True Test of Character

A new science of job testing promises a higher level of accuracy. How does it work? KF Exec. Search.



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A new science of job testing promises a higher level of accuracy. How does it work?

Genexticon Corp., a maker of life-enhancing biotechnologies based in Switzerland, faced a leadership calamity last fall when its chief executive officer fell ill and decided to retire immediately.

Finding the ideal replacement is never easy, but Genexticon was already losing market share and revenue, and was facing a major deadline on a large bank loan. It would need someone with a forceful personality to shake the company out of its complacency and who knew something about developing better technology to win back customers. But most of all, Genexticon needed to know that the candidate it met during interviews would perform the same way on the job. In short, whatever he or she said about themselves had to be on the mark.

Genexticon is a fictitious company. Very real, by contrast, is the task faced by human resource specialists as they seek to replace key executives, sometimes on fairly short notice. Achieving that match increasingly means not only throwing out a wide net to find the best candidates, but also testing them accurately to ensure a clear picture of their strengths and weaknesses. Which is exactly where a new science of digging out what companies and job seekers really think, feel and believe is emerging.

As more and more job applicants have discovered, psychometric testing of candidates to measure attitude and traits has been a growing trend in recent years. But nowhere is that testing growing more sophisticated than in the C-suite. Practitioners in this field throw about academic phrases like “forced choice” and “item response theory” as they try to help companies assess candidates for top leadership posts. Recent breakthroughs in testing methods now make it much easier to weed out applicants who give answers thought to be “correct” rather than answers that reveal the characteristics, abilities and inclinations needed to succeed.

“To build a sound and effective personality test you need excellent samples of respondents and a rigorous method of measuring the desired traits, as well as a valid scoring system,” said Professor Stephen Elliott, a testing expert at Arizona State University. “We’ve known for some time that forced choices of equally desirable options minimize bias responses, but scoring these tests continued to be problematic. The latest advances in scoring methods now yield more meaningful scores and analysis, which leads to better decisions regarding individuals and their differences.”

While still early, the results are promising, showing a high degree of engagement and success by leaders who were selected with the latest generation of tests, said Dana Landis, Korn Ferry vice president, global talent assessment and analytics. Such testing is part of what the firm calls KF4D, its “four dimensional” leadership assessment.

In a classical psychometric exam designed to identify personality traits, a leadership candidate typically is presented with statements such as “I am a strategic thinker” or “I get along with people of diverse backgrounds.” The subject must then rate the statement, higher or lower, more or less true. Naturally, candidates hoping to be hired aren’t prone to rate themselves low for either question—no matter how frank they may be—even if they might privately concede that their true strength lies more in day-to-day operating tactics rather than strategy or that they are disgusted by people with tattoos or who wear religious jewelry.

An academic study carried out by researchers at the University of Barcelona in 2010 proposed a superior way to elicit candid self-assessment. Instead of grading statements in terms of points, subjects were given several statements and forced to rank them from “most true about myself” to “least true about myself.” Statements such as “I am comfortable taking risks” or “I get along with everyone” aren’t self-evidently positive or negative. Their truth relative to one another, however, holds psychological significance.

Once a test subject prioritizes statements, algorithms can sort out and elicit the subject’s strengths, weaknesses and tendencies. Aided by software that can make sense of huge amounts of data, Korn Ferry and other firms increasingly are turning to personality tests employing “forced choice-item response theory” that are difficult, if not impossible, to game. In Korn Ferry’s case, a corporation’s “unique client profile,” derived from a survey of its cultural characteristics, further facilitates the match between executive candidate and job.

Is it perfect? Clearly, the efforts are in the developing stages, but companies report promising results, and the best assessments have been proven to be statistically valid in predicting the candidates best fit for a role. That means CEO candidates can expect to produce not only sterling recommendations, well-documented skills and technical proficiencies appropriate to the job. Most will likely hear this question from the nominating committee if they reach the later stages: “Do you have any objection to taking a psychometric test administered by our search firm?”

NO CHOICE: Below, two sample questions reflecting the new “forced-choice” approach to testing candidate responses. For each block below, choose the one statement that represents you best, then pick the next best and so on. A final score is based on specific algorithms tied to the job.

- I strive to stand out for my achievements.
- I know how I am perceived by others.
- I am uncomfortable taking a stand to resolve issues.
- The rules are meant to be worked around.

- I maintain a measured pace in life.
- I will not succeed by playing it safe.
- My instinct is to act rather than consider.
- Imposing my will on others is sometimes unavoidable.

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