Winter 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA6

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Executive Development Center


Keith L. Smith
Associate Professor, Agricultural Education and
Leader Personnel Development
Ohio Cooperative Extension Service
The Ohio State University-Columbus

Richard W. Clark
Assistant Professor, Agricultural Education and
Extension Specialist, 4-H
Ohio Cooperative Extension Service
The Ohio State University-Columbus

Before World War II, the German army implemented a multiple-assessment procedure they believed would greatly help in selecting military officers. The Germans knew that paper and pencil tests alone didn't give a proper or total picture of a person's potential as an officer and wanted to be able to observe the behavior of potential candidates under different situations. England and the United States soon followed Germany's technique, using a similar procedure to select spies. Since this wartime effort, American and European businesses have used and improved the multiple-assessment concept, now using these centers for staff development and promotional purposes.1

The Ohio Cooperative Extension Service (OCES) isn't in the business of developing spies or finding officers, but it is in the business, as are other American businesses, of developing and finding managers. Thus, we created the Executive Development Center to help Extension administrators identify and evaluate supervisory and managerial capabilities of county chairpersons.

Assessment Center Process

Three trained assessors evaluate participants, in groups of six, on their performance in eight individual and group exercises. A candidate's overall evaluation is based on a pooling of information from the assessors. Performance on the eight exercises rate according to 16 job-related dimensions that were identified by a team of county chairs at a special job-analysis workshop. The dimensions, with abbreviated definitions, the exercises, and how the exercises relate to the dimensions, can be seen in Table 1. Here's a brief description of the eight exercises:

  1. Inbasket. Assessees are given an adequate period of time to respond to a number of actual letter, memos, etc., taken from county chair inbaskets.
  2. Inbasket Interview. Assessees explain their handling of these items to assessors.
  3. Leaderless Group (Assigned Roles). Assessees are assigned an issue that will require a verbal report. Adequate preparation time is given. After the report, the balance of the allotted time is used by the six assessees to come to a consensus on the issue.
  4. Leaderless Group (Unassigned Roles). Assessees are each given a description of the same typical county problem. The group is then charged with coming to a consensus on how to handle the problem in an allotted time period.
  5. Case-Study Analysis. Assessees are given a typical county budget problem and an adequate amount of time to provide a written solution.
  6. Background Interview. Assessors interview assessees one-on-one to determine leadership qualities, communication skills, and ability to work with committees or small groups.
  7. Fact Finding. Assessees are given an overview of a conflict in a county office. They then question the resource person (assessor) for additional facts that would help solve the problem. After a short period provided to organize their thoughts, they explain to the assessor how they'd handle the conflict.
  8. Interview Simulation. Assessees are given some background information on a "typical" county agent (either agriculture, 4-H, or home economics) for overnight perusal. The next day, they interview this agent (actor) in a performance appraisal setting.

Developing the Center

Work on the Executive Development Center began in the summer of 1984 with a review of related literature and exploratory visits to other assessment centers. Consultants at Ohio State were used and elements of other successful centers were incorporated into the plan. After this preliminary work, the following proposal with its five elements was presented to the Extension administrative cabinet with subsequent approval.

  1. Job Analysis and Exercise Construction. Job analysis and exercise construction was crucial, requiring an accurate description of the skills needed to successfully perform the job of county chairperson. These skills were identified and defined over a two-day period by a team of county chairpersons. This skills list was used as the foundation for developing 16 assessment center dimensions. The skills and dimensions then were used by the steering committee to develop the eight exercises. The exercises were consistent with Task Force on Assessment Center Standards.2
  2. Selection of Assessors. For the assessment process to work, assessors must be well-qualified and representative (by race and sex) of the population to be assessed. Eighteen individuals recommended by the Steering Committee were drawn from within the OCES as an assessor pool. They were composed of retired county chairpersons, OCES state faculty, and current district and supervisory personnel.
  3. Development and Training. The development of the training package and the conducting of the original training of the assessors was done with the help of a consultant familiar with assessment centers. The training consisted of five days of intensive review of the eight exercises, job dimensions, and the rating process.
  4. Executive Center Usage. During the spring and summer of 1985, 83 county chairpersons were assessed in groups of six. After the two days to complete the process, another half day was required to compile the findings of the assessors. They then wrote a three-to-four page final report for each individual listing the participant's strengths and weaknesses and assessed level of overall competence in performing the job of county chairperson.
  5. Staff Development Plan. The staff development plan is the payoff of the OCES Executive Development Center. The purpose of the developmental plan portion of the assessment process is to encourage, support, and guide the development efforts of the county chairpersons so they can enhance strengths and correct weaknesses in supervisory and managerial skills.

Developmental plans were individually packaged for each county chairperson based on the rating received at the center and their identified strengths and weaknesses. Each chair received a list of suggested managerial/supervisory or related courses, plus short course listings, self-study courses, and a bibliography of suggested readings on leadership and related issues. They have four years to complete these plans and are monitored by their district supervisor and the OCES leader for personnel development.

Table 1. Relationship of assessment center exercises and dimensions.

1. ORAL COMMUNICATIONS - The extent to which one can give an oral presentation and communicate on a one-to-one basis by listening and responding. x x x x x x
2. WRITTEN COMMUNICATIONS - The extent to which one can express effectively ideas in writing. x x
3. LEADERSHIP - The ability to influence others to move toward the attainment of a specific goal as efficiently as possible, using such techniques as delegation and persuasiveness. x x x x x x
4. INITIATIVE - The capacity to see courses of action and the ability to begin actions without stimulation and support from others. x x x x x x
5. PLANNING/ORGANIZING - The process of establishing a course of action for self and/or others to accomplish a specific goal. x x x x
6. DECISION MAKING/JUDGMENT - The process of identifying problems, securing relevant information, developing alternative courses of action, and the readiness of making a decision (decisiveness) from the information gathered. x x x x x x x x
7. DEVELOPMENT OF CO-WORKERS - The extent to which one develops and/or assists in developing the skills and competencies of co-workers through training and development activities, counseling, and delegating the duties related to current and future jobs. x x x x
8. BEHAVIORAL FLEXIBILITY - The extent to which one's behavior is flexible, adaptable, and effective when confronted with different situations, circumstances, or personalities. x x x
9. ORGANIZATIONAL SENSITIVITY - The degree of knowledge or awareness one has of formal and informal organizational policies and procedures. x x x x x
10. ASSERTIVENESS - The degree to which one can effectively state a position positively and forcefully without being hostile or destructive. x x x x x x
11. OBJECTIVITY - The extent to which one can analyze, judge, and make a fair decision about a person or situation regardless of one's own attitudes or feelings. x x x x x x x x
12. PERCEPTION - The ability to identify or recognize a problem or potential problem. x x x x x x x x
13. SENSITIVITY - The ability to respond/react to a problem considering the feelings, emotions, and needs of others. x x x x x
14. MANAGEMENT CONTROL - The extent to which one makes the most efficient use of all resources (personnel, office, committee, etc.) to obtain effective outcomes. x x x x
15. COLLABORATIVENESS - The degree to which one is willing to work cooperatively with others in making decisions. x x x x x
16. EVALUATION - The degree to which one is able to assess and appraise proposals of reported or observed performance, conduct performance appraisal, judge outcomes of programs, judge individual proposals and suggestions. x x x x x x


Are two years of planning, implementing, and continually evaluating such a program worth it? We've discovered, as others have, that the center:

  1. Has greater validity for promotion and selection than traditional techniques.3
  2. Having been developed on the basis of a job analysis, is inherently content-valid.4
  3. Has shown itself to be a better indicator of future success than any other tool yet devised.5
  4. Is relatively objective, provides uniform standards for judgment by trained observers, is valid, and can serve as a developmental experience for the participants.6
  5. Could aid an organization in the early identification of management potential and in the diagnosis of individual management development needs so that training and development efforts can be invested more efficiently.7

We are particularly concerned with numbers 4 and 5, in that we're trying to provide a valid developmental activity that not only will aid current chairs, but help administration choose competent agents for future chair positions. We're currently assessing the supervisory and managerial capabilities of those who might enjoy this leadership opportunity, having completed the first round in April 1986. Our plans are to continue to help administration select county chairs and help agents with developmental plans that will aid them in sharpening specific skills needed to be effective county chairs.


1. W. F. Cascio, Applied Psychology in Personnel Management (Reston,Virginia: Reston Publishing Co., Inc., 1982).

2. Task Force on Assessment Center Standards, Standards and Ethical Considerations for Assessment Center Operations (New Orleans, Louisiana: June 1979).

3. K. McNutt, "Behavioral Consistency and Assessment Centers: A Reconciliation of the Literature," Journal of Assessment Center Technology, II (1979), 1-6.

4. C. L. Jaffee and J. T. Sefcik, "What Is an Assessment Center?" Personnel Administrator (February 1980), 40-43 and Joseph Kwarteng, Assessment Center Validity and Reliability: An Evaluation of The Ohio Cooperative Extension Service Assessment Center (Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1986).

5. W. C. Byham, "Assessment Centers for Spotting Future Managers," in Perspectives on Employees, Staffing, and Selection, G. F. Dreher and P. R. Sackett, eds. (Homewood, Illinois: Irwin, 1983), pp. 229-47.

6. Byham, "Assessment Centers"; J. R. Hinricks and S. Haanpera, "Reliability of Measurement in Situational Exercises: An Assessment of the Assessment Center Method," Personnel Psychology, XXIX (1976), 31-40; and Leslie Bart, The Role of Assessee Involvement in Development Assessment Center (Ph.D. dissertation, The Ohio State University, Columbus, 1986).

7. Bart, Role of Assessee and W. C. Byham, "The Assessment Center as an Aid in Management Development," in Contemporary Problems in Personnel, rev. ed., W. C. Hamner and F. L. Schmidt, eds. (Chicago, Illinois: St. Clair, 1977).