Assessment centres: the best talent scout

Assessment and development centres are increasingly relevant as law firms place more importance, and consequently more investment, in developing their talent. In what is now a talent-short marketplace, firms are under increasing pressure to attract and retain the top people.

The recent age legislation, where firms can no longer use an employee’s number of years of experience as an assessment tool, has made the need to find other ways to promote or assess individuals more urgent. Talent is not always easy to spot and enlightened firms are introducing assessment and development centres.

Development centres are the most effective way of identifying what a firm’s talent looks like now and what it will represent in the future. Firms can examine the strengths, weaknesses and potential of their employees and then offer coaching and skills development where necessary.

When introducing a talent identification programme, its approach and design should be considered. The end-to-end process should be determined from the outset, considering the key objectives right through to how assessed individuals will ultimately be ‘labelled’ and managed. Firms need to be clear about the aims of the programme: is the centre focusing on identifying high potentials or will it focus on current performance?

Firms should ask themselves which level of employees should be tested and how the outcomes of the process will be used. They must also consider who the assessors will be, whether they are external or are a combination of external assessors and key stakeholders. It must be decided how the process will be communicated internally and who will make decisions regarding the next step for each employee.

Effective results are driven by the design and assessment methodology used in a centre. The methodology needs to be rigorous and the design should reflect the overall objectives. The assessment should be reflective of the appropriate level for the role and should focus on competencies rather than technical knowledge.

Typically a development centre lasts one or two days and will consist of business simulations, competency-based interviews and psychometric tests. It is advisable for firms to use a combination of these testing tools, and each competency should be assessed at least three times, as this will increase reliability.

Development centres offer results and feedback at both an individual and organisational level. Individuals can receive a full report detailing how they have performed, giving them guidance on development and discussing any implications for their career. From the firm’s point of view, the feedback enables the higher echelons to review the strengths and development areas across different levels, therefore enabling firms to have a clear picture of their succession plans.

A centre can identify the talented individuals with the most potential, particularly those in the top 2-3 per cent. However, ultimately an organisation also relies on other valued talent, so a firm’s development budget should reflect this. Recent research by Hudson revealed that the most talented employees with high potential are likely to prefer individualised development programmes, such as coaching and 360° initiatives, rather than formal executive programmes.

Assessment for development centres will play an increasing role within law firms. Firms need to be aware of where the future talent is within their firm for their strategic development and succession planning.

To encourage loyalty employees need to be able to understand what skills are necessary for promotion and what is expected from them. A development centre aims to link the talent management strategy with firms’ overall business strategies.