Assessment Centers

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Assessment centers are back as a tool for potential assessment in succession

management.21 Of course, an assessment center is a process and should not

be confused with a place. The idea is simple enough: create a realistic simulation

of the work performed by those at targeted levels—for example, top man-

agement work—and then run individuals through the process to determine

how well they perform in a higher-level (or targeted) position.

Assessment centers went out of fashion for a time owing to the hard work

and expense involved in setting them up. After all, they must be based on the

actual work performed (rather than subjective impressions) or the competencies

linked to successful performance. The individual’s progress in the assessment

center is rated by trained assessors who must judge the performance of

the individuals. There is still concern in some circles about the time and cost

involved in establishing and maintaining assessment centers and concern

about the possibility of not being able to defend against discrimination complaints.

An alternative is to send individuals through outsourced assessment

centers, established by universities or by consulting companies. Unfortunately,

the latter approach means that individuals may be rated against some other

organization’s competency models, which could be a formula for misidentifying

the abilities of individuals.

Ten classic errors have been identified in the use of assessment centers,

and organizations that set out to use them should do their best to avoid these22:

1. Poor Planning

2. Inadequate Job Analysis

3. Weakly Defined Dimensions

4. Poor Exercises

5. No Pretest Evaluations

6. Unqualified Assessors

7. Inadequate Assessor Training

8. Inadequate Candidate Preparation

9. Sloppy Behavior Documentation and Scoring

10. Misuse of Results

Of course, the value of this approach is that it is thus possible to see individuals

in action before they are promoted. That is a significant advantage. Assessment

centers also do a good job of identifying actual behaviors—that is, observable

actions—that are far more valid and reliable than notoriously weak job interviews.

Work Portfolios

How does an employer assess an individual’s relative readiness for a higherlevel

job? One way is to focus on behaviors, which are essentially observable

demonstrations. Competencies can be manifested as behaviors. And, of course,

full-circle, multirater (that is, 360-degree) assessment is one way to measure

behaviors because raters are usually asked how often or how well they have

seen an individual demonstrate behaviors linked to competencies.

Of course, an alternative to measuring behaviors is to focus on the outputs

or outcomes of competencies. For instance, if examining the typing behavior

of a secretary, a rater can focus on what he or she does while typing. But

since that may be pointless, another way to measure the demonstration of

competencies is through work samples. A work sample is literally an example

of the work output. For a secretary, a work sample may be a typed letter or

report. The rater can judge the quality of what the secretary produces.

How does measuring outputs or outcomes relate to succession planning

and management? The answer to that question should be apparent. If, for

example, a supervisor being groomed for the job of manager would be expected

to produce budgets as part of the manager’s job, then he or she could

prepare a budget and present it as an example of his or her work. If the supervisor

does not do budgeting in his or her present job, then that can become

the focus of developmental activities on a competency like ‘‘budgeting skill.’’

Carrying out that skill may be essential to qualify for promotion to manager,

for instance.

A work portfolio, sometimes called a dossier, began in the art world. Artists

must convince gallery owners to show their work. Since gallery space and

time are limited, gallery owners want to know what quality of work the artist

produces. To address that concern, artists compile examples of their best

works—such as watercolors, charcoal drawings, oil paintings, or photos of

sculptures—to show the gallery owner. These are assembled in a portfolio that

the artist can carry with him or her. The gallery owner then judges the quality

of the work—presumably the best work that the artist has done—and decides

whether the artist’s talents warrant an art show.

The same idea can be applied to rating individuals’ abilities. They can be

asked to assemble a portfolio that represents their best work—or, alternatively,

represents the best work that they could prepare to show what they could do

in a job they do not yet hold. For instance, a management consultant who is

interviewing for an entry-level job might present examples of marketing materials

he or she has prepared, proposals written, deliverables produced, and

letters of testimony from satisfied clients. Similarly, a supervisor who is interviewing

to become a department manager could provide examples of work

outputs that are linked to essential requirements of the department manager’s


To create a work portfolio, start with the competency model or with a job

description and ask: what are the outcomes, tangible or intangible, of that

competency or work activity? The portfolio can then be prepared with the

resume at the front, a targeted job description or competency model, and then

work samples representing the supervisor’s efforts to demonstrate the real

work performed by department managers. Work portfolios may then be compared

for quality and the person whose work portfolio is best may be invited

to participate in additional steps of the selection process.

The value of work portfolios is that they go to work results. It is not a

matter of impressing interviewers alone, though participating in interviews

may still be essential to be selected. But work portfolios have the advantage of

focusing attention on desired results. Of course, a disadvantage is that raters

may not assess the same work in the same ways without training and/or agreedupon

guidelines for rating that work. Additionally, job applicants must understand

clearly what they are being asked to provide by way of work samples. If

they are not, then what can happen may not be good. For example, ‘‘when

Optum, Inc., a White Plains, N.Y., software company, asked applicants to submit

work samples, ‘we got in personal poetry and song lyrics,’ says Kelly Vizzini,

director of corporate marketing.’’23 One time when I asked for a writing

sample from a job applicant, he used a dolly to wheel in eleven large three-ring

binders full of material he had written. Unfortunately, when that happened, I

was away from my desk, and he left before I could return. When I did return,

I was amazed to see an enormous stack of material sitting on my desk, which

I had no room to store.

But the approach can also work well. Another time I conducted some supervisory

training for a large organization. The Operations Manager wanted

her thirty-five supervisors to take paper-and-pencil examinations. I dissuaded

her of that and, instead, convinced her to have each supervisor assemble a

notebook—a work portfolio—of his or her best work. That way, the Operations

Manager could see for herself what level of work they performed, and

that prompted much discussion as she reviewed what they regarded as good

work samples. She was then able to use those work samples as a focal point

for developing the supervisory group—and assess individuals for their potential

for future advancement.