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Assessments and leadership development

Assessments help coaches and HR create experiential activities that provide opportunities for leaders and potential leaders to grow and stretch.
6 min read

If leaders are made, not born, then what role do assessments play in leadership development? If they can’t identify who will be successful in a leadership role, then what use are they?

“More change always demands more leadership.”
John P. Kotter in “What Leaders Really Do,” Harvard Business Review

Leaders appear, and are needed, at every level of your organization. Leadership development programs contribute to talent attraction and retention, and they also make an organization more agile in response to change and disruption. But how do you identify those who should be groomed for advancement or made more effective in their current positions? How can you best invest in these emerging leaders?

“With assessments, clients can view themselves in a three-way mirror, like those used in dressing rooms, providing insights, perspectives and a more thorough understanding of themselves. These types of deep insights are difficult to achieve without assessments, and that’s why I always use and encourage all coaches to use assessments in their coaching practice.”
Ron Young, cofounder/chief science officer and lead psychologist of PAIRIN

The 360-degree review

Most leadership coaches use 360-degree review tools. Why? Because everyone has their blind spots. Someone might want to work on delegation, for example, but a 360 shows that their staff really wants them to focus on innovation. A coach needs to learn about the entire field their leader is playing on. The 360 contributes to that knowledge. It can also show weaknesses that a person’s managers might not be aware of. These 360-degree reviews might add weight to the decision about who gets asked to join a leadership development program.

A 360 can also be used to convince a reluctant employee to think of himself or herself as a leader. Many of us have stereotypes of the kind of person others will willingly follow. We sometimes even apply those stereotypes to ourselves. Seeing that others rate you well can be a real boost. Just being selected to be part of a 360-degree review can show that the organization is willing to invest in your development and can encourage you to stretch your self-perceptions and consider what more you can accomplish.

A lot of people are uncomfortable with the 360-degree review because of the comments that can be given. A leader might fear comments from an aggressive, defensive, and difficult colleague. Or colleagues might fear retribution for their comments. Structure must be provided to encourage honest, anonymous, and constructive feedback. Everyone involved should know who will see the feedback, how it will be presented, and how it will be used.

A good 360 will make it easy for the coach and leader to identify strategies, as well as areas for development. A personalized plan can be created from the feedback received plus the goals of the leader and organization. For groups of emerging leaders, the coach/trainer can pull together themes to be addressed in later group sessions.

Leaders can be any DiSC style

Leadership assessment

A good leadership assessment differs from a personality assessment or a 360-degree review. It looks at behaviors known to contribute to effective leadership. It should reveal both strengths and areas for development. For example, the Everything DiSC Work of Leaders assessment looks at eighteen behaviors that research shows lead to better leadership. The Leadership Practices Inventory highlights strengths and areas for improvement as a leader by measuring how often they practice exemplary leadership behavior. Training and practice in areas identified by an assessment should be part of the leadership development program. By knowing how emerging leaders scored, the trainer can focus future training more effectively.

Organizations like to know that money used on leadership development will result in positive outcomes. Having an assessment gives you a place to begin measurement. You can track progress through self-assessment, external evaluators, observation by mentors, a repeat of an assessment, or even through employee engagement and culture surveys.

For individual coaching or mentoring

Coaches can use a leadership assessment to quickly uncover the source of a client’s leadership problems. Leaders need many strengths that differ from those necessary for effective management of a program or team. To be a great leader, a person often has to use behaviors that don’t come naturally or aren’t a dominant part of their personality. For example, someone might be visionary and expressive but struggle with the clarity of structured communication needed to guide global staff toward aligning and executing on that vision.

Coaches need to be both supportive and challenging. They need to look for opportunities for the leader to stretch. Knowing the leader’s profile can support them in their task of developing new leaders. It’s a jump start to conversations around areas for development.

For group facilitation

One’s leadership journey doesn’t have to be a lonely one, even though leaders sometimes report feeling isolated. The support of a group working on the same issues can be very helpful. In fact, an organization looking at the assessments of many of its leaders can often spot areas of real need. Organizational culture can sometimes disincentivize the very behaviors it needs from its leaders. For example, a company is not going to promote inclusive leaders from within if its culture only rewards individualistic thinking.

Looking at the assessments of everyone on a leadership team can also be revealing. For example, you might have a team where most people eagerly jump into building structure and doing analysis. The one person on the team who is more focused on staff and inclusiveness might feel isolated and struggle to be heard. Once the team sees this and understands the value of both perspectives, changes can be made to encourage more discussions about relationships, networking, and staff engagement.

For succession planning

As baby boomers retire, organizations need to look at their plans for bringing new leaders on board. Do you struggle to hire or do you invest in the people you already have and who already share your organization’s values?

If someone is being groomed to move into a higher-level leadership position, you want that person to be well-equipped. Knowing the strengths of both this person and the person he or she will replace can be very valuable. An assessment can help you work with your high-potentials to help them develop behaviors they might struggle with. Being aware of the strengths of the person they will be replacing will help them anticipate issues they might experience with the staff.

For other related skills

A leadership assessment will not help in the evaluation of other skills your leadership might need such as speaking with the media, ensuring regulatory compliance, negotiating contracts, or following the etiquette rules of another culture. However, working on leadership behaviors can increase the leader’s confidence. Having worked on gaining alignment for one’s vision, for example, can make someone a better communicator and better able to stay on message with a reporter. Having worked on creating more structure around executing a goal or on clarity of communication will help with ensuring compliance with a new regulation.

Team assessments

Most organizations have a leadership team. If that team has problems, the problems not only affect the individual leaders but the entire organization. That’s why a team assessment like The Five Behaviors Team Development can be so helpful.

Does your leadership team trust each other? Do they hold each other accountable? Can they support each other’s leadership journey? Are they modeling the team behaviors you want every team in your organization to display?

If you’re moving someone to managing or leading a new team, a team assessment can make it easier for that new leader. Does the new leader need to reiterate the team’s mission to gain commitment and alignment to organizational goals? Does the leader’s style differ from most of the team’s? Does the team have trouble with accountability? Knowing these issues can help a new leader prepare.

Many organizations are concerned with their internal culture. They want to be known as a great place to work or as a company that can respond to rapid change. Using team assessments shows that you recognize that most work gets done through teams and how important it is that teams function well. Teams are often formed to work across departmental silos, regional offices, or continents. Assessments can show a team where they need to make improvements, but also show the organization where they might need to make cultural shifts. For example, if you’re finding a deep lack of trust in every team that includes your IT staff, then something in the culture of that division or department might need attention. A leader can then work on building a new reputation for IT services.

It’s only a tool

Know why you’re using assessments. Consider your expected individual and organizational outcomes. Tools can only do so much. They can’t change a person’s motivations. They can’t improve the quality of someone’s jokes. They can’t build you a superhero. But they are a guidepost. They help coaches and HR create experiential activities that provide opportunities to grow and stretch or to prove oneself. They open up areas for exploration, curiosity, and enrichment. They are not predictive of leadership success, but they can contribute to it.

The tool is only as good as its materials. Consider the quality of the assessment’s reports. Make sure the one you’re using has published reliability and validity studies.


Kristeen Bullwinkle

Steeped in Everything DiSC since 2010. Strongly inclined CD style. Leadership style and EQ mindset: resolute. Believes strongly in the serial comma.

Certifications from Wiley:
Everything DiSC, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team

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