Testing leadership skills

Materials World magazine
1 Nov 2017

Ian Bowbrick* offers an insight into assessment centres and the leadership skills assessors are looking for in engineers.

As I entered the dining room, three hopeful young engineers were already exchanging small talk with three industrialists. Each of the engineers had their eye on the prize – the funding to undertake an international programme that would help them fulfil their career aspirations. This could only be achieved by convincing the industrialists they were future leaders of the industry.

It was the first time I had met the young engineers, but I knew them intimately – largely courtesy of their social media and online footprint (something applicants should check regularly), but also from targeted enquiries through our extensive network. The first I approached was Joel, a London-based management consultant. Victoria was a larger-than-life product development manager from the West Midlands and finally Priti, by her own admittance a mediocre engineer, but a better project manager who worked for a consulting engineering company in Leeds.

We sat down to eat. The panel chair Steve formally welcomed everyone and added that I wasn’t part of the assessment panel so wasn’t worth talking to. Our hopefuls laughed and I managed a smile, not to be polite but because Steve had remembered the script. I could now get on with my job without the distraction of making polite conversation.

Leaders of industry?

At the end of the meal, as the coffee was served, Steve tipped me a nod. Having said nothing all evening, my intervention came as a surprise to the engineers. I asked them to complete an exercise for me. They were supposed to plan a straightforward potential acquisition of an ailing manufacturing company. They were given the company’s management accounts and balance sheet, product list and basic information about the domestic and global sector it operated in. Their 45-minute time period was to include a 10-minute presentation at the end on their findings and recommendations. Priti took the role of monitor evaluator. But who would take the role of chair? Joel proved too strong for Victoria, who settled into an implementer role. While the engineers discussed the data, the panel was listening and recording the odd note on the menus. Each was focusing on one particular candidate.

I started to shuffle in my chair at the 40-minute mark. Priti picked up my signal and wrestled the chair role from Joel. She then delivered a detailed and confident five-minute presentation. She was starting to tick the boxes with her colleagues floundering in her wake. Once the candidates had left the room, I summarised my notes to Steve and his co-assessors, which broadly matched their opinions. They were also in line with the results of the psychometric tests the engineers had previously undertaken for us, and gave the team lines of questioning at the interviews that would follow the next day.

Assessing leadership

That was an exaggerated account of an assessment centre, one of some 150 that I managed over a 20-year period before joining the Institute staff. Some of it is true, although the names have been changed. Reading this account may be informative to those who are looking to pursue a leadership role, by demonstrating the preparation and scripted actions, however small, that assessors will make. It also gives an insight into the qualities potential leaders are assessed against. Confidence and a positive attitude are essential in leaders. It is sometimes said that decisions about others are made in the first five minutes of meeting – the first impressions concept. So the first meeting with the young engineers was extremely important for them.

The key element of this assessment session was the role-play exercise at the end. While the recommendation of the engineers was of interest, the exercise was set up to test other skills – their approach to a problem, whether they trusted their intuition, their creativity and whether they could inspire others to accept their way of thinking. Finally, the presentation displays possibly the most important quality of a leader – their communication skills. Without the ability to put forward your case, convince others and defend your position, you are not going to make it to a senior position. The communication skills being examined here were not just verbal. There are a myriad of discrete and non-verbal skills, the mastery of which is as important as your confidence and command of the English language. Understanding body language, tone of voice and eye contact can make the difference between making a sale or not. 

There are other elements to this assessment, as 45 minutes can only give a snapshot into an individual’s potential, but a leader will seize any opportunity presented to them. Only Priti passed the assessment centre. She went on to lead a management buyout of her then employer and won a Queen’s Award for Export before selling her share of the business a number of years later.

*EUR ING Ian Bowbrick CEng CEnv FIMMM is Director of Professional Development and Membership at IOM3.