December 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 6 // Tools of the Trade // 6TOT1

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Assessment Technology: Its Use in Improving Leadership and Management Performance

Assessment centers are one of the most effective selection, promotional, and training tools ever developed. Many organizations use them today, including a large percentage of Fortune 500 corporations and federal, state, and local government agencies. Assessment centers offer immediate and targeted application supporting leadership, assessment, and development for managers. Both participants and practitioners value assessment centers for their content validity, predictive accuracy, objectivity, and relevance to the job. Ohio State University Extension is successfully using assessment centers to identify and evaluate the supervisory, managerial, and leadership capabilities of its professional staff.

Gail J. Gunderson
Leader, Organization Development
Ohio State University Extension
Columbus, Ohio
Internet address:

Bill R. Haynes
District Director/Associate Chair
Ohio State University Extension
Vandalia, Ohio
Internet address:

Businesses and organizations have used the assessment center method to select, evaluate, and develop individuals for managerial positions. The Cooperative Extension System, fragmented both programmatically and geographically, must rely on managers throughout the organization to effectively utilize economic, human and material resources.

The Use of Assessment Centers for Management and Leadership

The assessment center method is unique in that it combines standardized individual assessment procedures such as tests, interviews, and situational exercises (Thornton & Byham, 1982). Three human resource functions can be effectively addressed through the use of the assessment center process.

  • The first is selection, deciding whom to select for or promote into management positions.
  • The second is diagnostic, determining strengths and weaknesses in work related skills as a prelude to development.
  • The third is development, providing training for managerial and teamwork skills (Thornton, 1992).

Essential features of an assessment center include situational exercises that simulate aspects of the job and are based on a detailed job analysis. Such exercises may include: in-basket, interview simulation, structured and unstructured group discussions, oral and written communication exercises, case study, and other job simulations.

Multiple assessors are involved in the role of observation and evaluation of participants' performance in individual and group exercises, providing an opportunity to observe the behaviors of participants as they interact with other people, solve problems, and act on their analyses. The use of multiple assessment procedures representing important elements of the target job, coupled with multiple observations by highly trained assessors and a systematic process of pooling and integrating those observations, results in an evaluation of several management competencies and, in some cases, an evaluation of the participant's potential to succeed as a manager (Thornton, 1992). Specific behavioral dimensions or competencies serve as the focus of the structured observations (Task Force on Assessment Center Guidelines, 1979).

Numerous studies have determined that the assessment center method has greater validity for promotion and selection than traditional techniques. Having been developed on the basis of job analysis, it is inherently valid and has proven to be a better indicator of future success than any other tool yet devised. This method is relatively objective, provides uniform standards for judgment by trained observers, is valid, and can serve as a developmental experience for participants. Assessment centers aid in the early identification of management potential and in the diagnosis of individual management development needs so that training and development efforts might be invested more productively.

Use of Assessment Centers by Ohio State University Extension

Ohio State University (OSU) Extension has utilized assessment centers and adaptations of the assessment center methodology since 1985 to identify and evaluate supervisory, managerial, and leadership capabilities of professional staff. The authors have been involved in the development and on-going management of several assessment centers within their organization.

1) County Chair Assessment Center

The Ohio State University Extension County Chair Assessment Center was developed in 1984 with a review of literature and a comprehensive process focused on county chairs of local Extension units. County chairs are administratively responsible for personnel and program management. A job analysis committee was used to determine the skills and capacities required to successfully perform the chair role, resulting in 15 job-related dimensions. These dimensions include:

  • Oral communications,
  • Written communications,
  • Leadership,
  • Initiative,
  • Planning/organizing,
  • Decision making/judgment,
  • Development of co-workers,
  • Behavioral flexibility,
  • Organizational sensitivity,
  • Assertiveness,
  • Objectivity,
  • Perception,
  • Sensitivity,
  • Management control, and
  • Collaborativeness.

The emphasis of the County Chair Assessment Center in Ohio has been developmental. Individuals participate in the center prior to appointment as a county chair or within the first 6 months of their appointment. The organization is currently considering using the center for selection, in addition to development, because of current research documenting its value in selection (Haynes,1996).

2) National Leadership and Management Assessment Center

Based on the success and credibility of the County Chair Assessment Center in Ohio, OSU Extension was asked to offer an adapted assessment approach for Extension managers and leaders throughout the United States. A national assessment center has been offered annually since 1989, with more than 400 participants from over 25 states.


The assessment center method is a valid and reliable method for Extension organizations to use when selecting individuals for supervisory or managerial positions, for diagnosing administrative strengths and weaknesses, and for determining developmental needs of participants. Organizations that use a comprehensive assessment center process have a stronger foundation on which to build training and development programs related to management and leadership.

The simulations provide a realistic job preview for participants and may assist them in decision making before pursuing a new job role. Personal learning and development are substantial throughout the individual's participation in the simulations. The process is highly individualized and customized to the learner, with personalized feedback, developmental support, and follow up.

The assessment center is a strong, integral component of a system contributing to management and leadership development within OSU Extension. In research conducted by Haynes (1996), participants cited several behavioral changes made as a result of their feedback and personal insight. These behaviors included a greater use of planning tools, stronger listening skills, ability to be more open minded and proactive, increased goal setting, ability to build stronger teams, increased sensitivity, increased use of technology, and ability to recognize employees for work.

The authors urge those interested in management and leadership development who are not yet familiar with assessment centers to consult some or all of the references listed below.


Buford, J.A., Bedeian, A.G., & Lindner, J.R. (1995). Management in Extension. The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

Haynes, B.R. (1996). Factors affecting supervisory and management competencies of participants in Extension Assessment Centers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. The Ohio State University.

Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. (1982). Management of organizational behavior. Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Kreitner, R. (1989). Management. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, MA.

Mees, C. (1963). County Extension administration. Journal of Extension 1(2).

Moses, J.L. (1987). Assessment centers. Training and development handbook: A guide to human resource development. New York: McGraw Hill, 248-262.

Task Force on Assessment Centers Standards. (1979). Standards and ethical considerations for assessment center operations. New Orleans.

Thornton III, G.C., & Byham, W.C. (1982). Assessment centers and managerial performance. New York: Academic Press.

Thornton III, G.C. (1992). Assessment centers in human resource management. Addison-Wesley.