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Caroline Gourlay

Caroline Gourlay Consulting

Business Psychologist

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Were psychometric tests to blame for the appointment of Co-op Chairman Paul Flowers?

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Last autumn, you may recall, the former Chairman of the Co-operative Bank, Reverend Paul Flowers, was revealed to be neither as financially literate nor as clean-living as a senior role in an ethical bank might demand. As the “Crystal Methodist” and “Cocaine and rent boys” headlines piled up, questions were asked about how he was appointed in the first place. I speculated at the time that the selectors had probably not involved a psychologist, who might have identified a tendency towards extreme risk taking. Well, as it turns out, I was probably wrong. Last weekend, following evidence to the Treasury Select Committee, the business pages were full of stories blaming Flowers’ appointment on the use of psychometric tests. “Bank chief passed the test then failed in his job” was a fairly typical headline, which made depressing reading for a psychologist.

So could psychometrics really be to blame for one of the country’s most high profile, misjudged appointments? Well on the scant evidence available, it’s difficult to say. One of his deputy chairmen, Rodney Baker-Bates, said “I was told afterwards he did very well on the psychometric tests.” The other, David Davies, said “I have to say the psychometric testing did surprise me. Paul was a clear winner.” Now the only psychometrics on which you can “do very well” or “be a clear winner” are aptitude tests and it’s possible that this is what the Co-op used. Indeed the BBC ran the story under the headline “Paul Flowers ‘good at Co-op aptitude test’”.

Most of the papers, however, immediately assumed they meant personality testing and wrote fairly damning articles, based on the idea that the Co-op had put candidates through a personality test and chosen the one who ‘scored best’, whatever that might mean. Tom Whipple in The Times, conceded that the Co-op “would not confirm which test or tests had been used” but made the bold assertion that “MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) is likely to have been one of them”. Apparently ENTJ (‘the executive’) is the best profile to have. This is despite the fact that the use of MBTI in selection is specifically prohibited.

The faintly mocking tone of these articles – along with the scathing ‘below the line’ comments in some on-line editions – have an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ feel to them, as though the recruiters had been hoodwinked by snake-oil salesman into using some new-fangled, pseudo-scientific method of assessment instead of finding out important stuff, such as whether the candidate can do the job. The implication is that personality testing has as much use in recruitment as astrology. But is this fair?

All forms of assessment – interviews, psychometrics, testing technical abilities, presentations, reference checking – are about building up a picture of a candidate. If all the Co-op used was a personality test (or indeed an aptitude test of some sort) then they would be getting a very small part of the jigsaw indeed – not necessarily an inaccurate one, but not much use on its own. If they relied on this, then, of course, they are very foolish.  If, in addition, they used the MBTI in their search for an ENTJ (which personally I doubt, having never met anyone who used it for selection in 17 years working as a psychologist) then let me add to the condemnation being heaped upon them. Personality assessment does not and cannot answer the question ‘Can the candidate do the job?’ It is there to go some way towards answering a different question – ‘How would this candidate do the job?’ – a question which is surely important.

Much has been made of the fact that Rev Flowers had little banking experience and was not questioned on his understanding of banking at his interview. The recent press coverage has implied that the ‘right personality’ was seen as more important than banking expertise, as though it was a choice of one or the other. What seems to be constantly overlooked is that his role was that of non-executive Chairman. There was a CEO in place to actually run the bank. Two deputy chairmen, with extensive banking experience, were appointed to support Flowers, precisely because it was recognised that he did not have much banking experience. They were not blinded by his dazzling personality profile until the scales fell from their eyes and they realised that the emperor was wearing no qualifications. This was a well-thought through decision. In hindsight, it may have been the wrong decision, but the Co-op apparently wanted him for his leadership skills (according to one of his deputies) and/or his political skills (according to the BBC’s Robert Peston).

In any selection situation there are two fundamental questions to answer:

  • What combination of experience, qualifications, knowledge, skills, personal attributes, reputation in the industry, network contacts, etc, etc does someone need in order to succeed in this role?
  • How do we assess candidates to ensure they have these?

In the Co-op’s case they seem to have misjudged the first question, placing too much emphasis on political and leadership skills and not enough on banking experience. It was a complex role as part of a team; it wouldn’t have been straightforward to predict what would lead to success. It is very easy in hindsight to scoff at people who appoint someone with no banking experience to chair a bank but non-execs are sometimes appointed for other qualities and experience outside the sector.

They could have given more thought to reputation and personal conduct. Perhaps they assumed there would be no problems in this area, as apparently they did no reference checking at all.

As far as the assessment side is concerned, all we know is that there was an interview and some psychometrics. We don’t know how well-trained the interviewers were or how clear they were about what they were looking for. We don’t know which psychometrics they used or what they did with them. Were they used to inform an in-depth exploration of the candidate’s leadership style, working relationships, resilience, self-discipline and so on? Or did they, as some of the papers seem to imply, just review a set of scores and say ‘he fits the profile we’re looking for’ (something surely no one would recommend)?

It would seem that the Co-op misunderstood what it needed, emphasised the wrong skills and experience and may not have been clear about what it was assessing for and how. Let’s not scapegoat psychometrics as the simple cause of a complex flawed appointment process.

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Caroline Gourlay

Business Psychologist

Read more from Caroline Gourlay
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