Leadership Potential Assessment / Development Centre

Leadership Potential Assessment Centers are programs designed to assess and then provide feedback on employee readiness to take on organizational roles of higher complexity in the future.

Business Imperative

To ensure a high success rate of employees in jobs of higher complexity, prior to assigning greater responsibilities to employees, organizations need credible data about a candidate’s readiness and suitability to take up such positions. An assessment centre is a process by which an organisation gathers relevant data from candidates to arrive at such staffing decisions.

Extrapolated further, this same information helps form views regarding the long term leadership potential of the participants.

Typical Intervention Process

Assessment / Development Centers are batteries of simulations of work challenges that participants are likely to face in future roles. An assessment centre method involves multiple evaluation techniques, including various types of job-related simulations, and sometimes interviews and psychological tests.

Common job simulations used in assessment centres are:

  • In-basket exercises
  • Group discussions
  • Simulations of interviews with “subordinates” or “clients”
  • Fact-finding exercises
  • Analysis/decision-making problems
  • Oral presentation exercises
  • Written communication exercises

The battery of simulations used in an Assessment Centre is designed to produce data on the competencies the participants are being sought to be profiled on.

As participants work through the simulations, they are observed by trained observers who observe and evaluate behaviour. A particular participant is observed by multiple observers across the simulations in the battery. After participants have completed their simulations, observers spend time together, sharing their observations, and agreeing on evaluations. If used, test and interview data are integrated into this decision-making process. The observers’ final assessment, contained in a written report, details participants’ strengths and development needs, and may evaluate their overall potential for success in the target job or level of responsibility at the current juncture.


Specifically in a leadership potential assessment centre, the participants are not being assessed for any particular job, but for a higher level of responsibility.

Perhaps the most important feature of the assessment centre method is that it relates not to current job performance, but to future performance. By observing how a participant handles simulated challenges of the target job or job level, observers are in a position to develop a data-driven view of how that person is likely to perform in the target position.


Assessment Centre process was first used sometime between the two world wars. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War, prevented Germany from rearming and thus the traditional approach to the selection of officers, which was of observing their performance in war or in exercises was denied to them. German psychologists then devised this method which involved a combination of tests, simulations and exercises to identify the potential of officer candidates. The British Army used this methodology in the early days of Second World War when they established the War Office Selection Boards (WOSBs), again for the selection of officer candidates. However, it was brought into industry only in 1956 after AT&T used it for selection of high potentials for managerial positions.

Case Studies

This, by now, is a commonly used tool in industry. As can be expected, there are by now many kinds of program designs that are passed off as Assessment Centers. We have had the opportunity to work with two clients who had had unhappy experiences with the process earlier, and had stopped the practice in the organization.

In one case, a consumer durables major, we had to take the entire senior management through the process steps we would follow, and the format of the report we would submit for each candidate. After we completed our process for the given set of managers, the organization asked us to carry out the process for many more managers, until we had to remind the organization that the process of holding participants to the standard of a future role of higher complexity was meaningless for people who clearly were wanting in their ability to handle current challenges!

In another case, the organization was not happy with assessment processes that were based entirely on behavioral competencies. We ran a pilot Development Centre for HR managers using Functional Standards for the function also as a criteria set. We involved line leaders as Observers in the process. They gave the entire model a big thumbs up. We then spent six months mastering the intricacies of the relevant line functions, until we published the Functional Standards for those functions. Based on these as well as the behavioral competencies, we ran Development Centers, with the usual follow through into workshops for the participants’ managers on developing and implementing Individual Development Plans. The consequence was a system that had regained its faith in the process, and has been considering diverse applications since.

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