Using Psychometrics to Identify and Develop Your Future Leaders

Kyle Salem

When it comes to understanding people there is no panacea. There, I said it. Consider your expectations tempered. Now, with that out of the way, let's understand that there are some things you can do to increase your odds in selecting the right candidate and maximizing their performance and leadership on the job.

Certainly behavior-based interviewing, reference checking and even having candidates provide work samples are all important strategies. But while these practices are commonly done, they are not enough. In a world where 25 percent of new hires leave their companies within one year and the average employee will switch jobs 10 times by the time they are 38 (US Department of Labor), you must do more.

Today, 50 to 60 percent of U.S. companies, and a whopping 90 percent in the U.K., are using some form of psychometrics in evaluating candidates, and the results are astounding. Providing accurate and reliable information*, ensuring a strong likelihood of fit between the company and the employee* and offering a measurable ROI*, psychometrics offer a wonderful bounty of knowledge for your human resources team and hiring managers alike.

Oh, you're wondering about those asterisks? Well, among the 2,500 plus pre-employment assessments available in North America alone, sadly many have not gone through the appropriate validation, reliability and test fairness studies necessary to be trusted by corporations or meet EEOC Guidelines.

Therefore, please consider this tip number one: Make sure the assessment tool you use has gone through rigorous testing itself, meets EEOC Guidelines and actually measures job related qualities. Without this, you are exposing your company to litigation.

Psychometrics with Respect to Leadership

Before pressing forward, a quick definition on psychometrics is in order. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary states that psychometrics is "the psychological theory or technique of mental measurement." While there are three broad categories—cognitive tests, interest inventories and temperament assessments, this article focuses on temperament. Specifically, how matching employees’ temperaments to that needed on the job directly correlates to more satisfied employees, measurably reduced turnover and increased productivity.

In 1967, Industrial Psychologist Jack H. McQuaig opened The McQuaig Institute®, largely based on the guiding premise that work behavior is a function of the congruence between the individual’s personality type and his or her work environment. Alignment between the two results in employee satisfaction and higher persistence at work (Holland, 1973), while misalignment leads to suboptimal performance and increased likelihood of turnover.

In 2005, Rick D. Hackett, Ph.D., of Hackett & Associates Human Resources Consultants Inc., completed a study assessing 635 CEOs and company Presidents around the world using The McQuaig Word Survey®, one of the pre-employment psychometric tools from The McQuaig Institute®. These Senior Executives were all members of Vistage International, also known globally as The Executive Committee, an international development organization for business leaders. The goal of the project was to understand the make-up of executives better, to determine if there was a common profile type, and to gain any additional knowledge about the ways in which they think and behave.

Of those who where surveyed, 77 percent had profiles of "Leaders," meaning they were more Dominant (ambitious, results oriented, opportunistic, with a strong will to win) than Compliant (systematic, methodological, conscientious and cooperative). Just 13 percent were "Experts"—more Compliant than Dominant, while 10 percent had fundamentally equal amounts of each trait.

We also have found, anecdotally, that the Experts tend to lead technical organizations, while Leaders tend to head-up more entrepreneurial companies. Most importantly, however, we know that for Senior Executives, or anyone else for that matter, the chances of being successful increase measurably if their profile closely matches that of the ideal job performer.

[Note that the trait scales listed are consistent with the "Big-Five" Personality Traits known throughout psychology, first published in Psychological Review in 1934 and include Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (Thurston, 1934).]

Currently, I am working with the leadership team of a software company, an organization experiencing tremendous growth and trying to keep up from a human resources perspective. As an assignment, we had 19 executives and managers complete psychometric assessments telling us what the ideal temperament is for their individual jobs, along with defining their own temperament. In six cases the employees came back as a strong match for their job, 11 times they were a potential match and for two they were not a match at all. Among the six strong matches, five graded on employee scorecards as top performers, with the other being a new employee. Conversely among the two poor matches, one is considered a substandard employee while the other is also a new hire with no tangible performance record established. Though a small sample size by psychology standards, it seems pretty clear which new employee is likelier to succeed.

Another client, a large packaging organization, is one that likes to promote employees from within. Like many clients, they had a habit of promoting people that matched the typical Senior Executive profile. However, in measuring the success of promoted employees, they were disappointed to learn their turnover was higher than anticipated while performance was unsatisfactory. As a response, our client conducted a culture study, which resulted in two terms most commonly mentioned: stingy and micromanaged. Using this knowledge, they redefined their profile of an ideal manager to one that better fit their organization, resulting in managers that stayed longer and flourished.

Here is tip number two: While there might be a global average for what an executive, or a sales person or anyone else in an organization for that matter might look like, it is imperative that you create your own benchmark, the one that is right for your company and the specific position being filled. For example, a CEO in a large, well established, multi-national company should have a different temperament than a CEO with a young start-up firm. Most credible psychometric companies will offer a tool to help you establish this benchmark.

High-Professionals vs. High-Potentials

Companies have two types of top performers. The first are High-Professionals (Hi-Pros), highly competent and technically sound individuals who are enthusiastic, loyal and need growth on the job. The second are High-Potentials (Hi-Pos), also highly competent and technically adept, but need advancement and increased responsibility to maintain their loyalty. Clearly both are valuable members of any organization, but must be managed quite differently in order to maximize their contribution.

Hi-Pros seek challenge within their areas of expertise, preferring consensus when making decisions and not typically seeing a promotion as a reward. However, because, as a society, we are conditioned to think that climbing the corporate ladder is desirable, Hi-Pros might not realize their unique needs until it is too late. I used to work in professional baseball and saw a terrific minor-league instructor promoted to a senior managerial role. While part of him wanted to thrive in the new job, he knew deep down that the extra stress was not worth the increased pay. Though he persevered in the role for nearly two years, he was eventually reassigned to his previous job and is happily working in this capacity to this day. He was lucky—these things usually do not work out so well.

Hi-Pos, on the other hand, seek authority, status and, of course, money. They want to see themselves moving up the ladder. As Dr. Meyer Friedman says, these are your Type A personalities, highly goal-oriented, competitive and possessing a strong sense of urgency.

So how can psychometrics help in coaching these two types of top performers? For Hi-Pros, knowing that they like being the subject matter expert and generally working in a team setting, while wanting to avoid conflict and making tough people decisions will help you put them in an environment to succeed in their way. You will recognize that giving them time to analyze a situation rather than requiring them to respond immediately will result in more sound, accurate and competent results. You will also understand better ways to reward them—as part of a team, with private, and, in their minds, non-embarrassing congratulations—keeping them motivated and loyal to your organization.

For Hi-Pos, knowing their desire for advancement, to lead and take risks will help you select them for high profile projects, ones that might be outside their typical work functions—also known as stretch assignments. You will appreciate that they have a thick skin, can take criticism and bounce back well. You will also realize that publicly rewarding them will be invigorating, keeping them working to their maximum capabilities.

Psychometrics can offer insights into a candidate or employee that an interview, references or work samples simply cannot. They will help you coach and motivate your team members in the way they each need individually, ensuring a loyal staff and maximum performance. As Lyle Spencer noted so eloquently, "You can teach a turkey to climb a tree, but it’s easier to hire a squirrel."