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James Beevers

Talent Q

Head of Consultancy

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Why assess your next CEO?


The chief executive is arguably your company’s most important hire. The person appointed is tasked with setting vision and strategy, building and maintaining teams, taking big decisions and ensuring they’re delivered on.

They’re required to energise the organisation by setting the right tone of behaviour, maintain focus when all around may be losing theirs and persuade people to put aside individual goals in exchange for ‘the greater good’. To succeed, they have to be skilled leaders and politicians. They must be clever, innovative, hardworking and resilient to the effects of stress and pressure. They also need to show exemplary media skills and strike a balance between being authoritative and yet approachable. While doing all this, they’ll be continually monitored and judged by a multitude of stakeholders. It’s certainly tough at the top, and doing it well is emotionally draining.

You would imagine therefore that any organisation seeking to appoint a new leader would spend a lot of time understanding their candidates, in order to build a complete picture of their leadership style. You might also think they’d spend time referencing and ensuring the individual’s track record is truthful and accurate. Yet, it seems that organisations are more likely to use assessment when hiring graduates than a CEO, and that pre-hire ‘due-diligence’ is at best patchy when selecting their new leader, which is often the case as it’s typically made up of multiple fragments of evidence obtained from external references.

As an occupational psychologist and believer in the power of personality to influence behaviour, leadership quality and business outcomes, I’m also a keen advocate of using a high quality assessment process for any senior hire, not just the CEO. Nobody can ever claim to de-risk the selection process entirely, but in-depth assessment can help an organisation understand more about who they’ll get, how they’ll behave and the impact they’ll have if they join. This would usually involve a day with a skilled assessor, plus the time required to analyse, make judgements and report back. Is that too much to ask for such an important hire? Not doing it is like not getting a “home buyers survey” done before you buy a new home.

There are several reasons for the apparent reticence in taking CEOs and senior hire candidates through some kind of assessment process. They’re mostly to do with perception, and the way the talent assessment industry has positioned itself.

The problem of perception

Unfortunately, an assessment process is often synonymous with ‘test’ in the eyes of candidates, and organisations rightly question the value of a few ability tests when recruiting for a role of this magnitude. 

For others, assessment means ‘assessment centre’ and the world of role-plays and group exercises. And whilst it seems we can still ask graduates to play a role in an imaginary scenario, for senior hires it’s not considered appropriate. 

The final piece of the perception jigsaw is that it is incorrectly linked with the world’s most famous psychologist, Sigmund Freud. All that talk of lying on a couch, psychoanalysis and a fixation with neuroses and sex doesn’t seem to have a place in the boardroom, where rationality is king (or father, if you prefer!). It’s no wonder then, that assessment, psychology and psychologists haven’t fully earned the right to help businesses make key decisions.

So why is it important to redress these perceptions, and why should assessment have its place in senior hiring?

The role of assessment

When selecting a new CEO, you can’t just ask a candidate to complete a couple of tests and favour the one who ‘aced’ them. We all have many more nuances than scores on a test can reveal, but the fact is that for higher stakes appointments, you get a better return by investing more time in building up an understanding of the candidate. This means experts spending time with the individuals conducting in-depth interviews, all supported by data from appropriate psychometrics. But the key word here is ‘supported’.

The challenge for assessment practitioners is to position themselves as trusted advisers, as good consultants who happen to use psychology as their vehicle. There’s no place here for bland assessment responses such as “This candidate may come across as cold at times”. So what? What does this mean for that person, the team or the organisation in its current state and in light of the challenges it faces and what’s gone before? Good assessment practitioners will leave the jargon at the door and talk to people about the business, the implications and the impact. 

It could be argued that senior people shouldn’t need to go through this kind of analysis. However, people become very senior for many reasons, and not always because they’re the most ethical, skilled or selfless people around. Because they’ve done it before, or worse, because they seem so ‘leader-like’ is the most dangerous reason to circumvent an assessment process. If we’re seduced by the charisma, the charm and the apparently impressive results, then we’re starting the worrying process of not challenging behaviour or decisions, and conferring some kind of divine status on the new leader, which can sometimes be abused and even set the grounds for subsequent derailment.    

So, whilst there may be many arguments against assessment having a part to play in the appointment of CEOs and other senior hires, these can and should be challenged. Let the application of personality psychology play a role in de-risking your most important selection decisions, and use assessment as part of a wider, more rigorous selection process for your next leaders. 

Author Profile Picture
James Beevers

Head of Consultancy

Read more from James Beevers

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