Preparing for an Assessment Centreby Tom O'Connor on May 31st, 2010
In Tahiti’s Grand hotel, Marlon Brando was auditioning women for the part of the native girlfriend of Mr Christian for the 1962 movie, Mutiny on the Bounty.
Auditioning in his hotel room, as each one entered, Marlon was out on the window ledge of the top story shouting: ‘I’ve had it, I’m jumping out the window’.
Everyone who came in couldn’t stop giggling at Marlon’s suicide attempt.
Finally, an eighteen-year-old waitress from the hotel was chosen for the part … she giggled the least.
This little story, as told by Louis Zorich (in What Have You Done: The Inside Stories of Auditioning from the Ridiculous to the Sublime) gives us a sobering view into the vagaries of any assessment centre tryout.
For, unlike a straight interview setting, where the questions are directly posed and follow-up clarifications provided, assessment centre exercises are largely shrouded in mystery as to what exactly are the requirements of behaviour sought.
So, how do you prepare then and ensure that you are giving it your best shot.
Well, there are 5 broad considerations to keep in mind:
1. Familiarise yourself with assessment centre exercises
Assessment centres attempt to elicit insights into how a candidate copes with a range of tests designed to simulate the actual job.
Some of the more common testing scenarios include: group discussions, oral presentations, role-plays, problem-solving encounters, in-tray appraisals, meeting events and similar observation-based exercises.
It is absolutely essential to acquaint oneself with the design considerations behind each of these exercises and practice the tricks of the trade with some mock examples.
This is important as the significance placed on some behaviours is often quite counter-intuitive to the uninitiated.
2. Research the particular assessment centre agenda
Read carefully any information that accompanies your invitation to the assessment centre. The two pieces of intelligence in which you are most interested are:
a) What are the key competencies being assessed?
b) What type of assessments are to be employed?
If these are not clear from the invitation, then seek clarifications from the hiring organization.
However, be prepared for some stonewalling, as the hiring organization is most likely to want to keep you guessing in advance of the day.
Accordingly have a list of seemingly naïve open-ended questions, suitably interspersed with innocent misunderstandings and pregnant pauses as you fish around for whatever clues are on offer.
At the very minimum, read the job description carefully to identify the key competencies demanded and force yourself to think of any stand-out simulation possibilities that would fit with the job.
For instance, if you’re applying for a job as a PR Manager, then you are fairly likely to be presented with something along the lines of a simulated interview with a news reporter.
3. Know how to impress the assessors
As much as possible try to portray whatever are the most positive stereotypical behaviours associated with the job title/description.
For instance, if you are trying out for a customer-facing position, you got to put on your customer service face – ie. smile, greet & be attentive to everyone you encounter.
If, instead, the position has some regulatory/compliance association (eg. financial/quality/safety controller), it is better to adopt a more formal, reserved & thoughtful, guise.
And, if it’s more an operations-type role that’s on offer, you got to be seen as the all-dancing, dynamic, eager-beaver, driver type.
4. Know how to show a competency consistency
Assessment centres are designed to cross-check a candidate’s competencies across a number of different testing scenarios.
This means that you need to stay on message with respect to the key competencies being tested across all the exercises presented.
Thus, for instance, if you have determined that project management skills are critical to the role, then you may choose:
a) to pepper one’s contribution to any group discussion with reference to terms such as work breakdown structures, design and execution phases, contingency plans, etc.,
b) introduce some simple planning and organizing tools into one’s role-plays – eg. simple process maps, fishbone diagrams, gantt charts, etc., and
c) frame your responses to any analytical exercise in terms of criteria ratings, relative priorities, short and longterm repercussions, etc.
5. Know how far to flex your normal behaviour
Finally, one has to make the all-important judgement call on the degree to which one can safely flex one’s normal behaviour in the direction of the behaviours sought, without compromising oneself.
Here, one simply has to experiment and refine with copious rehearsal until one reaches a degree of assurance in oneself - to impress the assessors, but not to overdo with too heavy a hand, either.
And, be sure to use a coach & video playback during practice to calibrate how natural and convincing are any of these staged/adopted behaviours.
Think of an assessment centre as an audition
In summary, then, don’t forget our little Brando story: for an assessment centre is really an auditioning event – and the only focus is to nail the part.
And, this demands lots of homework & preparation.
Otherwise, a somewhat different line from Brando (as Terry Malloy, On the Waterfront, 1954) comes more to mind:
‘I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.’
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