Can a Test Make You a Better Leader?

Aptitude exams are making a comeback in the workplace. That’s bad news for anybody who dreaded the SAT. But for organizations that struggle to find internal talent, it’s an opportunity.

Professional attainment has many virtues, but prominent among them is that you no longer have to endure the drudgery of standardized tests. You were done with all that when you wrapped up your SAT, GRE, or professional certification. Leaders will always have skills to work on, but by the time you’re nearing the corner office—or in it—you’re generally considered smart enough not to have to prove yourself in a timed exam.

Or not. The SAT-style assessment appears to be making a comeback in the workplace. Vista Equity Partners, a private-equity firm, administers a test to all its employees, regardless of their position on the org chart. And corporations in various industries, according to a recent article in the Atlantic, are measuring employees’ brainpower, with a focus on leadership and management skills. The article reports that one testing company, Criteria Corp., has had 2 million people take its Criteria Cognitive Aptitude Test, and describes its offerings as “especially useful for mid- and higher-level jobs.”

A capacity to slow down and think through a problem is essential for leaders. Why not test for it?

Can a revival of the corporate rally song be far behind? Companies tended to abandon strict testing in recent years for a host of reasons: Hierarchies and job roles became more fluid in ways those testing methods couldn’t address, tenures at companies became shorter in ways that made career-path testing less meaningful, and tests can be prone to bias when they’re not thoughtfully managed. We’ve also entered an era where leadership became, in our cultural imagination, as much a persona-driven role as a skills-driven one; leaders were listeners, coordinators, and charismatic spokespersons, not big-brained, stiff-suited management robots. Every generation still gets a new management scheme, from Six Sigma to Lean management, but slotting specific skills into specific roles in a Spock-like manner—the kind of thing corporations tested for—was a thing of the past.

The new wave of testing, though, argues that such cognitive fluidity not only can be assessed, but ought to be in the current environment. Forbes reports that all employees at any company acquired by Vista take a “personality-and-aptitude test” which “assesses technical and social skills, and attempts to gauge analytical and leadership potential.” Rather than cementing biases, Vista argues, its testing helps eradicate them, revealing leadership potential that might otherwise go unrecognized; a pizza franchise manager was promoted to sales trainer under the system, for instance, and a mailroom worker became a programmer.

Shane Frederick, a Yale business school professor who studies testing, told the Atlantic that the new wave of testing is better at sussing out “cognitive reflection,” a bit of jargon for “doing more than thinking with your gut.” A capacity to slow down and think through a problem is essential for leaders, and “he is unequivocal about the value of testing for it, especially as work seems to grow more complex in every industry.”

Well, we’ve Fitbitted and big-data’d so many other things about our workplaces and industries, so why not this? Naturally, some leaders are resistant. The Atlantic spoke to Stephen Tomlin, a VC firm partner who doubts that a test can identify a successful leader, and looks for domain-specific intelligence and emotional intelligence, two things that are hard to test for. “Raw cognitive processing power seems like a distant seventh or eighth in the kinds of things I would be screening for in a CEO,” he said.

I think it would be an error to rely too heavily on testing to figure out whether somebody is leadership timber. But many organizations are already making a broader error in not thinking much at all about succession in their organizations. Newer employees often don’t know what the path to leadership their organizations are if they have such ambitions, and senior leadership often doesn’t think about creating that path. If a test can provide a road map for both leaders and employees, it may be worth the effort. Nobody likes spending an hour taking a test. But nobody likes spending years wondering if they’re considered worthy of promotion either.

Some of the resistance to this kind of testing, I suspect, is fear-based: What if the people who thought they were destined for the C-suite learn that an algorithm has decided that middle-management is best for them? But that’s the same punchcard-era anxiety that the new testing seems to be trying to avoid. And a test isn’t the sole guide to an employee’s fate, just one point worth considering within an organization’s larger culture. Good leaders want their organizations to succeed, and they want their employees to succeed within it. Given the lack of attention succession gets at organizations, gathering extra data points can only help.

Do you measure employee leadership potential at your organization? If so, how do you do it? Share your experiences in the comments.

(MangoStar_Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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