges.

But, according to my boss, who patiently sat through my defense, I had some sound ideas on ways we might improve communication and cooperation between divisions, and between our U.S. and overseas sites. (Or maybe he was just being kind.)

When he left, I put down my notes and pen and uttered the only remaining word in my brain: "Wow." Being brand new to this experience, which would be hard to translate to the world of journalism anyway, I came away knowing they just saw everything -- my strengths, weaknesses, knowledge, temperament and threshold for multitasking under pressure.

I also knew that, had I been vying for a top-level executive post or promotion, I would have just been through about as complete an appraisal as there could be.

The business knowledge and improvisational skills of the role-players also left me humbled and fairly speechless. They were so locked into their characters, I wasn't about to budge from mine. There was absolutely nothing relaxed about any of it.

Behind the Scenes

A lot goes into what I had just experienced, and what about 2,650 executive candidates experience each year in any of DDI's 75 offices in 26 countries throughout the world, says Chairman and CEO William C. Byham.

Key to the DDI process, and its strongest differentiator, he says, is the "data integration" factor. For every person put through this type of grilling, three different assessors are listening to different parts of his or her performance and making his or her own qualitative and quantitative evaluations.

"Then the assessors get together and 'sell their evaluations,' " which include scores from one to five on a whole string of competencies as well as general arguments for or against certain strengths, says Byham. The group then interprets those competencies in terms of the business' goals and the job, or promotion, the person is vying for. Real candidates get psychological tests as well, to further confirm, or deny, their fit -- something I was spared.

All assessment firms -- experts tell me there are a few dozen worldwide, including the smaller, regional sites -- put their own spin on the approach. Minneapolis-based Personnel Decisions International, the only other assessment firm on the global scale of DDI, uses what Vice President and General Manager R.J. Heckman calls the "anchored-rating-scale" approach -- even longer lists of calibrated standards each individual is scored against by one assessor.

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Assessment experts have their takes on this immersion process too, and where it's headed. John Boudreau, professor of management and organization at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, considers it, "from a psychological-measurement perspective, [successful in meeting] more of the standards of good research design than more informal methods of executive assessment."

But the future still probably holds some necessary adjustments, he says. "Due to the need to span many different industries and economic strategies, such approaches are often somewhat generic, and may or may not get at the vital specific factors that will really lead to competitive advantage through better leadership.

"A standard set of competencies across many organizations (including competitors)," he says, "can create a better-quality outcome for all, but may not create the specific strategic outcome that might have a high payoff for any one organization."

Indeed, the jury's still out on how prevalent this kind of assessment will be in the future, according to Peter Cappelli, George W. Taylor professor of management at the Wharton School in Philadelphia and director of Wharton's Center for Human Resources.

"The research on assessment centers as predictive devices is a little mixed in terms of predicting future job performance," Cappelli says. "It suggests that assessment-center information doesn't add a lot beyond what we could already know about current performance in roles -- although some employers have such lousy assessments of their employees that they essentially know little about them.

"An alternative, which can be, in the right circumstances, cheaper than assessment centers, is to give people the opportunity to try out actual roles or tasks in a context where the downside risk is low," he says. "Nothing beats current performance as a predictor of future performance, and nothing is more realistic -- for the individual as well -- as actually trying out a position."

Nevertheless, he adds, "I think individuals can always learn from these assessment-center approaches about themselves."

Looking to the future, both DDI and PDI are already getting very good at custom-fitting assessment exercises to correlate more closely with the business needs and goals of their client companies.

Like many other assessment firms, they're also expanding their post-assessment training and coaching services as well.

"What we're very interested in now is whether people take action with this," says Byham. "Assessment centers excel because people take action to improve themselves when they feel they've been allowed to perform [and be seen] at their top level. You accept the process when you feel you've been seen."

Both Byham and Heckman see companies in the future holding more assessments designed to help them evaluate overall leadership strength and alignment with newly enhanced goals as opposed to the more simplified process of selecting the best-qualified job candidates vying for particular posts.

As Heckman puts it, "a lot of CEOs call us and say, 'We need to really understand how strong our senior executives are,' " as leaders of a whole new corporate initiative or direction, let's say. There might not even be promotions or jobs at stake in a growing number of client requests that come through assessment-companies' doors.

Nevertheless, the purpose will always be to get the most complete look possible at how someone works, the process through which decisions are made and communications are sent, the basic knowledge base, the preparation time allotted for each new challenge and a person's ability to juggle ever-shifting priorities during a typical white-knuckle corporate day.

Leaving DDI, I saw a few candidates still sweating it out in their "offices," taking fateful knocks or phone calls from pretend sources of pretend problems they'd have to solve in very real ways. I could almost feel the heat rising up their backs as I turned mine, happy to have survived my schooling into just how revealing today's executive assessment can be.

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