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The Evolution of Assessment and Development Centres in the COVID Era

21 Oct

The Evolution of Assessment and Development Centres in the COVID Era

I recently had the privilege to invite Mary Kramer, a Senior Client Partner in the SpenglerFox Leadership Advisory team, to talk about how (and if) Development and Assessment Centers have evolved over the past few years, and its role in the assessment and development of leadership teams in future. Mary is an expert in this field. During her career, Mary has managed more than 900 recruitment projects for middle and top management positions for a broad spectrum of national and international clients. She has also managed numerous Leadership Assessment and Development projects as well as Career Transition Programs. Mary shares her time between the US and Greece from where she serves our global client base.

Mary, as a veteran in the industry, walk me through the evolution of the concept of Assessment & Development Centres and particularly how this fits into the SpenglerFox arsenal of human capital solutions for corporate clients.

Assessment centres have actually been around for nearly a century. They were first initiated by the military in order to identify  “officer” potential among new recruits, while the first private sector use was back in the 1950’s at AT&T. The company conducted a landmark 25-year study that followed the careers of managers as they progressed higher in the organization ranks. The study showed that the method could successfully predict a person’s success in a particular role. Over the years, assessment centres have become widely used for supporting recruitment decisions as well as identifying high potential talent within organizations. As a Leadership Advisory firm that focuses on both identifying, developing, and growing leadership talent, SpenglerFox offers this methodology to our clients when needed during our Executive Search projects, and we also create and facilitate Development Centres for our clients’ internal talent.

Have you seen any particular changes in the type of tools used in an assessment centres over the years?

The concept is to have each participant undertake a variety of exercises that simulate real life business situations. These can by individual exercises, such as a case study where the participant must analyse a business or department and come up with recommendations to solve a problem or improve performance. The participant is usually asked to present their analysis and findings in order to evaluate not only the analytical and strategic skills of the participant, but also their ability to clearly communicate and convince others. Role play is another common exercise where the participant will need to interact with a colleague or a customer and effectively address a challenging situation such as a performance issue. This type of exercise highlights interpersonal skills and how the participant can effectively balance the focus between engaging people and delivering results.

Finally, assessment centres may often include a group exercise, where 5-6 participants must work together to solve various business issues.  This exercise is used to see the participant’s ability to collaborate within a team.

Until recently, assessment centres typically took place on-site in the client’s or our offices. In some larger assessment centres, a venue such as a hotel was used in order to facilitate the need for several rooms where the various exercises take place and also rooms where participants could prepare for their exercises.

And then the pandemic arrived, and with it the advent of the Virtual Assessment Centre. How did you, your clients and their candidates adapt to this paradigm shift?

Indeed, as many things in the pandemic, there was an abrupt need to move assessment centres from in-person to online. I remember in February 2020 we were preparing for a big assessment centre that was to take place in Paris in April 2020. Our client was planning to fly in candidates from all over Europe to participate in the Centre, hoping to land a coveted place in their Fast-Track Management Program. Over the next few weeks, together with our client, we realized that we would either need to delay the whole program without knowing for how long, or bravely move forward by transferring everything online for the first time within very tight deadlines.

The results were luckily better than either we or our client had anticipated. We did of course have to adjust some exercises to reflect the fact that they we were not conducting them in person, However, overall, everything went smoothly, and the candidates also gave very good feedback on the process. I would say the only downside from the candidate experience was that traditionally we would all go for dinner after the assessment centre which was an opportunity to meet each other and the client in a more informal way.

Do Virtual Assessment Centres (”VAC”) have a role to play in future?

The answer is simple – definitely. Since April 2020 and that first virtual assessment centre, SpenglerFox has conducted VACs for numerous other clients. When we discuss the intentions and practicalities of assessment centres in the post- Covid era, we all agree that a hybrid approach is optimal, i.e., choosing between on-site and virtual formats, depending on factors such as the location of the participants and the objectives of the particular assessment centre.

On the job market as a whole, we have seen a profound transformation in the skills requirements and role profiles of many hitherto traditional jobs, as companies adjust to a new normal and a very different future of doing business. What are the competencies that clients are looking for now that they did not look for in the past, and how did SpenglerFox adapt to this abrupt change?

My observations regarding pre versus post pandemic requirements, is that mainly the trends that had already started to become apparent before COVID, became amplified and urgent. In addition to the obvious area of being digital savvy, skills demonstrating agility and innovative thinking are on the top of the list currently.  To deal with this, SpenglerFox have incorporated newly designed exercises that especially focus on these competencies in the assessment and development centres we conducted over the last year with our clients.

What do participants want to get out of the Assessment and Development centre, and how can companies ensure that they not only get what they are looking for, but also give to participants a positive experience?

Thank you for asking that question, as participant experience is important and something that SpenglerFox pays special attention to, and we encourage our clients to do that as well. Whether participants are external candidates or employees, it is vital that they feel that the overall experience is positive, and they are getting something useful from it for their personal development.

The many driver behind achieving this, is ensuring each participant receives timely feedback that is delivered in a constructive manner. Additionally, if a participant is an employee, they would appreciate some tangible next steps on how they can leverage their strengths, and work on their development areas. Finally, we suggest to our clients that adding some “fun” elements during the centre can lighten up the atmosphere and ensure everyone can relax a bit and enjoy the day. 

In summary, I can say from professional experience, that yes, assessment and development centres have evolved, and that these will continue in a hybrid form, with VACs now recognized as a legitimate tool, not just as a necessity to protect the health of employees as the world continues to battle the COVID virus, but also the absolute need to develop talent working remotely. Additionally, there is no doubt in my mind that leadership development is now more important than ever before as businesses expect their leaders to face the unknown and having to learn new skills to adapt to the rapidly changing business landscape.

(end of interview)

To find out more about our Leadership Advisory services, please visit our website or get in touch with us.

Jacques de Jager

Head of PR & Corporate Communications


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