This is the first article in a quick series I’ll be writing over the coming weeks. As assessment centre designers we know that one of the hoops you’re likely to have to jump through is some sort of group exercise – about 75% of the time in fact. So what are they, how do they work, what are assessors looking for, and how can you avoid a complete disaster?

Whatever format it takes, the group exercise often investigates a mixture of two major assessable themes, those of leadership and teamwork. Common scenarios will involve being given a written brief, time to digest it and a time limit, perhaps along with some props that will help you complete the task and sometimes the materials to produce a written summary of your plan or a quick group presentation at the end. The assessors then stand back and watch the fireworks.

Good News and Bad News

As an assessor you can learn a hell of a lot about someone from the way they perform, and there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that many candidates make a complete pig’s ear of these exercises…but this is also the good news, as with just a little bit of forethought you can sidestep most of the usual bloopers with ease and come up smelling of roses.

So what are they looking for? To answer this you just need to place yourself in the assessor’s shoes. What would a superb candidate do when given a task like this? How would they work with the other group members? How will they try to keep the group focused on the task? How will they deal with conflict? Will their natural leadership qualities shine through? I’ll stop there as we’ve reached a major stumbling block – “leadership”.

“Leadership is About Being the Most Shouty Person”

This seems to be the mantra that many candidates use, and it’s what leads to the failure of many groups to complete the task set. This is what typically happens:

1. The group is handed the brief and told to read it thoroughly. THOROUGHLY

2. Everyone only skim-reads it and launches straight in there as they want to be seen to be the first to chime in with their (poorly-informed) contributions

3. With one person ranting away, this sparks an arms-race to be heard, each shouting over the other, wanting to get heard by the assessors.

4. One or two people end up dominating (note not leading) the group. Aside from the egocentric posturing, nothing gets done.

5. Everyone forgets the clock, time runs out – task failed

6. Cue candidates complaining that “this sort of scenario wouldn’t happen in real life anyway”, and “so-and-so spoilt it by being too over-bearing

…and I’m only marginally exaggerating there. It can actually be much worse. So who scored the highest here? Let’s see how you can come off best, there are only a few simple things that you need to know to make sure you don’t end up with egg on your face:

NUMBER 1: First of all READ THE DAMN BRIEF! Seriously! Don’t worry if you’re the last person to stop reading and making notes, you’re entering the discussion prepared. This will pay off – knowledge is power, right?

NUMBER 2: Think about the task STRATEGICALLY. Others often end up lost by getting all angsty over the detail, leave them in your wake. Often you will be in a group of 4-8 people. The brief you’ll get will often be deliberately complex and time-pressured – how about suggesting that you split the group into 2 or 3 sub-groups for a period of time to work on distinct areas of the problem, then get back together to piece it all together. If there are numbers involved often people neglect to analyse them appropriately; is there an opportunity built into the task (there often is)? Are there red herrings in there to avoid (there often are)? How can you come up with a more novel solution?

NUMBER 3: Think about what excellent leaders and team players ACTUALLY ARE. Within this context they will be the ones who do the following things:
• Think at a higher level about the task and stay focused

• Understand the task fully and have a vision of how to complete it

• Contribute to the group positively at all times

• Guide (not force) the group towards a positive outcome

• Acknowledge and compliment others on their ideas

• Try to bring quieter members into the discussion

• Handle themselves professionally, calmly and assertively

• Leaders aren’t afraid to utilise the skills and expertise of others

• Team workers flourish during the collaborative process

Don’t be afraid to have a little fun with the task, you’re more likely to make a good impression on the prospective employer if you’re seen to be thriving in this environment. Often when designing assessment tasks the client will work hard to create something that they think is relevant to their specific sector and the role itself, so make sure you engage with the spirit of the exercise. If not it will certainly count against you; keep any negative thoughts on the task to yourself, and if anything let everyone know how much you enjoyed it – tell them in the interview.

Try not to be distracted by the assessors, there will usually be a few of them present with their clipboards, making notes throughout. Sometimes they will be assigned a couple of candidates to keep an eye on each. There’s always some sort of marking grid they’ll be using to sum up with afterwards – you may actually be able to ascertain vaguely what the criteria are if you’ve been sent a comprehensive job description for the role. Assessment centres by their very nature are designed to match candidates against very well defined criteria, so if you can get an idea of exactly what they’re looking for you’re onto a good thing!
I hope that you found this useful, I’ll be writing further articles covering the other elements of the assessment centre process over the coming weeks…

Ben Smithwell is founder and El Presidente at Project Me Consulting, and author of Interview Black Beltwhich will be published this September. Like us on Facebook, follow on Twitter and Pinterest