Tuesday, July 07, 2009

How can we improve executive selection?

Many of us would agree in the wake of recent financial meltdowns that much of the problem stemmed from poor decision making--presumably from the top down. We know a lot about how to select the right people, yet our best estimates peg leadership failures at around 50%. Are there ways we can use I/O expertise to improve this statistic?

This is the topic of the first focal article in the June 2009 issue of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, written by George Hollenbeck.

The author makes several excellent points, among them:

- The process of selecting executives is significantly dissimilar from how we select, say, entry-level hires. The decisions tend to be based more on "character"--essentially personality aspects with a little morality tossed in--more than standardized testing of competencies.

- I/O psychologists are rarely brought into the executive selection process, in large part because they don't "get" how selection decisions at this level are made. We tend to have an assessment or behavioral bent, whereas these decisions more often are holistic and highly subjective.

The author argues that we need to change our mindset to match more closely that of executives--we need to focus on character rather than competencies. The authors that provide subsequent commentaries agree that the focus on executive selection is timely, but some question the focus on character and others point out that predicting performance at this level is incredibly difficult given all of the environmental factors.

Yet after all this, I can't help but wonder (as do some of the commentary authors)...is it selection professionals that need to change their mindset, or should how we select executives look more like how we select entry-level hires? Maybe we'd all benefit from largely taking the judgment component out and relying more on standardized methods such as ability tests. But is that realistic? Are people at the top willing to admit that their judgment may be inferior to standardized tests?

How can we marry assessment expertise with the political and organizational realities inherent in executive selection? My bet is it lies with establishing quality relationships with the high-level decision makers. Become a trusted adviser, demonstrate the bottom-line value of sound assessment, and be flexible about applying our best practices. This is the kind of partnership that works with first-line supervisors; there's a good chance it will work all the way up the chain.


Larry Kaminer said...

All good attributes described. How about this one. Executive agrees to an incentive plan that is actually hinged to performance. Executive understands that if he or she drives the company into the ground they don't get a zillion dollar as they are run out of town for a job not too well done.

BryanB said...

Well that would certainly be refreshing! And most likely narrow down the candidate pool considerably.