Leader Assessment: Discovering strengths and opportunities for growth

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In this edition of NousCast Shorts we speak to Nous Principal Tessa Dehring and Nous Director Sally Cutts about the power of leader assessment to help organisations prioritise their efforts when it comes to leadership development. Both Organisational Psychologists, Tessa and Sally talk through their four essential principles for effective leader assessment. You can also read their article, “Investing in leadership development? Without a leader assessment first, your efforts may be wasted”.

About NousCast Shorts

The NousCast Shorts podcast series brings you fresh thinking on some of the biggest challenges facing organisations today. Each episode of NousCast Shorts will feature a rapid-fire interview with a Nous consultant about an emerging issue in their area of expertise – in about the time it takes to have a cup of coffee.

Ari Sharp: Hi there and welcome to NousCast Shorts. A Podcast that brings you short and sharp insights from the team at Nous Group, an international management consultancy. I’m your host, Ari Sharp, and today on NousCast Shorts we’re talking to Tessa Dehring, a Nous Principal from Melbourne, and Sally Cutts, a Nous Director in Brisbane, to learn more about leader assessment. Tessa and Sally, who are both organizational psychologists, recently wrote an article Nous Insights on the importance of assessing the skills and capabilities of leaders to get the most benefit from leadership development. As Tessa and Sally explained in the article, there are principles you can apply so that your leader assessment can equip your staff to become more impactful leaders. Let’s find out more.

Tessa Dehring and Sally Cutts, welcome to NousCast Shorts.

Tessa Dehring: Hi Ari, thank you for having us.

Sally Cutts: Hi Ari, lovely to be here,

Ari Sharp: Tessa, if I can start with you, let’s begin with the basics. Just what is leader assessment and why is it important?

Tessa Dehring: So, leader assessment is about applying different types of measurement methods to understand the leader’s current capability, their future potential, perhaps their organization or job fit and their motivators. So matching the right tool to best measure what you’d like to understand is really critical. And why is it important? Leader assessment’s important as it provides an individual with a clear picture of the aspects of leadership that they do well and the areas for improvement. I think one thing that all leaders would attest to is that they’re all developing in their journey. And so this information can then be shared with people like their manager to support their development. It can also be used and aggregated across levels to provide the organization with a broader view around do we see certain capabilities, strengths, and gaps across different leadership levels?

Ari Sharp: Sally, if I can turn to you, you and Tessa have identified four principles for effective leadership development. I want to talk briefly about each of them. You start with a clear link to development outcomes. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Sally Cutts: Sure. So when we’re looking at the purpose of assessments, it’s really clear to say, “What are we actually assessing for and to what end?” So I think a lot of times organizations can fall into the trap of assessing with a view to promote, and then they get participants really into this mindset of having to perform and putting that stress onto themselves. And if they don’t perform, then that can equate to a lack of promotion. So I think it a danger that we see is really tying the assessment to promotion.

Instead, I think our preferred approach is really to look at it in terms of development and taking the pressure off leaders, in that sense, creates a more open space for being vulnerable about their areas for development, and really getting to the heart of what’s important for them as a leader, what are their strengths and what they want to grow.

So, again when we’re talking about what are those development outcomes, it’s lovely to develop for the sake of being developed, but also we want to tie it to the organization. So developing with a purpose to live the capabilities that look like success for that organization. So to that end, making sure that we’re tailoring it to the capabilities that are identified as important for that organization.

Ari Sharp: And the second principle is tailoring to the leader’s context. Tessa, tell us what does that involve?

Tessa Dehring: Sure, and I’m sure lots of leaders that are listening to this have been involved in assessments that don’t really feel like they apply to their work or measure skills that would impact how they’ll perform as a leader. And so tailoring to the context is really important, and even more important in this hybrid way of work. And it’s important too to keep looking at how the context is changing and continuing to refine assessments as we go. What we do is we really think about the types of behaviors or work that the leaders need to demonstrate, and then design assessments that assess those directly. So one thing we pride ourselves on is we’re quite agnostic in terms of the tools that we use, so we’ll understand what capabilities that you’re wanting to develop and then match that with the right assessment. Or if there’s not quite something out there that will suit, we design something specifically for each client.

So, an example of this is a simulation that might involve a performance discussion. It’s a very regular sort of role that a leader might have. Or perhaps a virtual team meeting or a strategic planning discussion. We often use 360 assessments that we’ve customized for our clients. We definitely do see a great place of bespoke 360 assessments as well. When we use it in the customized way, we can make sure that we focus on the behaviors that they really want to understand. As our way of work has changed, our assessments need to change too.

Ari Sharp: That brings us neatly to the third principle that you talk about, which is to deliver in the format that the work is in. Now a lot of people are working hybrid, sometimes at home and sometimes in the office. What does it look like to deliver in the format the work is in, Sally?

Sally Cutts: So, I think Tessa gave a lovely lead into that of the world has changed, and so with that the way that we assess people needs to change. So it’s really important that we’re taking a look at the leader in their environment and how they’re expected to perform in their everyday role. At the moment, that might mean that some of their work is undertaken virtually and remotely, and that some might actually also be on site. We often work with clients to just really understand how do these leaders work and in what contexts might they come together in person and in what contexts might they work remotely, and then we can match the assessment to that.

An example recently is having conversations with a client around a lot of the work that they undertake individually is done remotely, but then they often come together as a leadership team, face-to-face. So we’re looking at designing some of our assessments so the interpersonal skills and looking at communication skills was done in a face-to-face assessment environment, but then some of the other delivery mechanisms were online to match their work.

Ari Sharp: And the final principle you mentioned is something we talk about a lot as Nous, and that’s a strengths-based approach. What does that mean in the leader assessment context, Tessa?

Tessa Dehring: A really important principle for us and we really want to make sure that we set leaders up for success. I think that lots of leaders have probably thought about assessment centers that have been quite high pressure and perhaps haven’t felt like they could perform. And so our real key focus for our assessment approach is not to put leaders under too much stress. We know that high stress conditions often mean that the leader can’t perform at their best.

When we’re designing these approaches, we’re thinking about what are the conditions that are going to enable them to really show us their best and show what they can do. And so all assessments should focus on both strengths and ongoing development. And even the areas where we’re seeing as potential gaps or areas for improvement, we’re really still focusing that as in terms of a strengths-based approach. That might be in the feedback discussion and even in a development planning conversation.

We’re really focused on treating people like people and valuing their experience, and we know everyone’s got different experiences too. The other really important thing that we’ve been trialing with clients is spacing out assessments. And so the assessment centers are really great and very efficient ways of delivering assessments, but what we’ve tried to do is even unpack that idea of an assessment center and spacing it out. So basically people can feel like they can prepare prior to coming and getting involved in, say, a simulation, and also gives them a chance to reflect on their feedback throughout the experience. It transforms the assessment process to be more focused on development as well, because they can get feedback from our assessors, consider what they might do differently, and then they continue to develop throughout.

We’re also really conscious of the assessors that we use, and we want to ensure that we build a psychological safe environment for everyone to do their best. So we do think about that really consciously as part of our design.

Ari Sharp: Tessa, finally can you give us some insight into what it looks like when leader assessment is used well, and then on the flip side, what can go wrong without it?

Tessa Dehring: Sure, yeah. So when leader assessment is done well, in our experience, the assessment process has been crafted and really thought about, so it is fit for purpose for the organization. Then what that means is when you get the insights from the assessment process it can be used really helpfully to shape customized development for leaders. And so that might be individual level development. It might actually be then looking at aggregating that across a cohort and going, “actually let’s look at whether there some similarities in terms of the capabilities we need to build”. And what that means is an organization might actually find that the development program doesn’t need to focus on every aspect of leadership, but maybe there’s two critical capabilities that there are particular gaps in, particularly given where they’re at in terms of their strategic direction or journey.

When we’ve seen this go not so well, it’s when lots of organizations invest so much in leadership development, and it’s really great to see that investment, but sometimes organizations don’t think about investing upfront in assessment, and to really understand what the critical capabilities and behaviors are that they want to develop, or understand and improve. And so leaders may then have a really great time on this development experience, which is also a great outcome, but it may not have the intended impact for the organization. What that might mean is a lack of transference in terms of building those leadership capabilities that the organization really needs to take them forward.

Ari Sharp: Sounds like there’s enormous opportunities, if you can get that right. Sally Cutts and Tessa Dehring, thanks so much for talking to NousCast Shorts.

Tessa Dehring: Thanks Ari.

Sally Cutts: Thanks Ari.

Ari Sharp: That was Tessa Dehring, a Nous Principal, and Sally Cutts, a Nous Director. You can find Tessa and Sally’s article on the Nous website. You can also contact them directly via LinkedIn. We’ll provide links in the episode notes.

Before we go, some information on us at Nous Group. For more than 20 years Nous has offered a broad consulting capability that allows us to solve our client’s most complex strategic challenges and partner with them through transformational change. We’ve contributed to significant agendas in Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada, including shaping the future of higher education, digitally transforming service delivery and developing models of regulation for the future economy.

You can find out more about Nous, meet our people, and read our insights at our website. That’s www.nousgroup.com. That’s all for this edition of NousCast Shorts. You can subscribe on your favorite podcast app, so you don’t miss an episode. And if you like what you hear, please rate and review us to help other people find it. Thanks for listening. We’ll catch you next time.