There are two beliefs about career assessments disguised as truths that I have heard repeatedly. These so-called truths usually come from the senior talent manager or the person in charge of leadership development. The truths are offered as givens, usually accompanied by a head-nod and a sage expression.
Here are the truths I’m talking about:
1. All career assessments are just data points
2. Any career assessment is only the beginning of a conversation
In my experience coaching leaders over the past 25+ years, I have found that both statements are generalizations that may appear true, but the context they are made in refutes their accuracy. Let me explain.
My Kastorian Yiayia
All assessments are not created equal. Otherwise, I could conceivably use a technique taught to me by my beloved Kastorian Yiayia (grandmother) when I was a child growing up.
Whenever a person finished his Turkish (now called Greek) coffee and the dark, syrupy dregs were left at the bottom, my grandmother would ask him if he would like a life reading. With his agreement, my Yiayia would then turn over his coffee cup and wait a few minutes until the dregs had dried. Then she would wisely examine the settled and dried coffee staining the sides of the diminutive cup, and, while assuming the authority of a guru or the humility of a supplicant, begin her interpretation of the shadows, clumps, and Rorschach-like designs left behind. Clients would wait eagerly to hear about themselves, and, lo and behold, all the advice provided by my Yiayia would elicit nods of agreement and even a personal question or two.
How was this possible? Today I look back on my Yiayia and see her as a mix of Forer and Barnum…
P.T. Barnum’s observation, “We’ve got something for everyone”, supports the notion that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to personality assessments that are tailored for them, but are, in fact, vague enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, and certain personality tests.
A related and more general phenomenon is that of subjective validation. Subjective validation occurs when two unrelated or even random events are perceived to be related because a pre-conceived belief, expectancy, or hypothesis demands a relationship. Thus people seek a correspondence between their perception of their personality and the contents of a horoscope. (Read more about the Forer effect.)
Both the Barnum and Forer effects are categorized by the following qualities:
- Perceived as uniquely personalized
- Generally positive – describing traits we can all understand and see in ourselves
- Offer future hope and potential control of our futures
- Perform the role of the village adviser and prophet, in the same way as my Yiayia. Of course, I would never discredit my dear departed Yiayia by suggesting she was a well-meaning fake. After all, she thought she was doing others good by way of her gifts!
It is obvious why I tell this story, apart from any possible chuckle it may provide. I tell it to suggest to you that many self-assessments end up coming down to the same active component, i.e., our well-meaning role as interpreters/guides/coaches, using self-assessments that can be questionable. Many self-report manuals provide little or no evidence of predictive or concurrent validity even if one form of reliability which is routinely used, i.e., test-retest, is r=.90. More often than not, coaches use the same tools because we know they work, or we have had good results with them, etc.
Should that be the basis of starting a conversation about a person’s life?
Why Popular Self-Assessments Fall Short
I have taught a graduate level course I call “Assessment in Organization” for the past decade. I can confidently say that many popular self-assessments fall short in providing validity data.
One well known and widely used self-report says: “Over a million people have taken this assessment.” I can start a conversation just as well with a coffee reading! It’s not proof.
Now, back to what I said earlier about data points. Many leaders I work with have had internal and external leadership developmental opportunities provided over the years. That is fantastic, so what is the problem? Rarely, if ever, are the data points that resulted from those assessments put together in any systematic way. It is only data, but not information. It is a rare instance when someone integrates the data points, so they just gather dust.
My sense is that this is like telling someone to read a self-help book. Inevitably, what the reader finds is what he believed to begin with, while what he can’t digest through his defense mechanisms is what he really needed! Because if self-help books worked, coaches like me would be out of work!
So, what’s the solution?
The Highlands Ability Battery (HAB) As a Necessary Leadership Assessment
1. The (HAB) is faster than a 360.
2. It is
a. timed and objective
b. not a self-report (except for Highlands version of Eysenck’s Extroversion-Introversion)
c. transparent to the client in its validity and reliability
3. Usually, a new coachee will complete the HAB within several days after the assignment and prior to the next coaching session.
4. The feedback session gives a tremendous opportunity to start an in-depth conversation and discuss specifics of behavior and attitudes of the coachee while providing him or her insight into factors impacting his behavior, e.g. “I was aware that I did that but didn’t put together how the downside worked.”
5. The HAB focuses on the strengths.
6. It dispels the idea that a good leader has to be all things to all people.
7. It introduces the concept of complementarity to leaders, both to high potentials and those moving up the leadership pipeline to work primarily through others.
8) It gives me a wider angle view for understanding my client when s/he discusses the various issues s/he faces.
9) The HAB, its reports, and the Highlands Whole Person Model provides a framework in which to train a coachee to see himself and how he goes about making decisions and how he learns.
10) It provides a shared perspective for understanding the feedbacks provided by quantitative and qualitative 360s and the comments of the BOSS.
11) By means of its intensive one-on-one ongoing coaching sessions, it provides opportunities for developing the self-observing perspective that appears to be lacking, especially in high potentials.
Additionally, I have found that using the HAB and its eight-factor model is key, as this provides an opportunity for integration of other internal and external leadership opportunities experienced by the coachees over the years. I have learned that if we dust off all the data we have gathered, we can work together to get a more meaningful picture.
I don’t expect anyone to abandon a favorite assessment tool, but I do ask that you remember my Yiayia the next time you are asked to read a coffee cup.