Should we use Psychometric Testing when selecting Retail leaders?

By Jez Styles, AdMore Recruitment

Psychometric testing is being increasingly used in Retail recruitment. A large number of Retailers have been using a variety of tests for a number of years but what has changed recently is the application. It has become common place for companies to use testing as a means to pass or fail applicants rather than as a measure to support a decision. In some job functions I can absolutely see the validity of this type of assessment; however where I have doubts is in its application for Retail leadership roles.

I studied psychometric testing at university as part of a Psychology degree and to be honest I am a little sceptical about how psychological theory is applied in the business world. From my own experience in retail and latterly in recruitment, I have found that Psychological theory is often drawn upon to support a specific corporate ideology. I have attended numerous training sessions in which the psychological theories (motivation theory, learning style, leadership style, thinking - the list goes on) was often presented as fact. A previous employer commissioned a firm to profile its workforce the result of which research was that the employees fell in to roughly 3-4 groups. In essence you were either; going places and team orientated, standing still or a non-team player that got results. It was presented positively but there was an underlying message that if you didn’t quite fit…well you didn’t fit. The trouble is, as much as you want to put people in boxes it isn’t that simple. Giving people a construct for thinking is not a problem in itself however presenting it as fact or boxing people in is, in my opinion, a subtle form of corporate brain washing. Having re-read that last sentence I guess a critic will say that people are capable of thinking for themselves but where I feel that falls down is in Retail where large numbers of people do not necessarily possess the confidence or experience to question this, whether that be publically or just reflectively.

Broadly speaking there are two types of test that are being widely used in Retail: self-reporting questionnaires and ability tests. Self-reporting questionnaires are falling out of fashion for the simple reason that they are, by their very essence, open to manipulation. Supporters of these questionnaires will tell you that there are measures built in to the questionnaire to test for reliability…but to be honest I never have and never will buy that. Most candidates applying for a role with a specific company will be able to adapt their answers to what they believe the company is looking for.

The second branch of testing, ability tests, are much more reliable, providing it really is the candidate completing the test of course (elephant in the room). There are a number of firms that have done very well in this area and the tests are widely used in Retail. I am absolutely an advocate of the use of these tests to inform a decision but they shouldn’t be used as a pass or fail mechanism. There are 3 simple reasons why:

  • The tests require candidates to think in a particular way. Like everything, practice will lead to improved results. So, candidates can get better…but likewise if it is your first time completing the test there is a good chance you will not do as well as you might be ‘able.’
  • There are a range of ability tests that are used for Retail Management, ranging from the well known verbal and numerical through to spatial and inductive reasoning. However in an industry where leadership is becoming more important than management I wonder how the above tests can truly judge leadership potential / capability? I do understand that Retailers need to be able to read, analyse and work a P&L but how do the tests truly assess the ability of a candidate to translate business objectives in to tangible actions and motivate a workforce to deliver? The simple answer is that they don’t.
  • You could of course test for Emotional intelligence as this would be a good indicator of leadership capability. I am a strong advocate for EI, but it is still just a theory. Just because we have named something doesn’t mean it exists. Also, not all emotionally intelligent candidates have the necessary ‘hunger, ambition, drive, or energy’ or indeed ‘will’ to achieve.

Finally, if you are using Psychometric testing in your selection process, are you measuring the correlation between scores and job success? If you are not, then the exercise lacks credibility. This of course requires on-going data capture well beyond the selection process and years in to a person’s career. I don’t want to come across as a luddite but if you start a job you should be prepared to finish it.

So what is the alternative?

Well, in my opinion, it is a case of going back to basics. If you are going to hire a Divisional Manager on £100k then surely you would like to know how they have performed previously rather than whether they are scoring in the 95th percentile on a numerical reasoning test. So perhaps the oldest and best differentiator of all needs to be taken more seriously - the good old fashioned reference. If a candidate claims to have added 10% to sales in a year then check that out – did they really do this, and if so, how? If the candidate has indicated in their self-assessment that they can articulate a clear vision and inspire their team then perhaps you should ask some of their old team.

Overall, I feel that Psychometric testing has validity as part of the assessment and selection process but it should be used to supplement traditional techniques rather than as a replacement. Of course ‘gamification’ of selection is the next growth area and is already being used for entry level positions at several major retailers. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the coming years.

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Interview questions you may be asked at Operations Director level

By Russell Adams,AdMore Recruitment

Before focusing on some of the questions you are likely to be asked at interview, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of preparation for interviews at Operations Director level. Whilst people always talk about preparation, senior candidates need to ensure that if they are interested in pursuing a role, they are able to dedicate enough time to present themselves in a credible way. You are likely to be put through a robust and probably lengthy recruitment process which will be designed to test and stretch, assessing both your capability and cultural fit for the business you are considering joining. Leadership, management style and culture are critical at this level, as is the need to fit with rest of the executive or leadership team. In addition to the traditional interview process, it is highly likely you will undergo psychometric testing and a possible assessment with an Occupational Psychologist. These steps are designed to provide a rounded picture of you as an individual from an intellectual, personality and capability perspective.

My personal opinion is that as the interview process moves forward, the importance of preparation increases. The risk for senior candidates is to assume that their experience will speak for itself however this is a highly competitive market and you must be able to provide evidence to back up your track record and be able to demonstrate your behavioural qualities which are so critical in a senior position.

I recently met a senior candidate to talk through his preparation for a third interview. Having met the client twice, he was in the position of understanding the three areas of potential concern the client had about him as an individual and his ability to deliver in this role. As a result he had used a "mind map" to develop a clear plan and strategy of how he would provide evidence to the key stakeholders in the next interview to overcome these concerns. By completing this preparation and seeking the counsel of others he was giving himself the best possible chance of overcoming these potential objections.

During the selection process clients will be looking to identify your capability across a number of key competencies and will question you accordingly. I have listed some of the major competencies below and some questions that you could possibly be asked:

Leadership

Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal. In today’s world it is accepted that it is about engaging individuals to maximising their discretionary efforts. From a client’s perspective they are looking for you to provide evidence of how you have led your team to deliver great results.

Typical leadership questions may include:

  • Why do you believe you are the best person for the role? Although somewhat crude at a senior level, it is about the individual’s ability to illustrate a clear view on what they feel they can bring to the position.
  • How do you inspire others around you that are looking to fill your shoes?
  • When have you found recently that old solutions no longer work?
  • Describe a time where your team did not agree with your proposed course of action, how did you manage that situation?
  • How have you communicated your Vision and ensured your team are fully engaged? How have you measured this engagement?

 

Strategic Insight

Being ‘strategic’ in simple terms is having the ability to develop a plan to gain a future advantage. From a client’s perspective they will be looking to assess your ability to think in time, i.e. that you can hold past, present and future in mind at the same time to create better decision making and speed of implementation. Also, that you have the ability to create, analyse and implement a clear strategic vision and plan.

Typical Strategic Insight questions may include:

  • What will stop you achieving your goals?
  • When you envision your business in three years - what does it look like and what will it take to get it there?
  • What do you foresee as the possible future in your sector and potential opportunities that you may be able to exploit through your business's product or service?
  • How do these ideas and decisions tie in with your company's mission, vision, and goals?
  • As you develop a strategic vision for your organisation what are the key criteria that you should focus on?
  • How do you adapt your leadership style in a growth business versus in a turnaround situation?
  • What is your opinion on our current strategy? What would you do differently?

Change Management

This could relate to change in the mission, strategy, operation or culture of the business. The economic downturn has forced most businesses to adapt and change and there continues to be considerable structural change in the retail sector. These challenges have required businesses more than ever to rethink the way they do business. Clients will want to understand examples and evidence of where you have delivered change within an organisation. What actions did you take, what challenges you faced and how these were overcome.

Typical Change Management questions may include:

  • What’s the biggest risk you have ever taken? How did you mitigate this risk? Did it pay off?
  • What are the most common reasons why change fails in most organisations?
  • When have you broken the rules in order to deliver the right result?
  • How have you restructured your business to ensure it is "fit for purpose"?
  • How has technology changed the way in which you approach your role?

 

Stakeholder Management

Stakeholder management is about managing relationships with a broad range of individuals or groups who have a vested interest in the various outcomes of the business. Your ability to effectively manage these challenging and sometime conflicting relationships is essential when operating at a senior level.

Typical Stakeholder Management questions may include:

  • How have you sought to gain the buy-in of your fellow directors to your strategy?
  • How do you deal with underperforming peers who are impacting your business?
  • How have you utilised Social Media to engage different groups?
  • How have you balanced the short-term versus long-term demands of investors?

Commerciality 

Commerciality concerns your ability to exploit business opportunities and deliver great results. It is imperative that you know your numbers inside out as you are likely to be questioned hard about the results you have delivered and how you have achieved them.

Typical Commerciality questions may include:

  • How is your business performing year to date?
  • How does this compare to other regions, divisions or competitors.
  • What is your lasting legacy at company X?
  • In the last three years how have you balanced the need to cut costs whilst delivering for the customer?
  • What action have you taken that has had the biggest impact on sales?
  • Explain our brand?
  • Who do you view as the biggest competitive threat to our business? Why?

  

General questions 

  • What are you looking for in an employer?
  • Why do you feel you have succeeded where others have failed?
  • How do you ensure your team are bought into your vision and company strategy?
  • How would you deal with one of the direct report’s for this role who believes this role should have been theirs?
  • What are you going to do if you are unsuccessful in securing this role?

 

Fundamentally the client is measuring you on the evidence that you provide, your ability to articulate that evidence, the results you have achieved and how these have been delivered.

So, preparation is key – whilst you aren’t going to be asked all of the questions listed, you will undoubtedly be asked about questions covering these competency areas and it is critical that you have prepared examples and are clear about the messages you wish to convey.

As a client said to me yesterday, "I can only assess the candidate against the evidence she gave me during the interview…"

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Is the recession creating a lost generation of Middle Management in Retail?

There has been a lot of publicity recently about a lost generation of graduates and school leavers who cannot find work.  Equally the steady rise in redundancies that has continued unabated throughout and beyond the recession has affected large numbers of people. Those of you who are in work will naturally feel relieved that you are in employment and ‘safe.’ At the start of the recession the vast majority of recruiters and businesses used the ‘sell’ of job security as a means to both retain and attract talent. The vast majority of candidates placed this at the top of their wish list for their next job. Of course this was going all the way back to 2008 and for some as early as 2007 when Retailers starting cutting costs with dark clouds gathering in the US over the sub-prime crash. Large numbers of retailers have taken the opportunity to soak up this surplus of talent. Between 2009 and continuing through 2011 it became common place for Retail Directors to take Regional Manager positions, Regional Managers to take Area Manager positions and Area Managers to take Store Manager positions. This downwards pressure on the job market has continued and there are plenty of businesses out there whom are still capitalising on the opportunity. Another product of the recession has been Operational restructuring. Store closures aside this tends to predominantly affect Area Managers through to Retail Director level. Large numbers of retailers have quite simply removed a layer of management, typically at Regional level. As a result a large number of chains now have a model where an area manager will lead a group of up to 40+ stores and report directly to the Retail Director. It’s a big jump for a Store Manager to make and an even more unlikely move for an Area Manager to move to the one and only operational role above them. So to recap, there are less layers of management, less positions and increasing numbers of senior operators whom are settling for a role that is a step below where they have operated previously. That safety that candidates have been flocking to in recent years is beginning to look like stasis or to be more dramatic a career trap.  How long are you willing to sit it out? The reality is, depending on whether you are a glass half empty/full type of person, we are likely to see recession / negligible growth for at least another 3-6 years. Given that lots of people have been in lockdown mode for the best part of 3 years, the risk averse among you will potentially not be looking for a promotion or external career advancement for up to 9 (YES NINE) years. Guess what, when you start looking for a job at that point, your drive and ambition will be challenged and to be realistic you will probably struggle to make another move upwards. Are you feeling quite so comfortable with being safe now? Interestingly there have been more of those elusive ‘passive’ candidates coming on to the market at the start of 2012. The Executive’s candidate board that is Linkedin is testament to the change in mind-set. Lots of candidates see no issue with loading their profile on to Linkedin with the hope that they will be ‘found’. I suspect that a large number of these people will take a more aggressive approach to their career advancement in 2012. Will those that do not be left behind?