I’ve been using personality assessments as part of recruiting and hiring for several years now. Although most people aren’t familiar with these assessments when they enter our recruiting process, the experience is uniformly positive for them, and they almost always comment how interesting it was and thank us for doing this with them. It’s been a valuable exercise that has helped me get better results and develop my judgment about people.

The assessments are never really correct, so a vital step is reviewing the report with the candidate. This is another unusual part of the process I’ve designed together with my CEO coach. Other companies that use assessments tend to simply use them to eliminate candidates, and never share the results with the candidates. I think this is a pity; most of the value I find is in the conversation, not the assessment itself. How the candidate reacts to the report; which things they think are true or false and why; which things they engage with and which they skip over; those are all revealing.1

The assessment is a bit like a coffee-table book. It’s there to generate a really interesting and deep conversation about how candidates view themselves. The assessments themselves give us a common terminology to understand and describe what they measure. These are usually vague concepts until we use an assessment to make them crisp. It’s about self-awareness and ensuring that we’re using words that mean what we think they mean.

People who haven’t used assessments in hiring often disparage them. An example that comes to mind is a senior sales leader I was working with on a consulting basis. When I say “senior,” I mean this person was old enough to be my grandfather, and had been doing sales since he was a boy. “Those assessments are fine, Baron, but they don’t tell the whole story and they’re sometimes wrong,” he said. (No arguments there.) “I’ve been doing this my whole life, and these assessments would eliminate a lot of the best sales people I’ve ever hired.” (Probably also true; that’s why I don’t take them at face value.)

We were going through resumes and he was excited about one candidate, we’ll call him John. John’s assessments showed no signs of sales-related motivations. He was a theoretical person who was pretty much the opposite of a salesperson. His resume showed the same thing: his college degree and passion projects were analytical, solitary, and philosophical. He didn’t really have sales experience, either. His previous role had sort of been sales-related, but he’d really just been facilitating people who’d already decided to buy, which was much different than the job we were considering him for. And all four of his assessments (we use a battery of them, not just one) spoke with a single voice, giving me little reason to believe he’d gamed the assessment or that there was anything that didn’t meet the eye.

“I don’t think John wants to sell,” I told the consultant. “I think he wants to build a tiny cabin in the remote woods and write the next great American novel.” The sales consultant pooh-poohed that. “He’s got fire in his belly. I’m telling you, John is a meat-eating bloodthirsty salesperson, he’s just early in his career.” We brought John in and reviewed the assessment with him. He agreed with everything in the report, marveling at its accuracy. A few days later he called to withdraw from the process, saying that reviewing the assessment report had helped him to realize sales wasn’t for him, and that he was reprioritizing his life to ensure that he could achieve his dream: writing.

I could tell many similar anecdotes about the assessments. Another one, quickly: I was recruiting for a leadership position and a person who wanted to “be” a leader2 applied. His assessments were deeply conflicting with each other: the first and simplest one screamed “leader” to extremes, making me suspect he’d tried to get the assessment to score him as a leader. (That one is pretty easy to game.) The other assessments, which are much more confusing when you fill them out, told the opposite story. When he reviewed the report with me, he was unable to reconcile all the different things the assessment was saying about him, distressed at the idea that he’d behave or think in the ways the report said. It was obvious that he wasn’t that person and he had to be true to himself. So I asked him and he said yes, he’d tried to get the “right answer.” Some things can be learned and some things are skills; and some things are innate. If I’d hired him into the leadership position, he’d have been catastrophically miserable, and he’d have failed at the job. It’s important to know who you really are!

These experiences have helped me form a mental model about how people behave, what motivates them, how they value things, and what they’re skilled at. Now I can often have a conversation with someone, without an assessment, and quickly understand questions like: is this person more direct or cautious? Is this person more motivated to be selfish or selfless? Do they make decisions logically or intuitively? How will they behave under pressure? Are they fast-paced? Do they create or resist change?

This outcome—improved people skills—is far more valuable to me as a leader than using assessments for filtering a candidate in or out of a recruiting process.

If you’re skeptical about assessments, consider this: do you interview people to determine their experiences? And do you hire them for their skills and abilities? Most people work hard at these things, so you probably answered yes to these questions.

Now: why do you fire people? Usually for their behaviors and sometimes for their motivations, right? When you think about someone who was a “bad culture fit,” are you mostly talking about behaviors and motivations?

Do you have a repeatable, objective, unbiased way to understand the behaviors and motivations of candidates during the interview process?

Most people don’t. And that’s part of why they hire people with the right skills, experiences, and abilities—and end up being forced to fire them because of their behaviors or lack of motivation.

Assessments, and especially the practice of reviewing the assessment report with the candidate, can be an effective way to help break the vicious cycle of hiring for one set of qualities and firing for another. If you haven’t used assessments, or if you have a dim view of them, give it some more thought. It can be a powerful tool in your kit. And it can help you grow as a leader.

  1. I also use assessments for many other purposes post-hiring, but that’s a topic for another blog post. [return]
  2. Moral: never get enamored with the title or name of the role. Always think about whether you want to do the activities of the role. Confusing the two is a recipe for failure and unhappiness. [return]

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