I like assessment centres. The group exercises in particular are just like watching an episode of The Apprentice live but (in the case of the ones I have recently been assessing at least) the candidates are all intelligent and all capable. Some shine when asked to present something, some are masters of succinctly representing a company overview on a side of A4 from multiple sources under immense time pressure, some prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that they really did sit the online numerical reasoning test themselves and unaided, and some give you a glimpse of the future of this company’s boardroom. That’s why I like the group exercises the most.

It is fascinating to see how raw graduates naturally react in a simulated-corporate situation. The skill is in spotting not just the composed, quick-thinking and persuasive candidate who is rather ahead of the curve having done four internships already, it’s in spotting the recent graduate with limited related experience who might not have as much knowledge right now, but with a little training could be the firm’s new wizard. My favourite candidate of 2010 (at assessment centre – there were different favourites at different stages) was a young man who was brilliant on paper and then showed himself to be such a natural leader in a group exercise that at one point when time was running out he simply turned to a couple of the slightly less sparkling candidates and said,
“Guys can you just go and start noting down the risks whilst I finish the opportunities?”

And, much to the amusement of my fellow silent observers and I, they just dutifully did it. It was something about the way he had inspired confidence and authority earlier in the session that seemed to make them all bypass the obvious question, ‘Who put him in charge?’ The only possible criticism of my alpha candidate was that he showed some signs of being easily frustrated when other people didn’t think or act as efficiently as he did. It was an interesting conversation that followed at the end of the day when some assessors felt that he might be rather impatient in the formative junior years in the firm and favoured another candidate who had shone for his diplomacy and listening skills and looked altogether more likely to take instruction willingly and not question his superiors.

In my opinion, you need some of them both. The diplomatic candidate will do well in the firm. He’ll be well-liked and reliable and his attention to detail will be revered. But he’s not going to be the CEO in 2030. Neither might the bright, leader who commanded the other candidates in the group exercise (he might quit because he should have been promoted – in his head – months ago) but what if he is and we turned him away only to find him profiled in the FT in twenty years time as the man who brought our closest competitor record profits that year? It’s a gamble but it might just pay off. Assessment centres aren’t perfect ways to spot talent but they certainly are good fun to observe and better than a single face-to-face interview or carefully written CV.