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How would you like to be remembered?

In my previous blog I discussed the value of looking at things from the other person’s point of view, and in particular, how understanding what makes employers tick might help you when you are thinking about how to engage with them.

The assessment centre is a perfect example of engaging with an employer, and of course it tends to happen at a time when you want to make the best possible impression on the company that you hope will hire you.  So how can putting yourself in another person’s shoes help you to perform at your best on the day?

First, ask yourself: why do employers run assessment centres?  They cost a lot to design, they are time consuming (and therefore expensive) to run, and they are a logistical nightmare to administer.  Why not just rely on a simple interview?

The answer lies in the range of skills that employers hope to find in the graduates they hire.  It is pretty difficult to measure a candidate’s ability to be a team player, deal with pressure, maintain attention to detail, communicate effectively, consider a customer, cope with setbacks and prioritise a busy working day, all in a 60 minute interview.  It is even harder to do this fairly across many hundreds of candidates, avoiding personal bias and ensuring consistency.

The assessment centre lets employers test you in lots of different ways, giving each candidate several chances to perform, and giving the employer the chance to measure that performance (and future potential) against different competencies.  And they can do all this with multiple assessors, so that they are not relying on just one interviewer’s viewpoint when they make the decision to hire.

So what does this mean for you?

First, assessment centres are hard work – you are going to go through a number of experiences, be tested in different exercises, and meet a lot of people.  It is going to be a tough day, and you need to bring your A-game because you are being assessed from the moment you arrive to the moment you leave.  But on the flipside, you get lots of chances to shine, so if one exercise does not go well you’ll have a chance to make up for it on the next one.

Second, if you are smart, you can plan your strategy to make sure you know when and how to play to your strengths.  Put yourself into the company’s shoes for a moment.  What skills are they looking for?  Most employers will tell you if you ask, and many of them even publish details on their website.  So do a bit of research.

Then, once you know what they are looking for, think about how they might try to find it.  What is the structure of the assessment centre?  How do these exercises relate to the skills they are seeking?  Is the interview just about discussing your academic achievements, or do they want to know about what you have done outside of university as well?  Is the psychometric test just about working quickly to answer as many questions as you can, or do they care about your attention to detail under pressure as well?  When you are doing the group exercise are they just looking for leaders who are there to win at all costs (watch “The Apprentice” if you want to see some great examples of this) or do they value people who can work well in a team to get the best out of others (watch the person who wins “The Apprentice” if you want to see examples of that).

Ah yes, the group exercise….

When I used to recruit graduates the group exercise exposed some fascinating candidate behaviours.  I actually had to break up a fight on one occasion: two candidates, both passionate about their (different) points of view, actually stood up during the exercise and began to square up to each other.  After the initial moment of shock I had to step in pretty quickly to calm them down.  Needless to say, neither of them got the job.

So how should you approach a group exercise?  Once again, I think it is about perspective – about understanding the other candidates around the table, and thinking about how your behaviour (both you, individually, and the team as a whole) might come across to the recruiters who are observing you.

Are you working collaboratively with your colleagues?  Has one person taken the lead, but at the same time excluded his or her fellow candidates from the conversation?  Is somebody paying attention to the details, making notes, keeping track of the time, or reminding people of the bigger picture when they get bogged down in too much detail?

What are your strengths (and weaknesses?) as a group, and what can YOU do to make sure the strengths are being used, and the weaknesses are being covered?  That quiet person in the corner, do they have something valuable to say but can’t get a word in?  Could you bring them into the conversation?  The overconfident candidate who has taken charge but won’t let others make their point – how can you bring them back on side, politely, gently, but firmly?  And at the back of your mind, throughout the exercise (and the day as a whole), what is on the recruiter’s checklist?  What skills are they looking for, and what will they remember about you later that evening, when they are making decisions about who to hire?

It is a lot to think about, and as always, practicing before you do this for real will help.  So next time you are working with a team of people in a pressure situation, take a moment to step back and examine your behaviour from an impartial observer’s perspective.  What do you want your actions to tell that observer (or Lord Sugar) about you?

Gary Argent

Director of the Career and Skills Development Service at City University London

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