The Ceiling Effects of IQ in Selection

We know that some factors are more important than others in predicting the success of executives, e.g.,  qualities of character and the ability to generate sustainable patterns of performance. Similarly, we know that other factors cease to be as predictive of success at the executive level. Among them is intellectual functioning as measured on cognitive ability tests. This is partly because by the time one becomes a candidate for an executive-level leadership role, one has already cleared that hurdle. But there's more to it than that. Let me explain.

Practical Wisdom

It concerns what we must be looking for that counts as intelligence at the executive level. We are not merely referring to the familiar IQ/EQ distinction. We all realize that the more relational qualities of leadership do count and are often decisive at lower levels of management, too. Rather, we are talking about the broader scope of the executive role, and the context-dependent complexities it must navigate and reckon with, which requires qualities of mind we call practical wisdom. This manifests in depth of insight, appreciation for nuance, and a capacity for prudent judgment.

Sound a bit like character and intellect combined? Well, it is, and it is shaped by experience. This all makes more sense when we recognize that leadership is essentially normative in purpose and function. Executive leaders must not only analyze complex situations and make decisions with less than perfect information, they must achieve strategic aims with efficiency and appropriateness. This practical expression of mind is grounded in a more fundamental level of our person. It is etched in our identity and reflected implicitly and explicitly in our words and actions.

Situated Assessment

This more mature and authentic expression of self as executive leader cannot be discerned from a battery of tests. The leader must be seen in live, real-world situations, and that is why it is so important that assessment for executive selection be a "situated assessment." A situated assessment is one that prompts appraisal of the candidate as he or she is addressing the practical challenges of a strategically relevant and real-world business situation.

Unlike lower-level employee selection procedures that use "assessment center" methods and tools, i.e., simulations and competency models, the situated assessment of executives must look and feel more like live conversation, deliberation, and decision making on strategic matters. It is the kind of performance situation in which executives reveal their character and their judgment of technical and nontechnical considerations. They must balance issues of efficiency and appropriateness. They exhibit their attunement to longer-term impacts and shorter-term imperatives. 

Although traditional psychometric assessment tools may contribute value to the selection and onboarding process, they are not sufficient in themselves for achieving a situated assessment. On the other hand, a well designed approach to situated assessment could very easily contextualize and add meaning to psychometric assessment data. This approach recognizes the vital importance of context, and it better samples the kinds of behavior and judgment that will make a difference at the executive level. And for management, it makes more intuitive sense and has more face validity.

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