How to avoid leadership assessment failure

Over the past 15 to 20 years, there has been a tremendous growth in the number and type of leadership diagnostic tools. In fact, when you Google "leadership and management diagnostic tools," there are 2,950,000 results. These tools have become popular since researchers found leadership to be more of a science than an art.  If the survey results could be quantified, then it would be easier to identify who to select for a position and what skills are needed for development. The intent is powerful, but the reality is that leadership is both an art and a science.

Even today, these tools are still widely used, often times at significant expense, and yet they are not effective. Organizations will spend hundreds of dollars per employee to have a firm administer the tool and then summarize the results. The intention is to have the results become part of a performance review or a succession planning effort. The potential value of such assessments is even greater since the healthcare industry is going through huge change, which will create a need for new business and leadership skills.

The sad reality is that once the leaders get the results, they will look at the results, discuss it with someone from the company that administered the tool, and give it some attention for a few days. That is it, and then the report goes into the file or gets buried on the windowsill. This is what I did every time I received one of these assessment tools, and in my work with executives over the past eight years, I can verify that it is still happening today. The reason for this ineffectiveness is not the tool itself but has to do more with how the results are used. In most cases, there is a summary report that displays the results, highlights areas of strengths (green), areas of weakness (yellow or red) and may even provide suggestions about how to improve the results before the next survey. This happens because the leader is too busy with "work" and does not keep the feedback "alive" long enough to make the needed changes. The other reason for the lack of value in the leadership diagnostic tools is that making the necessary changes can be difficult, and we, like most people, do not like to change.

To get maximum value out of the leadership diagnostic assessment, I suggest the following steps:

1. If possible, select a firm that will complete the assessments in person so that more meaningful results can be achieved, especially by asking for examples or follow-up questions.

2. Celebrate the strengths, because, like most type A leaders, we will overlook the importance of the acknowledged strengths and dwell on the weaknesses. This happens way too often, because we are used to fixing things, and we fail to recognize the positive things we do.

3. Look for differences between your results and from those above you, your peers, and those who report directly to you. Leaders must be able to manage up, across, and down, and often we are good at one or two of the three, but not all three.

4. Do not get hung up on one or two results, or to try and figure out who said what. This is wasted energy, and if you have asked people for feedback, you need to be prepared for the results.

5. After reviewing the results, go into a conference room with a representative from the company or someone who has experience with reviewing the results and use a white board to write out your plan.

6. Do NOT start with you — start with the company. Start with an honest assessment of the company, and write down what business & leadership skills will be needed for the company to succeed over the next three to five years.

7. Next, identify and write down the business and leadership skills you need to be successful in your position and that will benefit the company over the next three to five years.

8. Develop a written plan to make the identified strengths stronger, and forget about trying to make a weakness into a strength. You will get more of a return on working to make a strength stronger than you will trying to turn a weakness into a strength. For example, if you want to develop your negotiation skills, clearly identify what course work you will complete, what books you will read and what work related negotiations you can participate in to apply your new skill.

9. In addition, there is research by Gail Matthews, Ph.D., which suggests having a written plan will increase the chances of success by 39 percent.

10. Finally, find an "accountability partner" who you can share your plan with and who will hold you accountable for the plan you developed. Again, the research of Gail Matthews, Ph.D., concludes having an accountability partner will increase the chances of success 76 percent.

The real value of a leadership diagnostic tool is to realize the feedback is telling a story. The story lines are the themes in terms of a current assessment of your business and leadership skills and those that could benefit from some additional development. The value to you and the organization will be greatly enhanced if you follow the above steps. Finally, if you're serious about your results and implementing the plan, ask for the assessment to be given again in 24 months. 

Hopefully the results of all of your development efforts will be highlighted in the next assessment results and performance evaluation.  If that happens, make sure to celebrate those results!

Daniel J. Sinnott brings 33 years of diverse leadership experience to his role as CEO of Sinnott Executive Consulting. Sinnott Executive Consulting is a leadership development company that specializes in developing the business and leadership skills of leaders preparing for or already in the C- Suite.  Prior to starting his firm, Dan was an executive in healthcare for 24 years, nine of which were as a CEO of community hospitals, an academic medical center and a member of a national healthcare executive team.

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