How to Use Assessment Centers

Ultimate Guide to Leadership Assessments

The Ultimate Simulation

Just as pilots train in a flight simulator and surgeons test and practice in virtual reality, leaders can try out and experience what it’s like to be a leader in a virtual setting before they do so in real life. It's called an assessment center.

The data from a leadership assessment center is behavior-based, objective and measurable, and highly predictive of future success. In this section, you can learn everything you need to know about assessment centers from our experience as the pioneers and innovators.  

Originally, the methodology was created to select officers and spies after World War I. However, DDI’s founders and industrial-organizational psychologists introduced the assessment center approach to the business world in 1970 to identify, evaluate, and develop leadership skills in organizations. Over the last 50 years, DDI's behavior-based assessment centers have transformed into fully virtual centers that deliver powerful immersive experiences and actionable data for our clients worldwide.

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What Is an Assessment Center?  

Assessment centers offer day-in-the-life experiences. Leaders immerse themselves in level-specific or role-specific job simulations and assignments in a fictitious organization. We often use the term “day-in-the-life experience” for an assessment center. You might also see us talk about immersive simulations, which are a part of assessment centers, but not synonymous. So what exactly is an assessment center?

Assessment centers are standardized evaluation experiences built on multiple components. At least one part is always a behavioral simulation, which is rated by multiple assessors. Other potential inputs sometimes include tests (such as cognitive ability tests or personality inventories), interviews, or a range of simulations that are designed to complement one another.

The important thing is there are multiple assessment components that are integrated to provide a multifaceted view of the person, including at least one that is a simulation of important target behaviors.

In the simulation portion, participants face various tasks, challenges, assignments, and interactions that a typical leader would face in the real world. For example, during a first-level leader simulation, he or she might be asked to coach a direct report with a performance problem or assigned to delegate a new task to a peer. For an executive-level participant, the assignment may be a high-profile media interview to manage a crisis facing the company.

Common job simulations used in assessment centers include: 

  • Inbox exercises, which were previously known as “in-basket exercises” 
  • Group discussions 
  • Working simulations or roleplays with “direct reports” or “clients” 
  • Fact-finding exercises 
  • Analysis or decision-making problems 
  • Formal presentation exercises 
  • Written communication samples 

Exercises bring out the most relevant behaviors participants need for a specific position. These job aspects or competencies are identified prior to the assessment center exercise with a job analysis of the targeted position.  

Trained and calibrated assessors evaluate the participant’s behaviors and deliver a robust evaluation report. The report includes overall ratings on leadership competencies as well as detailed feedback on specific actions or behaviors they observed. An assessment center exercise provides in-depth data to make accurate and valid hiring, succession, or development decisions based on who’s ready for future roles. 

A graphic with gears, a clock, and a lightbulb and the text: Assessment Center definition:

When Should I Use an Assessment Center? 

The assessment center methodology has been proven to be fair and valid over several decades. In most situations, it is the best method available to organizations if your goal is to make accurate hiring and promotion decisions while minimizing adverse impact. More importantly, it’s a very powerful way to engage leaders with a breakthrough experience and get them excited about their own development. 

Here are specific ways to use an assessment center: 

  • High-potential programs: If you’re looking to provide a distinct program for your top talent, an assessment center can be an extraordinary moment in a leader’s career. 
  • Succession: Simulations help determine readiness for the next level and pinpoint what gaps need to be addressed to accelerate readiness. 
  • In-role development: Some organizations have found it valuable to use a day-in-the-life approach for incumbent leaders in need of additional development in their current role. For example, a first-level leader with limited formal training can get additional experience in an assessment center exercise.   
  • Hiring or promotion: Immersive simulations can be used for both external hires and internal promotion decisions.  

When Should I NOT Use an Assessment Center? 

Due to time and cost restraints, assessment centers usually don’t work for high-volume situations. These immersive simulations provide the most in-depth insights of any assessment. Given how robust it is, it’s typically more expensive and requires a longer time commitment on the part of the leader.  

You should also consider how critical the position is for which you’re selecting or developing someone. When there’s a greater risk and higher cost of failure, an assessment center can help you mitigate that risk with richer data.  

In short, use immersive simulations for high-value situations rather than high-volume needs. 

What Are the Advantages of Assessment Centers? 

One of the biggest advantages of an assessment center is that it can predict future capability. Meanwhile, other assessment types or data can only evaluate what someone has done in the past or is doing in their current role. But in an assessment center, you can see what someone will do when they stretch into a future situation. 

Here are some key advantages with the day-in-the-life approach. 

  • Data on future performance, not the current job performance. A realistic day-in-the-life simulation gives you a valid picture of how a person would perform in a target position before you decide to hire or promote them. 
  • Participants get objective data, not perceptions. Unlike a 360-degree feedback assessment that is driven by perceptual data, an assessment center participant receives an objective measure of their leadership capabilities. The results are based on the evaluation of professional assessors or smart technology. 
  • Targeted feedback on specific behaviors and competencies. When you get a rating on a certain competency, it will help if you know exactly what did and didn’t work. Imagine getting feedback on what you actually said or did that was effective or ineffective. An assessment center report and actionable feedback from a coach can help leaders focus on where and how to improve. 
  • Proven to be valid and fair. Since its first use in the corporate world, many researchers have studied assessment center validity and documented thousands of successful applications. There is no question that assessment centers are predictive of on-the-job performance as well as future performance. In addition, compared to other selection tools, the assessment center method is generally seen as more fair and objective in terms of gender, race, and age than other approaches. 
  • It’s a pivotal moment in a leader’s career. An assessment center can be one of the most significant development opportunities for a leader. The insights they gain from the high-stakes experience can literally change how they lead now and throughout their entire career. Plus, regardless of outcome, the experience allows participants to accept the fairness and accuracy of promotion decisions and have a better understanding of job requirements. 

What Are the Potential Pitfalls of an Assessment Center?

While assessment centers provide a lot of advantages, there are a few pitfalls companies should avoid. These pitfalls include:

  • Not setting appropriate expectations with the leader. Leaders need to know what they are getting into. Without the right explanation, the experience may seem intimidating and time-consuming. But with the right mindset, leaders may view it as an eye-opening experience that changed the course of their career. So it’s critical to clearly articulate what they can expect from the experience and the benefits they’ll gain before they begin.
  • Unexpectedly changing your data sharing policy. Leaders want to know how assessment data will be used and who will see the results. It’s important to be clear how you plan on using the data, communicating your policy, and sticking to it.
  • Viewing immersive simulation as an all-or-nothing proposition. Many organizations shy away from immersive simulations due to time and cost constraints. But there are significant payoffs to this powerful methodology. It helps develop your most critical talent and assists in making high-value and high-risk selection decisions.

What to Expect in an Assessment Center 

Before participating in an assessment center, it's important to set expectations and understand the process. Take the following steps for assessment center success: 

Step 1:  Prepare for the Assessment 

First and foremost, communicate the purpose and importance of the assessment to the leader. Also share with them how their data will be shared and used.

Leaders will then need background information about the simulation they plan to take part in. Background information can include details about their role, the company, organizational charts, financials, and other information to provide context.

Step 2: Engage in Simulation 

During the actual assessment center experience, which can be hosted in-person or virtually, leaders are given time to respond to the tasks and prompts. The simulation itself includes a mix of e-mails, interactions, and other challenges relevant to the targeted leadership level. For example, a mid-level leader simulation may require the participant to complete a business analysis while an executive-level simulation may include an activity where participants need to prepare a vision speech. 

Step 3: Score Behavior 

Certified professional assessors and smart technology score participants' behaviors. Their behaviors are evaluated against specific competencies required for success in that leadership role.  

Step 4: Share Feedback 

You may choose to have a trained feedback provider review the results with the leader. In some situations where a leader is not selected for a role, especially if it’s an external candidate, clients choose not to have feedback provided. 

But most often, this one-on-one feedback session is deeply valuable to the leader. The feedback provider is able to review the data in the context of the person’s role. They can discuss the leader's challenges and responsibilities and help them identify their strengths and development priorities within that context. 

As a result, the leader has a much deeper understanding of how they can use the data to propel their own success. Most importantly, it can help gain their commitment to their future development plan. 

Step 5: Use the Data 

Last is all about how you decide to use the data. Because the data is so rich, you can use it for a wide range of applications. For example, you can use it for hiring or promotion decisions in critical roles. Or, you can use it to make a final decision about which candidate is ready immediately for a critical role. 

Once the candidate is in the role, they can use the data to rapidly develop and improve their chances for success. 

For candidates who are not selected (but still have potential) or who went through the assessment purely for development, the next step is to design individual development plans. This approach is particularly important for high-potential leaders for whom you need to accelerate development. 

Plus, assessment center data can help design group-level development plans and pinpoint specific assignments needed to accelerate individual leaders’ readiness. 

How Do Leaders Benefit from an Assessment Center? 

In an assessment center, leaders can benefit from: 

  • Feedback at both the behavioral level and overall competency level. Leaders receive detailed feedback on the specific behaviors they exhibited or missed. They also receive overall ratings on leadership competency areas. 
  • Insights into role strengths and development areas. If the leader went through a simulation targeted at their current leadership level, then the data helps them build on their strengths and close the gaps in their development areas.  
  • Data on readiness gaps. If the leader is put through a simulation targeted at the next level, they’re able to see which next-level competencies they’re ready for and competency gaps. 
  • A broader appreciation of all the competencies required for success. Even high-level executives sometimes struggle to see what it will really take to succeed in bigger roles. An assessment center gives them an appreciation of what they might face in these roles and why it’s critical to develop key skills. The experience can also help them decide if they truly want to pursue certain roles.

How Long Do Assessment Centers Typically Last? 

It varies based on the level and configuration. An assessment center experience ranges from 90 minutes to a full day.

How Often Should I Administer an Assessment Center? 

As a high-value, high-stakes assessment methodology, we recommend an immersive day-in-the-life experience once for each leader at each level. 

What Else Should I Use with an Assessment Center? 

By design, the assessment center methodology focuses on evaluating behaviors. Many organizations supplement the day-in-the-life simulation data with a personality test or behavioral interviews. Plus, leaders benefit from individual feedback and coaching sessions to review the results with their manager or a trained coach. 

Summary of how to use an assessment center. Left column says