The Executive Assessment

Last week I was rudely introduced to a new level of data driven executive atrocity. A very thorough set of new age psychometric tests followed by a four hour – yes four hour – face to face interview with an ex lawyer. My fault entirely that the scale of the horror hit all at once. I had missed the email to the Exec team informing us of this great opportunity to lead the way in a new, in depth, transformational set of assessment criteria that we were lucky enough to pilot before we roll out to the organisation. Effectively a giant placard wafted gently in our communal face with big bold red letters that spelled out – ARE YOU ON THE BUS? In truth it’s a bus I’ve been wrestling with the steering of recently, as I’m getting more and more instinctive indications that it’s accelerating full pelt towards the edge of a very tall cliff. Not that instincts are meant to play much of a role any more in an increasingly data driven world, as I’m sure the results of the assessment will confirm. So for me at least, this assessment was a potentially tricky hurdle to overcome if I were to maintain my aim of remaining truthful and honest, and yet stay in a role I still fundamentally enjoy.

Assessments have been conducted in many forms over the years of my career. The most effective I’ve ever come across was the simple form. Simple is something that gets talked about a lot in Executive circles, yet it very rarely actually manages to rear its head in reality. I guess the truth is that if things were made simple, what would the top brass of organisations be able to prevaricate over? This form was simple. Two pages. List what you’ve done in the last year. What are you aiming for next in your career. What is your behavioural development plan to help achieve it. Key highlights from your CV. Timescale. Managers brief supporting (or not) comments. And then the one question that was added one year. Are you willing to move internationally? If so, tick this box. For some reason one year I ticked that box and next thing I knew I was despatched to South Korea, and my life of continent hopping Executive fun and frolics began in earnest. That simple form with its even simpler tick box, changed my life.

Other assessments over the years have been less life changing. A scarily high percentage just pay lip service to the whole assessment process. Either not completed at all or overly complex and wordy paperwork tucked away in the drawer of the managers desk, or, worse still, hidden in the bowels of the HR departments filing system, and sadly this tends to be the norm in big corporates. Never seen again, never actioned, but a tick on someone’s objective list achieved. I’ve learnt a lot from these, mainly about how not to do things.

A good assessment is undoubtedly about the conversation – and it needs to be an ongoing conversation not a one off – with some actionable next steps that can hold both parties to account. It also needs to be jointly owned by the two people that matter most. Subject and boss. Simple as. HR departments in most cases overstep the mark and confuse here. Whilst it’s useful to ensure there is some process and formality to the assessment, this is secondary, and needs to be even more so, as we move forward into a fully data driven world, where process has suddenly become a dirty word. If we are not very careful Big Data will be making all the talent calls in a stark person-less future. In my experience the big breaks and major moves have always been brought about by simple conversations at key and often fortutous moments, as much as by assessments. In fact I’ve had some pretty frank feedback via these types of conversations, both good and bad. The good involved the offering of exciting new roles and promotions in far flung lands. The one bad conversation that sticks in my mind involved a now fallen and thoroughly discredited if not disgraced ex CEO (allegedly now fixing boats in a Spanish port), who breezed past me at an airport and informed me that I told too many jokes and needed to cut it out. I didn’t. By twist of fate the joke is now very much on him.

So back to my current dilemma. A four hour interview with an external party that I’d never met before, who was clearly very smart, well trained and there to sniff out any wobbles. I was determined to keep my integrity but tell him reletavily little. Problem was I really liked him. So I opened up more than planned. Naivety or honesty? It’s a blurry line I’ve struggled with before, and this time was no different but with arguably higher stakes. We shall see.

Post script…The results are in. And unsurprisingly the data ruled that some of my profile highlighted inconsistencies. However, upon sitting down again face to face with said smart ex lawyer, it was explained to me that this was a top top level executive pool and that although my score in 4 out of 5 areas was 1, (the fifth category interestingly was people, where I scored a 3,) this was actually still an excellent result given the quality of the pool. When I asked what was below a 1, sadly no real answer was forthcoming. What of it? Well, I guess I could hope for a resurgence in the recognition of the importance of people skills, but in reality, if there’s anything to this AI lark, what self respecting bot with half a brain is going to allow that to happen?

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