Leadership is crucial to the success of an organisation. Therefore, robust leadership assessment is critical to help identify the best individuals for leadership roles and to support their ongoing development. Selecting and developing top quality leaders helps to drive the organisation forward, improve efficiencies, align effort and energy and engage employees.
Leadership assessment is an objective process used to measure an individual’s (1) talents or strengths and (2) limitations or development opportunities against the requirements for the role. The measurement process can include a single assessment (e.g. personality inventory or 360 degree survey) or a battery of different assessments, and it can be used for a range of purposes including recruitment/selection, development (of performance or potential), restructuring and succession planning.
The process typically begins by identifying the core competencies or characteristics that best predict leadership success within an organisation through a job analysis, competency modelling review, administration of personality questionnaire and/or use of exercises that simulate aspects of the job or role (for example, business analysis presentations or meeting simulations with peers, direct reports or customers). The assessment process is then designed to reflect and measure those particular competencies and/or characteristics most closely associated with success. The insights gained from the review of the leadership role within context helps organisations (as well as their leaders) to understand what it takes to be successful, how to best build bench strength and how to enhance performance – both of the leadership team and the organisation.
Why is it important to assess leaders, and what are the benefits of using leadership assessments?
Selecting the best leader for a role is critical to the success of an organisation. Conversely, making the wrong leadership choices can end up being costly. As a result, conducting an objective and thorough leadership assessment process can help ensure the best people are selected for critical leadership roles, which ultimately leads to enhanced performance, engaged employees and increased profitability (or impact).
A high-quality leadership assessment process can lead to a number of benefits for both the organisation and the individuals taking part in the process. For example, effective leaders help boost morale, drive results, navigate change, engage employees, execute the mission, increase productivity and realise the vision. An effective leadership assessment can help the organisation gain an overview of the type of leadership skills and development areas leaders have, identifying opportunities for further training. From the individual perspective, participating in a leadership assessment can help increase self-awareness which in turn helps to identify key development needs (and perhaps blind spots), guide meaningful behaviour change and enhance performance. In addition, for recruitment, a thorough assessment process provides the individual with valuable insight into the role and the organisation as well as giving them confidence around their ability to succeed in the role.
Importantly, where there are multiple applicants for leadership positions, a robust assessment process provides a consistent and fair approach and also indicates the organisation’s expectations of the leader. Not only does a robust assessment process help predict leadership success, but it also can help to communicate leadership expectations to the individuals being assessed. Especially when the assessment process is being used for development, the participants are given feedback on what is being measured, how they performed and how to develop.
What is the difference between leadership assessment and executive assessment?
Leadership assessment and executive assessment both refer to a process used to measure a person’s fit with a leadership role. Leadership assessment is the broader term and can be used to refer to a wide range of roles from high potential to senior leader. Executive assessment refers only to senior leadership and c-suite roles.
Leadership assessment methods
Leadership can be assessed through the use of a number of different assessment methods, for example interviews, personality questionnaires, situational judgment items, 360-degree surveys and simulation exercises. It is important to first determine which competencies and characteristics you are seeking to measure so that you can ensure you select the best assessment methodology. Once the key leadership competencies, characteristics, and/or behaviours have been identified, then the assessment process can be designed to measure these aspects. Given the complexity of leadership roles, it is generally recommended that a variety of methods or measures be used, both to ensure reliability and coverage. Multiple measures of different kinds also help to increase the objectivity, job relatedness and fairness of the process.
Leadership assessment tools
Typically, a leadership assessment would include a personality inventory and/or 360-degree survey. The assessment may also be expanded to include a work sample exercise or simulation or an interactive discussion (such as an interview). Ideally, the assessments themselves reflect the realities of the job which in turn enhances the candidate experience and provides the candidate with a realistic preview of role requirements and responsibilities. The approach will depend on the overall aim for the assessment – when assessing leaders for selection, the approach will be slightly different from when assessing potential or for development. For example, when assessing for development, the approach needs to involve the leader and enable them to take responsibility for the outcome. Assessment for development may include 360 feedback whereas this is typically not used for selection. When assessing for potential, you are typically trying to predict an individual’s capability against a role that they haven’t yet done so the use of simulations and personality profiles tend to be used to predict performance.
Are there different levels of leadership assessment?
Leadership assessment can be conducted for a whole host of different leadership levels, for example for supervisors, middle managers or the executive level. When designing an assessment process, it is important to ensure that the assessment process is designed appropriately for the level of the leadership role. Ensuring that there is sufficient challenge for those undertaking the assessment process, but also ensuring that it has not been developed at a level beyond the capabilities needed at that level of leadership. Conducting a thorough job analysis when designing the leadership assessment can help to ensure you are measuring the correct aspects for the particular role at the right level of leadership expectations.
What does a good leadership assessment look like?
A good leadership assessment process should provide a well-rounded and objective way of evaluating a leader’s capabilities as well as take into account the investment of time a leader is asked to invest. It is good to strike a balance between a thorough and robust behavioural assessment and ensuring the process is meaningful and engaging for the leaders themselves. There are many different types of leadership assessment methods, and often leadership assessment processes will involve the use of a number of different tools. Some of the most common are:
These are structured interviews with tailored questions to measure leadership competencies. They focus on gathering evidence of particular situations where an individual has demonstrated relevant behaviours.
Situational judgement tests
Situational judgement tests present a series of job-relevant scenarios, each with a list of different possible response options. Individuals are asked to review the scenario and then rate the effectiveness of each response option, given the scenario.
Personality questionnaires are a self-report measure of preferences, motivations and competencies. They present a series of statements about talents, characteristics and behaviours and individuals are asked to indicate the extent to which the statements are descriptive of them. These types of assessments are particularly helpful in increasing self-awareness and providing development insights and guidance needed to boost performance.
Ability tests measure broad-based abilities that have been shown to be predictive of performance in leadership roles such as verbal, numerical and/or abstract reasoning. Ability assessments add rigor and objectivity to the assessment process and provide insight into the ease with which the individual can learn new skills and reason through complex and ambiguous information.
Business simulations – role plays
These are structured interpersonal interactions, typically a meeting with another person (the role player) to achieve a specified objective or agenda. For example, the participant may be asked to assume the role of a supervisor talking to, and coaching, an underperforming employee. Scoring is based on observed behaviours and the effectiveness with which the situation is handled.
Business simulations – presentation exercises
These involve asking the participant to review background information and then summarise findings, insights and/or takeaways in the form of a presentation.
Business simulations – inboxes/in-trays
These require reviewing and working through the contents of an email inbox for a fictional role just assumed. Here the participant is presented with several emails (with and without attachments) of updates, questions, problems and data, varying in terms of importance and complexity that must be prioritised and actioned.
Business simulations – group exercises
These involve interpreting and discussing background information in a group setting (often leaderless) to arrive at a decision.
Business simulations – analysis exercises
These involve analysing and interpreting data then reporting back in writing. Specifically, the participant is asked to analyse both verbal and numerical information relevant to a work situation/challenge and then produce a report with their conclusions and recommendations.
Leadership 360 surveys
These are online feedback questionnaires, also known as multi-rater assessments, where ratings from others – typically peers, direct reports and managers – are gathered to evaluate the leader’s effectiveness against critical competencies and is then compared to their own self-rating. Often, the raters are also asked to provide written feedback as well to support and explain their ratings.
360 leadership surveys rely upon others in the organisation having worked with and observed the individual to be assessed, therefore this method is best used to support development and not suitable for recruitment where external candidates may be applying for the role.
Can leadership assessments be run virtually?
Yes, by utilising technology it is possible to conduct leadership assessments virtually. Many personality questionnaires can be completed online, and interviews can be conducted remotely via virtual meeting platforms. There are also assessment platforms which enable leaders to complete a range of simulation exercises, such as role-play exercises and business analysis exercises, virtually rather than in person.
Conducting assessments remotely can be very useful for global firms because a range of candidates/leaders can be assessed at the same time regardless of their location. It also replicates a very real-world experience for those that are required to work virtually and provides the opportunity to bring people together from different cultures and backgrounds.
What happens after a leadership assessment?
What happens after a leadership assessment varies depending on the purpose of a leadership assessment. For example, if the assessment has been conducted for selection purposes, then the best candidate may be appointed to the role. If the assessment is conducted as part of a potential assessment, then successful individuals may then be invited to join a high potential leadership programme. Finally, if the assessment has been administered to support development, then each participant may be enrolled in a leadership development programme and/or assigned to work with a coach. In all instances it is best practice to provide the participants in a leadership assessment process with feedback following the assessment. This allows them to reflect on the process, identify their strengths and development areas, and consider how they can use the information to further grow as leaders for the future.
In most cases a written leadership assessment report is created following the assessment process. This provides a summary of the individual’s performance on the assessment, helping the organisation make leadership decisions as well as helping the individual reflect on their strengths and development areas as a leader.
Top tips to run a successful leadership assessment
Ensure the leadership behaviours are defined before designing the assessment process so that they can accurately be measured.
Prepare in advance and ensure that both the participating leaders and those conducting the leadership assessment are clear on the process.
Provide training for all those involved in the process, so they understand their roles and how to evaluate performance and/or resulting scores.
Make sure the purpose of why you are running the assessment is clear to all involved.
Ensure there is clear communication for all stakeholders in the leadership assessment process.
Use a multi-method approach (e.g. interview and a simulation exercise) to ensure that the complex leadership behaviours being measured are assessed reliably and to best predict performance.
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