In many cases, leadership roles are filled by internal candidates who may have previously demonstrated their leadership capabilities and come with the advantage of knowing the organisation much better than an external candidate ever could. Some businesses infrequently go beyond that narrow sphere of ‘direct relations’ to find candidates for leadership positions, settling for safe rather than different. Is that effective? Possibly. If your business is going through significant change or facing unprecedented (ah, I said it) challenges then why would we expect any of these people to have the skillset required to fulfil that role? How do you assess their leadership capabilities in that context?
Similarly, in the event you are not seeking to appoint a specific successor but do have radically different business opportunities/challenges, how do you assess your current leaders against those refreshed priorities? How do you reset your leadership capability against a new business backdrop? These are difficult topics to address when we translate leadership assessment to individual and personal impact. Are you the right person for your role?
Matters also get complex (naturally) when you look at leadership as an organisational attribute – a team sport, one held to varying degrees by many in the company, not just a few – and you need to assess your leadership capability as a whole; who has which leadership skills, to what extent and how do they behave in a way that helps or hinders the organisation towards shared goals? This can make leadership assessment a hugely complex challenge and more than ever-so-slightly sensitive to current ‘leadership’ incumbents – although as we have covered before in When you say Leadership, do you really mean Management?, they could be management rather than leadership roles. In this, our latest article on the topic of leadership, I wanted to explore if and how leadership capability is assessed, how effective that assessment is and how you might address some of the questions above.
What do we mean by leadership assessment?
The word assessment conjures up a variety of sins and most people I know do not like being assessed. We sense the judgement of good vs bad and all of our insecurities flash before our eyes at the daunting prospect of someone telling us we might not be as good as we (or someone else) thinks we are . . . and leadership feels personal so assessment is taken personally. But why is that? Why are we still personalising leadership and expecting all great things to come from a few special people?
Leadership assessment is often characterised as the process of using objective tests and analysis to determine an individual’s leadership skills, strengths, behaviours and/or potential. Leadership assessment is typically conducted at an individual level, but we can look at leadership capability across the team and leverage strengths in the way we might tackle any other critical function of a business.
At Blackmore Four, we define leadership as ‘a distinct set of capabilities and behaviours that determine and drive the purpose, values and direction of the organisation’. This requires strategic, operating, personal and interpersonal skills to effectively influence the behaviour of others along a path of shared purpose and common goals whilst being conscious of the changing operating context of the business. When we refer to leadership assessment, we are therefore trying to assess the organisation’s collective leadership capability in that context, not to pass personal judgement or interrupt individual careers, but to look objectively at what capabilities are available, how they might best be used and where a business might need to focus for future development. We are trying to assess the overall effectiveness of the leadership capability in front of us.
Where does this fit with leadership needs analysis and leadership development?
Conducting assessments against generic leadership frameworks typically improves participant self-awareness but invariably leaves businesses questioning the relevance of the information and does not always lead naturally to effective development action.
If you intend to assess current capability and develop leadership to help enable your business strategy, then it is worth taking some structured time to get the needs analysis right. In the same way that you might want to analyse any other form of investment, I would advocate conducting a leadership needs analysis to identify the critical leadership attributes for your own business. Many businesses will invest relatively large amounts of money in leadership development, but without specific identification of your leadership needs, an understanding of the context and how leadership changes can be applied, it is often of little value.
A leadership needs analysis can either provide the basis for assessment or, if done in parallel or subsequently, can be used to perform the gap analysis and ensure investment is on the development of leadership capabilities that are most important for your business and in shortest supply.
Equally, if you are going to spend time making an assessment of your leadership capabilities then it would make sense – for your business and the people subjecting themselves to assessment – to make sure you are going to do something with the results.
In what ways can leadership capability be assessed?
There are several ways in which leadership assessment can be conducted but they come with a common set of principles. To be effective, assessments must be objective and conducted in a way that is fair and free from bias. This goes a long way to depersonalising the assessment. The assessment also must be consistent, producing results you can depend on and give you valid data against the items you are trying to assess.
The usual formats for objective, reliable and valid leadership assessment are:
- Interview. The interview has become commonly used for recruitment practice but is less widely used for conducting leadership assessments. In the same way that you would try to assess job applicants, there are a few interview techniques that are helpful in assessing an individual’s leadership style.
- Test. Psychometric tests have been developed to assess almost all manner of cognitive abilities, personality and social intelligences. Whilst misapplication of psychometric tests leaves most of us questioning their validity, using the right test to assess the right attributes can provide powerful insight complimentary to one of the other methods. Tests – particularly for less tangible skills such as the ones we are discussing – are still reliant on honest and accurate completion by the participants and therefore remain subject to misuse.
- Focus groups. As the world wilts under the burden of survey fatigue, focus groups are a feasible alternative way to generate input from a number of people. However, where surveys fail to energise responders, focus groups give the opportunity to directly facilitate feedback, energise a conversation and clarify the information being provided to get much richer insight into an individual’s or a team’s collective leadership skill. This, like all other approaches, requires specific facilitation skills and experience to ensure the process runs as intended.
- Observation. Leadership tends to happen when you least expect it but if you are in a position where you can spend time in the natural company of leaders being assessed, that usually provides the best opportunity to see how they really do it and, given the right preparation and process, the information gathered from live observation or third party ‘testimonials’ can also ensure assessment is context rich.
Why would you assess your leadership capability?
Well, why wouldn’t you? Of course, ‘time’, ‘cost’, ‘don’t know where to begin’ are all good answers to that. We never have enough time for the things we do know how to do, let alone spend money on something we do not fully understand. However, if leadership plays an important role in how your business moves forward then I think that provides the obvious reason to assess your current capabilities.
Consider whether any of these apply to you:
‘The current business climate is impacting our business and it’s essential we have the right leadership approach to take us forward.’
‘We are going through significant change and I don’t know if we have the right mix of capabilities for what we are trying to achieve.’
‘How effective are my current leadership team and do I have other leadership talent in my organisation?’
Leadership assessment can provide much needed improvement in self-awareness but it can also be part of the solution when it comes to ensuring you really understand the capabilities of your current team and can work with them to deploy those capabilities effectively. It can also provide consistency when considering the attributes you need to look for when searching for future leaders – both inside and outside your organisation – in preparation for long-term succession or when you need to fill a role more urgently. Most critically, it can also mean a clear effort to support leadership development in areas that your business needs most.
How do you go about conducting leadership assessment?
It is important to watch out for bias creeping into assessment and ensure that the gathering and recording of information is kept separate from the analysis and interpretation of data to minimise bias in that process. As I have done in previous articles, I find it useful to break this down and apply logical steps to ensure you conduct effective and objective leadership assessments.
- What are you assessing?
You either need to have identified and defined the leadership skills and behaviour relevant for your business or chosen a suitable leadership model against which you are going to assess. I would discourage choosing anything that over-simplifies leadership into labels or categories on the basis that it is unlikely to lead to any meaningful understanding of leadership or result in any specific, relevant development action.
- How are you assessing?
Choose the methods that are most suitable for what you are assessing, who is going to be involved and what output you are looking for. The summary above is a starting point but you may need to do further research or get specialist advice on selecting the best method for assessing.
- Who is involved?
You might expect to have four groups of participants: the people being assessed (the subject), the people providing input into the assessment (their managers, peers or subordinates), the people conducting the assessment (facilitators, specialists, note takers, analysts) and the recipient of the assessment results. It is important to be clear from the outset who is going to be in which group and what they should expect.
- Be objective – do not make it personal
We have suggested leadership is an organisational attribute; treat it as a set of skills and behaviours that can be acquired and developed by anyone. If you don’t think someone has any of the relevant skills to lead then don’t ask them to lead, but also don’t ask them to complete an assessment just so that you can use that as the communication tool.
Leadership skills and behaviours play a critical role in any organisation, but you need to start by identifying the specific attributes that are relevant for your own business. It is equally important to make sure your assessment of leadership is conducted fairly and in a manner that promotes participation in improving relevant leadership capabilities rather than judging, isolating or labelling individuals. Leadership is a team sport and requires collective participation to make it better. Identify your needs, assess your capability and then develop the skills and behaviours that will have the greatest impact on your business results.
Blackmore Four offer specialist advice and tailored solutions to businesses looking to sustain or improve the effectiveness of their organisation. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behaviour at work and an ability to identify and address the specific leadership and organisational development needs of your business. Contact us to find out more about our workshops on leadership needs analysis and assessment or to discuss how best to apply this to your business.