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Executive Assessment – A Cautionary Tale

Artist credit: Victoria Cowan

A CEO of a large, successful company decided that he wanted to start working on leadership development. As a first step in the process he asked all of his senior executives – approximately 30 people in total – to complete one of the more popular assessment tools – one of the many that categorize people’s behavioral patterns into various colors. He participated himself, and when the assessor debriefed him and explained that he was a “purple” he became quite excited and, after reading what purples were like, he decided that purple was the leadership template for the company. At the next meeting of the senior leadership team, nametags were printed in the color of each executive’s assessment result. The CEO stood at the front of the room, pointed to his purple nametag, and proclaimed the virtues of purple people, concluding that real leaders were purple. The fallout was immediate and destructive. Conversations such as “oranges can run an accounting department, but only a purple can run a business unit” became common on the executive floor, and new applicants for leadership roles would not make it to the second round of interviews if they “failed” the assessment.

You just can’t make this stuff up, and I assure you that this is a real story about a real company (and no, I wasn’t involved in the assessment process). As a result of this and other experiences, I describe myself as a healthy skeptic when it comes to assessment, even though I am certified in one tool – Birkman – and I utilize various assessment exercises in my work. My caution to anyone working on either side of a behavioral assessment is to understand their limitations and destructive potential. In my practice I do not suggest that every coaching client complete an assessment, as I have found that most senior leaders have a high level of self-awareness, and it is often more useful to talk through the subtle nuances of behavior. Using the broad strokes of an assessment tool in these situations can feel banal and even insulting.

Having said this, there are times when I have seen behavioral assessments used effectively with an executive team. A team that really believes that there is no single “right” answer to how leaders behave, and that really values a diversity of styles around the table, can benefit enormously from a team assessment that maps out their collective strengths and blind spots. I have worked with teams that used this insight to change the structure of how and what they bring to their meetings and how they make decisions. As an example, a team that I’ve worked with decided that, in order to offset their collective preference for tactically focusing inside the business, they would regularly invite external speakers to their meetings in order to keep them thinking about the broader business environment. This was a very practical way of addressing a collective blind spot that was highlighted in their team assessment.

Back to my cautionary tale, it goes without saying that with assessment comes real responsibility, both for the assessor and for the client. Making broad generalizations about people and their potential based on their categorization in an assessment is appalling, but, alas, not that uncommon. I encourage people to think about a behavioral assessment as just one perspective that can help to understand a real person who is full of complexity based on their life experiences and genetics, and the even more complex team dynamics at play when people come together in groups.

Artist Credit: Victoria Cowan

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