Assessment Centre Tips: How to approach a commercial exercise

We have discussed the different elements of an Assessment Centre before, namely, Role-play interviews, Group Exercises, Psychometric Testing . One element which we haven’t touched on yet is the Commercial Exercise.

This is commonly used in the Retail & Hospitality industries which we serve however will also appear in other sectors where there is a need to test the candidates’ commercial acumen and strategic planning ability.

It is difficult to generalise about these exercises, as one would hope they are tailored to the specific organisation and therefore will differ considerably. However, there are some general guidelines to bear in mind when faced with this kind of exercise.

What do they entail?

They are likely to be an individual exercise and could take a number of forms, for instance:

  • A case study exercise based on the role you are applying for
  •  A more generic abstract case study based on a different industry sector
  •  A more strategic ‘blue-sky’ exercise where you are expected to come up with an innovation or new idea for a business.

Whatever form it takes, there are several things to be aware of which will help you perform well:

Read the brief

As our teachers used to tell us at school, always READ THE QUESTION carefully! When you are nervous and under pressure it is so easy to get the wrong end of the stick so make sure you understand what is expected and if in doubt, ask for clarification before the exercise starts.

Plan your time

Check the time limit and work out how long you have for the exercise. Then you need to factor in enough time to read the question, make a plan and write your answer. Remember, if you are expected to present this back to the assessors in a particular format, to schedule enough time to prepare. I have seen many an excellent commercial exercise undermined by poor presentation at the end.

See the wood for the trees

These exercises tend to be intentionally wordy and the brief is likely to contain a large amount of information. The key is to read through the brief once, then again in detail. On the second read-through, highlight or annotate the areas which you think are most important or relevant. A lot of the information will either be superfluous (and designed to bewilder you) or be less significant. Analysing which key areas you need to focus on will help you plan your strategy and set a clear target for yourself.

Do your calculations

Most commercial exercises will contain financial information, whether that be projected sales figures, costs or budgetary restraints. Ensure you read this information carefully and look for any obvious trends or indicators which may be important. If you have been provided with a calculator, it is likely that some of the figures may be relevant and you may need to work out percentage changes for instance to support your analysis. Take care not to get too bogged down in the figures however. You need to look at the exercise as a whole however the exercise is there to text your commercial acumen so the ability to interpret financial data is undoubtedly a factor.

Look for links

When analysing the information, keep an eye out for separate pieces of data which may indicate one key issue. They may not be glaringly obvious. The assessors will be looking for your ability to link different pieces of information and put together a course of action accordingly.

Put the information in context

Hopefully in preparation for the assessment process, you will have done your research into the company and read the Job Description. This should give you useful background information about the culture of the company and also what their current focus is. For instance, culturally, do they favour a strong coaching management style or are they purely focused on driving sales? If they are currently driving a growth strategy, they are more likely to be looking for people who can motivate a team to exceed targets and drive sales. If they are cutting costs or restructuring, they will be looking for people who are able to performance-manage a team and streamline processes. For website recommendations for researching companies, click here.

Make your plan SMART

If the brief asks you to deliver an action plan based on the information provided, make sure that any recommendations you make are SMART. This is particularly relevant for an exercise which is closely related to the role you are applying for. For instance, here is an example of a case study for a Regional Manager role:

“You are a Regional Manager for a retail business.

You have recently taken over a region of 60 stores. Although you have had very limited time, the Managing Director has arranged a meeting with you in order to understand your strategy for your region.

You have been provided an information pack with a range of information as follows:

  • A handover from the previous Regional Manager.
  • The shrinkage report for your region.
  •  Region P&L report.
  •  A customer complaint letter.
  •  A Health & Safety report.
  •  The last performance appraisals for your 8 Area Managers

 Using the information provided, please draw up a 90 day plan for your area.”

Contained in all the supporting information will be elements which will fall in the short, medium and long term. This can be a useful way of structuring your plan, eg. breaking up a 90 day plan into 30, 60 and 90 days. This also indicates to the assessor that you are able to prioritise between business critical matters and longer term concerns.

You may have some ideas that are more strategic and long term. If so, there is no harm making brief reference to them as long as you make it clear these would not be your first priority.

Use a SWOT as a guide

Irrespective of the type of exercise, using a SWOT analysis as a way of breaking down the information can be useful. By analysing the information in terms of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, you can formulate a strategy to deal with each of these elements.

Don’t forget the human element

When faced with large quantities of data, it can be tempting to focus on this and easy to forget the impact of your plan on your people. For any role where you will be managing (or influencing) people, the assessors will be looking for clear evidence in your plan of how you will engage the relevant stakeholders. This could include performance management strategies (for a classic management role) or could be about PR/Marketing if you are focused on getting customer buy-in for instance.

Keep your feet on the ground

If the exercise asks you to come up with an innovation or brand new strategy, try not to get too carried away. The key here is to provide balance – you need to think of something unique and ground breaking which you could actually deliver! It may be that you would need other factors to be in place (or have a very large budget!) and you may need to think about how you would market this idea, what the target customer would be etc. but as long as you have a sensible plan, this will bring your idea to life.

Demonstrate your thought process

When the commercial exercise is not based on the industry you are working in and is based on a more generic case study, don’t be thrown by jargon or the fact that you don’t know the industry in question. Focus on key elements which are relevant for all industries eg. who will buy the product/use the service, what is the impact on people, what are the financial implications. What the assessor is looking for is the ability to interpret information, your ability to think commercially and your ability to plan – by demonstrating your thought process clearly and focusing on the key elements, you will be able to display your commercial acumen, even if the context is completely alien to you.

How to present the information

Chances are that how you present the information will be left up to you. If you are provided with flipchart paper, I would be inclined to suggest you use this as it is much more impactful for the assessor than you reading your findings from hastily scribbled notes! Once you have sketched out your plan, write the headings on the flipchart paper and add your key points as you go along. This will give you structure and enable you to expand on each point verbally in the presentation.

Be prepared for questions

Try to allow 5 minutes reflection time to think about what the assessor is likely to ask. Is there anything which you left out? Even if this is intentional, you need to be able to justify your decision. If there is a controversial suggestion or strategy in your plan, be prepared to be challenged on this and if necessary, back it up with figures.

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