Leading in the Real World and Leadership Assessment Tests

President and CEO, Birkman International, Inc.

So, you’re closing in on graduation with a solid GPA, whether it’s from business school, an engineering or science program, or a solid liberal studies track. You’re ready to take on leadership responsibilities at the right organization. How to get from point A, graduation, to point B, a job that gives you the opportunity to build leadership skills? And what does “being a leader” out there in the real world actually entail? An assessment might help you discover and develop your own leadership strengths.

Leadership is tough

First, recognize that leadership is tough. At the top, executive leaders are in the line of fire for poor decisions, risky investment strategies, company problems, and more, including problems they may not directly control. Finding the right “leader” often requires constant a changing and reshuffling of jobs, but the demands of customers, stakeholders, and investors continue to increase. Organizations look for someone who can perform miracles and promptly turn to the next candidate when miracles don’t happen. Rapid turnover is the rule at every executive level.  According to the Corporate Leadership Council, 50% of newly hired executives typically are fired or quit within the first three years. There is plenty of volatility in the middle management ranks too.

Different organizations, or different areas within the same organization, require different types of leaders. The charismatic leadership that motivates a sales team is very different from the intellectual leadership more appropriate to motivate a team of product researchers or finance professionals. There is no “one size fits all” solution. Effective leaders can't master all styles. (If you're still in college or are college-bound and you've already proven your leadership abilities, you absolutely must check out these leadership scholarships.)

Self-awareness is crucial

Self-awareness is crucial for leadership development. Leaders are only effective if they understand their own motivational drivers and how these may be different from other individuals. There are many routes to self-awareness, but, unfortunately, neither academic training nor job responsibilities typically leave time for discovery. That’s why working with your school’s career center to undertake a personality assessment test can help you understand your leadership skills. Assessments can point out your personal strengths and weaknesses through objective methods that can help you find the right position.

Personality assessments are an accepted part of leadership development. A 2008 Wall Street Journal story reported that more than 80% of mid-size and large companies use personality and ability assessments of new hires for entry and mid-level positions. Such tests may help the employer hire a specific type of individual for a position with unique requirements, or to rule out someone whose traits likely mean job failure. Either way, by identifying candidates with the potential to excel and the type of top performers they can be, personality testing makes the job search process more systematic. The grad who has already taken a personality test and integrates the results into a career development strategy may have an advantage over candidates who lack such insight.

The key is to understand yourself--what you want and need in order to achieve your leadership potential. Defining your underlying needs and motivations shows what drives your behavior and how you establish an emotional workplace connection and passion for what you do. The best tests are structured to give you a frame of reference to assess your interests, job needs, work style, and career satisfaction.  Personality testing identifies and brings personal characteristics into focus so you can better integrate your core capabilities into your professional life. 

Honesty is essential

The more an assessment measures, the more useful it is to help you understand behavior and the greater insight it provides on what career satisfaction means to you. The most comprehensive personality testing should measure the three factors most critical to career satisfaction and resulting performance: individual characteristics, job situations, and how individuals and situations interact. Personality testing is not a rigid, by-the-numbers process; it offers considerable flexibility in demonstrating how personal strengths and job requirements align. 

It is vital that your testing responses not show what psychologists call “social desirability.”  This is the tendency to create a good impression or to respond, either deliberately or unintentionally, in a socially desirable manner--in other words, to provide answers that you think present you best. This is simply self-defeating. What’s more, skilled testing professionals in your college’s career center can single out those responses, because, whether or not you realize it, they are obviously inconsistent with the whole pattern of answers that you give. That inconsistency sends a strong negative message about you, and it defeats the whole purpose, which is to understand your leadership capabilities and find the right position to use them.

Graduating and launching a career is a challenging process for anyone, but it is also a perfect time to assess your work style and definition of a satisfying career. Personality testing can help you zero in on what fits best. Using the science of self-analysis to identify your leadership strengths before looking for opportunities to exercise them can help you get the position you really want--and give you your best chance to lead and succeed.   

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