Features 16.01.2017Frustrated By Your Recruitment Results? Become Great At Assessment.

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Want to get better at recruitment? Become great at assessment.

You know what it’s like.

The candidate arrives and you rush to print out her CV. If you’re lucky, you’ve managed to look at it already, but chances are you’re only reviewing it for the first time. You quickly skim, jot down a few questions and then greet her. You sit down, pour coffee, exchange a few pleasantries and get down to business. You summarise the role, highlight how critical it is to the growth of the business, and answer her questions. You walk through her CV, question motivations, drill down into her experience, ask about achievements and targets, and learn the reasons for her departure. You discover where she feels she meets the brief, gauge level of interest, and wrap things up. She seems sensible, credible and smart, and you decide she should go forward.

The next stage looks a lot like the first stage. Similar conversations with other members of the team and a presentation from her at the end. Everyone agrees she’s very good. References are taken (positive, of course). An offer is extended, she accepts and the job is done. Great result.

Fast-forward 2-years.

Growth hasn’t materialised as you expected. Product releases are behind schedule and cash is running low. Investors are reluctant to invest further until more progress is made. She’s frustrated by lack of budget and not engaging with the team. You start to wonder whether she’s got the drive to keep going.

This is not where you wanted to be. Where did it go wrong? Her CV was excellent, she referenced well and you put her through a formal interview process. Why isn’t she delivering? Why didn’t this work?


Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Sadly, this narrative describes far too many ‘successful’ executive recruitment exercises. I say ‘successful’ because the position was filled, and at the time of the appointment, it was believed she would succeed. Yet she didn’t. Could things have been done differently? Could this have been avoided?

In a word, yes.  She could have been properly assessed, for starters.

“But she was assessed!” I hear you say. “She went through multiple rounds of discussions, where multiple people met her (smart people too), reviewed her background, talked through business plans. She met the team, presented to the board – if that wasn’t an assessment process, what was it?”

That was a ‘sense-check’ – or rather, a series of ‘sense-checks’ – with an experienced, articulate executive who talked about herself and the companies for which she’s worked. She sounded the part, looked the part and referenced out well.

What didn’t happen was an exploration of what she would actually do. How would she perform her role? How would she get on with the team? How would she work under pressure? How would she handle financial challenges?

“But she was asked how she would handle these things and she provided good answers.”

Asking someone how they’ll approach a challenge taps into a person’s view of themselves. If they have a high self-regard, they’ll give you a confident answer. If they have a lower opinion of themselves, they’ll give you a less confident answer. What you don’t have is any data on how they’ll actually perform the task. And that’s the point of a good assessment programme – to find out how they’ll perform.

Let’s take an example – the X-factor. Imagine if Simon Cowell et al, made his judgments based on interviewing contestants about how well they sing without actually listening to them sing. Let’s take sport. Can you imagine if football managers made decisions about which players to purchase by only interviewing them, instead of watching them play? It’s laughable. And yet that’s exactly what happens in business.

So what are the alternatives? Here are some suggestions to get you started:

  1. Plan – before anything happens, we need to know what we’re looking for and we need to know how we’re going to test for it. I want to stress the second part of this. WE NEED TO KNOW HOW WE ARE GOING TO TEST FOR IT. How will you test whether someone’s a good sales manager? A good CEO? A good Engineering VP? If you don’t have the answers to these questions, you’re not ready to assess anyone.
  2. Get real – once you’re ready to move forward, get candidates to perform. Want to test how someone will be able to manage the sales or technical teams? Have them host a sales or technology review session. Get them to evaluate sales pipeline or technology progress. Get them to lead the preparation for a pitch, or on solving a technical problem. Get the team to question them. See how both candidate and team respond. Have them review project plans, technical specifications, marketing programmes, sales reports, quality assurance, project management, balance sheets, etc. Candidates, regardless of their sophistication, find it difficult to ‘bluff’ in real life situations. As a result, insight from these sessions will tell you more than a CV or conversation can. It will tell you how well they listened; how effectively they led; how clearly they communicated; how quickly they thought on their feet. These sessions showcase performance, which is exactly the point.
  3. Get creative – senior executives are sophisticated so don’t make it too easy for them. Mix things up. For example, say you want to test how a candidate handles life in a start-up, test them on it. Startups are characterised by change. So plan an agenda for the day, but change it up at the last minute. Alter some of the tasks. How do they handle it? Do they get flustered and frustrated, or do they go with it and rise to the challenge? You can do this whilst still coming across as professional. Here’s another one – give them 45 minutes in the middle of an assessment programme & tell them there’s been a change in the schedule, and they can now do whatever they like. It’s free time. If they want to go and speak with a team, or an executive, they can. If they want to sit quietly on their own and do emails, or go for a walk, they can do that too. See how they use their time. It will tell you a lot. Examples like these test for multiple qualities and are a rich source of insight.
  4. Psych Test – as part of an overall assessment strategy, cognitive and psychometric testing are valuable tools. Whilst not perfect determinants of performance, they provide a ‘peek inside’, assessing quality of intellect, problem solving ability, self-view, preferences and ‘shadow’ personality traits.
  5. Tech Tests – for technical or analytical roles, technical tests are almost essential and often used as an early-stage filter in the process.  For executive recruitment they’re less relevant, although there are clients that put senior candidates through technical examinations. Good at understanding working styles, analytical ability, intellectual horsepower and work rate.
  6. Get outside – work doesn’t happen just in the office, and neither should assessments. Get candidates out of the office for social events, like dinner, after-work team drinks, or company activities. These provides valuable perspectives. Information gleaned from such activities is just as useful.

‘Sense-checks’ and referencing do have a place. They provide additional perspectives and help build trust. But their role should be minor with the emphasis on ‘performance’.

In summary, the best assessment approaches are multi-dimensional. They don’t just focus on conversations and hypothetical situations. They focus on action and performance. If you want to have better results with your recruitment, get your assessment programmes more action-oriented.