A test of leadership

Can
corporations really pick out their next MD with an electronic test? While the
idea finds favour with many, Jane Bird discovered that others are cautious when
it comes to relying on a Utopian tool to select a likely leader

Can
a psychometric test be used to spot an embryonic Bill Gates or Margaret Thatcher,
or are the qualities of leadership too diverse to predict? One school of
thought says leadership is just another competence with its own set of key
indicators, the other that great leaders are each great in their own way, and
that trying to pin them down to a measurable set of skills is difficult and
fraught with hazards. The idea of an automated test has obvious appeal to
boardrooms, headhunters and HR professionals seeking the next generation of
leaders. With talent in short supply, businesses need to move quickly to snap
up the best candidates and such a tool could prove invaluable.

One
enthusiastic exponent is US-based Wonderlic, a specialist in automated tests,
which argues that leaders exhibit key qualities. "Leaders are factually
oriented rather than people-oriented," says the company’s president,
Charlie Wonderlic. "They focus on the balance sheet and profitability.
Although they know the need to achieve goals through people, they don’t listen
to sob stories."

Assertiveness
and emotional energy are the other key characteristics of leadership, Wonderlic
believes. "Leaders tend to be assertive, requesting or demanding that
things be done. They also tend to be very emotionally intense and energetic,
wanting to get things done fairly quickly rather than taking an even-paced
approach."

Wonderlic
produces a Comprehensive Personality Profile questionnaire which aims to spot
these qualities with 88 questions to which applicants must answer true or
false. They include statements such as "I like to work in energetic bursts
as opposed to consistent, methodical efforts" or "Most people would
describe me as intense and highly motivated."

The
test is computerised and can be marked automatically on a PC. It is used by
some 40,000 companies worldwide on three million people a year. It is mostly
used lower down the organisation rather than in the boardroom, where
interviewers tend already to have a good knowledge of candidates.
"Although even in that case, leadership requires a very high IQ, which is
hard to assess accurately without means of a test," adds Wonderlic.
"You might as well use software for this as it only costs a few pounds and
gives you a far greater degree of accuracy."

A
similar view is taken by London-based SHL, a major player in the psychometric testing
market. SHL believes that software can be effectively used in the
"diagnostic" stage to spot a candidate’s strengths and limitations
with regard to leadership. "Traditionally, lots of organisations missed
the first phase and sent people on leadership courses regardless of whether
they had the skills and how effective they were," says Roger Austin, SHL’s
commercial director. "Some people might not need it, some might not be
trainable."

SHL’s
approach is to try to remove all subjectivity from the debate by using a
structured, psychometric questionnaire. It is aimed at identifying five
different leadership styles. The directive leader maintains responsibility for
planning and control, and issues instructions in line with his own perception
of priorities. The delegative leader has minimal personal involvement and
believes in delegation. Participative leaders favour consensus decision making,
consultative leaders pay genuine attention to subordinates and negotiative
leaders make "deals" with subordinates.

One
organisation currently using software to spot leadership qualities is KPMG. The
firm receives applications from more than 8,000 graduates a year, from which it
aims to select 650 exceptionally talented people. Leadership is one of the
skills required, so in September 2000, the company began using an automated
tool to help eliminate non-starters. Keith Dugdale, KPMG’s UK director of
graduate recruitment, is confident it works.

KPMG
worked with Cubiks, part of the PA Group, to develop a bespoke self-profiling
questionnaire that takes 20 minutes to complete and matches candidates against
nine competencies, including leadership. The software saves a huge amount of
time by rejecting 60% of candidates. The remaining applicants are then
evaluated using conventional interviews, group exercises and other
software-based tests.

"The
initial software test gives you an idea of some of strengths, but you do have
to explore in more detail," says Dugdale. "Candidates need to give
examples of where they’ve been in a leadership situation and demonstrated their
abilities, met problems and overcome them. They have to describe how they would
behave differently based on what they’ve learnt."

Dugdale
believes that software to perform this sort of task cannot be bought off the shelf
but needs to be developed specifically for individual organisations according
to the specific qualities required. However, even this approach is too crude
for appointing at the highest levels according to some headhunters.
"Leadership for any organisation is unique," says James Gray,
managing director of the Spencer Stuart Talent Network, the online arm of the
high-level executive search firm. "It’s difficult to define what
leadership is. All leaders are successful in a different way, so what are you testing?"

If
you were assessing six different people for the same role, they would each have
demonstrated their suitability in different ways, says Gray. "There would
be key principles that you would assess them all against, but you wouldn’t
expect the right candidates all to give the same answer." He points out
that Larry Ellison, Bill Gates and Michael Dell are very different
personalities. "Each is hugely successful, but none of them could lead
each other’s businesses," says Gray. "Having a standard, stereotyped
idea of what makes a leader is a very dangerous proposition."

One
area of leadership that can be measured is its effect on an organisation’s
performance. This is why someone who has done a great job for one company will
often be able to use the achievement to find a new position. The problem is
that it is hard to know how people might apply themselves to different
circumstances. Also, the CEO may take the credit for work done actually done by
others.

Stephanie
Twigg, a headhunter who began life in software development, is also sceptical
of the effectiveness of using this method to spot leaders. "Someone might
have an excellent CV and an outstanding psychological profile, but I’ve filled
many a job with people who don’t fit the classic mould," Twigg says.
"The fact that they were ideal for the jobs only emerged as a consequence
of meeting and talking to them."

But
even the headhunters acknowledge that software can have a role at the earliest
stages, particularly given the speed at which it can be deployed. Companies
such as Wonderlic, SHL and Cubiks distribute their questionnaires worldwide via
the Internet and offer a rapid response.

Companies
deploying this software need to beware of other pitfalls, such as cultural
sensitivities in different parts of the world. Feedback in the US, for example,
can be more direct than in Japan, where a subtler approach might be needed.
Language can be another barrier – most questionnaires are in English, but even
so there is room for misunderstanding. SHL found that almost half a sample
group did not understand "makes brave decisions". The phrase had to
be changed to "makes bold decisions".

Another
issue is the honesty of the person filling in the questionnaire. Designers have
built-in mechanisms to try and spot the liars. Wonderlic gets applicants to
tick "true" or "false" twice, once for "ideal"
and once for "real". In fact, applicants are remarkably honest, says
KPMG’s Dugdale. "You might expect students to give themselves high scores
across the board, but they do use the spectrum reasonably well."

There
is no doubt many more companies are keen to start using the technology. One
such is US-based Test.com, which provides a wide range of aptitude tests and
assessments via the Internet. "We are negotiating licensing agreements
with test developers working on just this kind of leadership tool," a
spokesman says. "We’ve seen the validation studies and it does work –
computerised tests really can spot leadership skills at every level of
management."

But
software is never going to be a complete answer. In the end, human judgement is
essential. Gray speaks for most when he says: "We’d never advocate
software as the sole criterion for leadership. You can’t replace a human
being’s ability to assess."

Testing
tips


Aim for software that has been customised for your business or marketplace
rather than using an off-the-shelf package.


Ensure questions and feedback responses are adapted to different countries and
cultures to avoid misunderstandings or causing offence.


Expect to use the Internet as a fast, efficient way of gathering questionnaire
data and distributing results.


Recognise that software surveys are only a guide and are most useful as a basis
for face-to-face interviews and for planning an individual’s development.


Remember that people who don’t fit pre-set profiles may nevertheless be ideal
for the job.

Case
study: Sony BPE

Sony
Broadcast and Professional Europe has around 2,000 people in 23 countries
across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In partnership with SHL, the company
has developed software to profile candidates against 19 competencies, several
of which relate to leadership.

The
aim has been to produce a "360-degree" tool that looks at individuals
from the perspective of themselves, their bosses and their subordinates.

"We
needed a software tool to assist us because of our requirement for a common
framework across so many territories," says Carol-Ann Spencer, senior
manager for training, at Sony BPE. "We were trying to get some sort of
common language."

The
SHL approach is to use the diagnostic information from the survey to agree a
forward plan of action with the candidate. It has certainly proved effective,
Spencer says, and it is now available in six languages.

"We
can get quite a good snapshot of where a person is in terms of their leadership
skills, whether they are going to be a good general manager or senior manager
in the organisation, and what we need to work on."

However,
she stresses she would only use the software as a guideline for future
activities, and not in isolation. "It is more use as a development tool
than for full assessment. It tells us which areas need to be strengthened so
that we can work out what to do next."

Further
information


Cubiks Ltd
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7333 6161
www.cubiks.com


SHL Ltd
Tel: +44 (0) 20 8335 8000
www.shlgroup.com


Wonderlic Inc
Tel: +1 800 323 3742
www.wonderlic.com


Test.com
Tel: + 1 216 694 5744
www.test.com

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