International Assessment and Development Centres: “Sense and sensitivity ”

International companies are making more and more use of Assessment and Development Centres and they’re doing this for a number of reasons: to benchmark competencies; to facilitate integration of teams; in the context of a recruitment, perhaps at senior executive level and when putting in place high performance and succession planning programmes. Ian McDonald, one of the Directors and founders of Redwood Talent Partners, a British consultant living in France, shares his experience in this area.

What are the characteristics of an international Assessment or Development Centre?

The first main point is the diversity of nationalities present, both in terms of the participants and the consultants. The Centre might take place in the « home » country of the client company or in different country but the key factors driving the event will be the reasons behind the organisation of the Centre. These reasons frequently include a desire to bring commonality to and to develop team competencies and culture. In other words, to ensure that everyone speaks the same language wherever they are based, that everyone shares a common understanding of what the chosen competencies are, what they mean and the expected performance levels.

The fact that teams are based in different countries, including virtual teams and those distant from Head Office, can be one of the issues which will influence the corporate decision to organise an “international” event such as a Development Centre. In another context, companies need to create and manage their talent pipelines. An invitation to participate in an international (or Group) Assessment or Development Centre can give a strong message, to those being considered for or already part of such a programme, about the interest that their employer has concerning their professional development.

Finally, recruitment of an individual to a key position, usually at senior executive level, may be another reason for organising an international assessment centre.

What are the particularities of a consultancy firm which carries out international Assessment and Development projects?

The most important thing is the quality of the consultantstheir own experience, their skills and their sensitivity to and awareness of the international environment. Also, given that the client needs to ensure that the participant experience is of the same high level across multiple international centres, it’s important to be able to bring together a team of consultants with common skills and training, whether the Centre is taking place in Europe, the Middle East, Asia or the Americas.

What are the qualities and the skills required for a consultant specialising in international assessment and development?

Sensitivity: The key issue for the consultant is to bring out the best in the participants whilst respecting the equity of the process. A consultant specialising in international assignments needs to be practical in their approach to organising and working with a culturally mixed group of participants. It’s important to be able to anticipate and detect potential issues and to imagine and put in place appropriate solutions. We should never underestimate that for some participants, and no matter how well the event is organised, an Assessment or Development Centre can be stressful. Therefore, the consultant is also a facilitator and needs to put participants at ease so that their communication (often not in their mother tongue) in the face to face interviews and exercises is as natural as possible. It’s also important to be aware of the different communication codes which might be observed during the group exercises or role plays.

Teaching and communication style: After the event the consultant must be capable of effectively following up with the participants. This involves going beyond what might be the main deliverable for the client, the written report. The report is not an end in itself, except perhaps for assessments in the context of recruitment. To ensure that the participant is best prepared to work on their development plan, best practice suggests that at least one (and perhaps several) sessions are necessary. During these sessions, which might kick-off straight after the Centre or be run via telephone/video conference a little later, the consultant will explain, challenge and encourage the participant to identify the most appropriate areas for development and to build on existing skills. Once again, the consultant must work in the context of the experience, culture and nationality of the participant and the “reasons why” the client company has organised the event.

Adaptability: This is a quality that the client will always look for. The capacity of the consultants to rapidly assimilate and adapt to the context and organisation of the Centre will have an immediate impact of the participant experience, which is quite likely to be an area of particular sensitivity for the client. The cohesion and communication between consultants, who are likely to be of different nationalities themselves, means that a “one team” approach will exist for the duration of the Centre.

What methods and tools do you use to build up as complete a picture as possible of a participant? Do you make any particular use of digital tools in an international context?

The “toolkit” for most Assessment or Development Centres consists of: psychometric tests and questionnaires (usually taken online), role plays, individual and group exercises and face to face interviews. There are two main ways in which these need to be adapted in an international context:

  1. The exercises and role plays can be designed to include the particular challenges encountered by a manager working in an international context, often far from “home”, faced with situations where it can be important to demonstrate a blend of tact, influencing skills and the capacity to take decisions
  2. It may be possible (and indeed preferable) to ensure that the online tests and the face to face interview are organised in the participant’s mother tongue, whilst the role plays and group exercises use a common language, English in most cases.

The written report will usually be shared with the participant – this should always be the case for a Development Centre –  and as in most international groups the central talent management function uses English as a common language, most reports are drafted in English. Of course, the debrief can be in the mother tongue.

In the context of an international Centre, must the participant already have had an internationally-oriented career?

Not necessarily. In most cases the key word is « development ». Of course, the Assessment or Development Centre is usually structured with a focus on skills and competencies that will be especially important and useful for a manager whose development is likely to take place in an international context. In the absence of managerial experience in an international context, the key is to evaluate the potential of the participant in the competencies being observed. Amongst these, it can useful to focus on:

  • Capacity to evaluate, understand and manage complex situations
  • Ability to collaborate effectively with others, to build relationships and networks
  • Communication skills including active listening and the capacity to influence, both orally and in writing
  • Level of motivation, of energy and perseverance

These skills and abilities, important for any business leader, take on even greater importance when considering the capacity of an individual to evolve in an international context.

Does a particular Centre stand out for you? Why?

Two recent examples are especially memorable:

  1. A « National/International » Assessment Centre
    A Saudi Arabian company decided to bring a marked international dimension to its Graduate Recruitment process. The Assessment Centre was designed in English (with some modifications to the exercises, to take cultural differences into account) and the consultants were of several nationalities. The management of the company wanted to communicate the message to participants that an international dimension, an ability to share and exchange, and to demonstrate awareness beyond the local level was important for the future of the company.The Centre was most certainly challenging for the participants, but in a positive way which also helped the company to bring additional focus to recruitment decisions.
  1. Team spirit and individual success
    A French multinational took the decision to design and roll-out a Development Centre to help HR teams in countries across the world adapt to an evolution of their roles in a rapidly changing environment. Taking place at locations in Europe, Asia and North America, the objective was to facilitate exchange, communication and development across the teams, whilst providing the central team with an overall view helping them to identify and prioritise development needs.The cultural mix was a particular feature of many of the Centres. For example, in India, and in a group with 8 participants, 7 nationalities were represented – India, United Kingdom, South Korea, Japan, Romania, France and Hong Kong! Despite the cultural differences, and the different levels of professional experience of the participants, the atmosphere was especially constructive and the attitude was positive. The group exercise was a great success. The souvenir of this Centre is especially strong as it was a powerful example of a multicultural group coming together for the first time and working exceptionally well together.

Interview carried out by Aurélien Mizeret, MANAGEMENT RH

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