What Is a Management Assessment Center?

Department managers talking in a glass-walled meeting room.
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A management or leadership assessment center is a series of tests, interviews, simulations, and exercises designed to predict how well a management candidate will perform in a specific role. For you sports fans, think of the NFL Combine, used to assess college players to help teams decide who to pick for the draft.

Like the sports combine, the assessment center puts the prospective manager through a series of drills and situational tests and will grade their response.

Is a Center Really a Place or Is It a Thing?

The leadership assessment center is a little of both a place and a thing. A center can, indeed, be a place where you send management candidates—run by companies who specialize in assessment methodology. Or, you can have an “in-house” assessment center, using your own trained managers or HR staff. Sometimes the in-house assessment may have the assistance of an outside firm.

Some companies even offer “virtual” assessment centers as a way to save time and money. Everything is done online with the help of technology like Skype and video-based behavioral simulations.​

Who Provides Management Assessment?

There are many companies that will sell assessment center services to you. One of the things to watch for when shopping for an assessment center provider is a potential conflict of interest and bias.

For example, a recruiting or search firm that offers assessment center-like services might have a bias towards showing you that your managers are all morons so they can come in and find you new ones. Also, a training provider might want to show you your managers lack skills so they can sell you training programs. Reputable firms will not do this, but it is something to be aware of during your search.

The Cost of Assessment

Unfortunately, this type of employment assessment can be costly. This cost is the number one reason why many companies don’t use outside firms. Such testing is usually reserved for senior management positions, given the potential risk if one of these high-level managers doesn't work out.

Of course, prices will vary by provider, the type of position you are assessing, and the complexity of the methodology the assessment firm uses. However, for senior-level executive hire, expect to pay anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 per candidate. In-house centers and group assessments can save money, but it is still a big investment in time.​

Do They Work and Are They Worth the Price?

Yes, they work. A well-designed, valid and reliable assessment center can usually predict potential success in a role and minimize the chances of making a bad hiring decision. We’ve talked to providers and peer practitioners, reviewed the research, and have worked in companies that use them, and are convinced.

Assessment centers have other side benefits too. Once a candidate is assessed, if hired, they can get valuable development feedback. If you train your managers and HR staff to participate in a center, they get better at assessment and selection. Finally, most candidates come away impressed with a company’s commitment to its hiring practices and perceive the process as more fair and unbiased.

“Are they worth it?” is a trickier question to answer. It depends on the importance of the position. For a C-level executive hiring decision, where a selection mistake can cost a company millions of dollars, maybe even billions, spending $12,000 to $20,000 to make a better decision sure makes sense.

Although, if you make a bad management hire, at least everyone can learn some valuable lessons from a horrible boss.

For most other positions, the cost is something the individual business needs to weigh. There are far less expensive options that many companies might not be using that will get you a better return on investment.

Assessments for Middle-Management Hires

For a middle-management hire, use a well designed internal development and succession planning system. By carefully grooming and observing your own pool of internal candidates, you won’t need to rely on external assessments and experts. Besides, external hires are also usually more expensive and riskier than an internal promotion.

Get multiple perspectives, references, and background checks. More data is better. Using an interview team or selection committee will help overcome your own biases and improve accuracy.

Administer your own validated selection assessment tool. There are many commercially available products with cost anywhere from $50 to 500. Some systems you can purchase as a subscription and are allowed to use the tests multiple. Others are a one-off product You can test for personality, values, motivation, skills, and intelligence.

Use a competent, trusted recruiting and search consultant. The best recruiters are so good at what they do, their own “sixth sense” is often more accurate than a roomful of organizational psychologists.

Any or all of these assessment methods, if done well, can help weed out the pretenders from the contenders. But for a high-level management position, where the stakes are much higher, you may want to consider using a full-blown assessment center. The investment is well worth it.