CEO and Director Selection and Assessment

High level recruitment decisions that fall apart as swiftly and spectacularly as the recently highly publicised departure of the newly appointed Hawke’s Bay Chamber of Commerce CEO, are a sobering reminder to us all of the need to apply the same diligence to testing and assessing candidates at the top end of the organisation as we do for graduate and middle-level management roles.

This might sound blindingly obvious, but it’s an anomaly in recruitment and selection into CEO and Exec Director level roles worldwide that the amount of objective candidate assessment drops away at the top tier of the organisation, often replaced by subjective, bias laden opinions based on job performance to date.

Let’s take a timely look at why we invest in objective candidate assessment in the first place to understand how boards of diverse experienced professionals, often supported recruitment professionals, can lose an appointment to the top of the organisation within a month, with a practical example of CEO assessments that hit the mark


Which jobs get the most Candidate Assessments?

Typically, the amount of objective assessment applied to any vacancy primarily depends on how savvy the hiring organisation is in appreciating the value of making objective placements in the first place, quickly followed by whether they either have assessment expertise in house, or know where to access expertise in New Zealand’s completely unregulated psychometric and assessment exercise marketplace, where the useless and reckless is often undistinguishable from the valid and reliable.

For those who value the process and have access to assessment tools, the jobs that attract the most attention in objective assessments tend to be graduate and middle-management roles.  For the former, this is wholly understandable when gauging latent talent and potential among a candidate pool with limited tangible work experience and a genuine stake-holding in the long term success or failure of the business.  Similarly, that middle management band often has a majority of candidates who are either internal candidates aiming for promotion within the business, or external candidates looking for that next step up the career ladder.  In both cases, objective assessments of their potential in the absence of work experience at an elevated level makes perfect sense.

Why should CEO’s & Director Candidates receive the same level assessment?

If it makes sense to assess capability and potential up to middle management level, then why do organisations worldwide often decrease the level of objective assessment when selecting staff to take the helm and lead them into success or disaster?

The often quoted answer is based on the accumulative experience of candidates at this level negate the need for objective assessment, and when asked to complete assessments, candidates at this level often raise an eyebrow, accompanied with the “surely my track record speaks for itself” refrain.  Of course, their track record has spoken for them in getting them shortlisted, but interviews and reference checks fall well short of the mark in identifying key elements critical to success:

  1. How will this candidate operate within the prevailing culture of our organisation?
  2. Does this candidate have the intellectual firepower to understand the complexities of our organisation and make a blend of hard and soft judgements and decisions that improve our future?
  3. Are this candidates referees a little too in awe of this rising business leader to give an objective account of their capabilities?  – OR – have they spotted an opportunity to move along a future very expensive poor performance issue at zero cost?
  4. How will they lead our Exec Directors and inspire our workforce?
  5. How does their political astuteness measure up against our politically savvy stakeholders and staff?

Attempting to answer these questions with subjective, bias laden opinions of interviews and reference checks exposes organisations to huge unnecessary risks, when the opportunity to make objective candidate assessments at CEO level are at their fingertips.


What Does a CEO Candidate Assessment look like?

The key to any candidate assessment process is its fairness and objectivity, both to the hiring team and the candidate, so CEO assessments need to be pitched where both parties feel comfortable.  This will typically blend measures and demonstrations of personality with hard objective abilities, but as candidates at this level have usually experienced psychometric ability test batteries a few times already, we suggest stepping away from this approach and using assessment centre exercises instead.

Below is a CEO/Director Level candidate assessment compiled by us for the Health Sector.  Similar assessments are designed by us for all business and public sectors, at every level from supervisor to CEO:

Business Case Analysis

An exercise where candidates are presented with a complex and ambiguous business case for opening a new service in the region.  The information includes both numerical data and conflicting written proposals for differing courses of action and the participant needs to be able to calculate and appreciate both in order to reach a decision, which they then present to the selection panel and answer questions that challenge their decision.

This is the difference between an interview where candidates ‘talk about it’ and actually putting your money where your mouth is and proving an ability to operate at CEO level.

Team Meeting

An actual Senior Management Team meeting, where the candidate chairs the events pre-set agenda, which includes contentious agenda items and considerable scope to uncover management and communication styles in the culture in which they will need to operate

Personality Profile

Whilst the psychometric ability tests are replaced by the Business Case Exercise, the personality profiling element of psychometrics stays in place, as this gives us that all important bias free objective look at interpersonal, team and influencing styles, coupled with problem solving and decision making preferences and stress tolerance.


Other CEO assessment options include staff performance interviews and in-basket exercises, but the key to all goes beyond their objectivity and into the involvement of the directors in the assessment of their potential new CEO through the assessment process.

Whilst this approach has been commonplace in the US and Europe for almost two decades, candidate assessment at this level in NZ remains very uncommon outside of the public and banking sectors.  However, a steadily increasing number see the value of making a decision as critical as a key appointment as worthy of more than an interview and reference check, and if you are keen to join their ranks, we would welcome your call on 0508 736 753.