Assessment Centers

Dear Management Doctor:

I'm about to go on a job interview for a planning directorship of a small city (12,000 population). They will be interviewing all the applicants at once, in an "assessment center" format, conducted by a team from a local university's Institute for Public Affairs. The interview is expected to last about 4 to 5 hours.

What kinds of things should I expect? Pitfalls to avoid?

They're recommending "business casual" dress.

Thank you,
Could Use Some Help

Dear Cadidate,

It is difficult to respond without knowing both the city and the nature of the assessment center. I have only participated in a few assessment centers and hope our emailers will add to my thoughts.

  1. Irrespective of the use of an assessment center, you want to know as much about the city as possible. Particularly important; what is the local political environment; what has been the history of this position; what are key local issues?
  2. It seems a bit strange that they are using an assessment center for this small a community. It likely means they are looking for certain skills or attributes that they may not have had in the past.
  3. I'd be prepared for handling a controversial staff report or presentation assignment. I don't know how you prepare for this and it will rely on your current skill set. Be somewhat comprehensive but don't overdo it and cut to the key points.
  4. They will likely set up a conflict management exercise, maybe a mock community meeting or a press conference.
  5. Interpersonal skills are important for all planning jobs and I would assume particularly for such a small community. If you are good at these - great. If not you can use this experience to sharpen your skills for the next one.
  6. In addition to individual work, they may put you in a group or team setting. I would try to show your leadership skills but while still being respectful to the other applicants. Don't be a smart ass but don't be a pansy either.
  7. "Business casual" varies by different parts of the country. The rule of thumb is, when in doubt go up-scale, not down. However, it this is a rural community and you come in like a New York attorney that would be the wrong approach.
  8. I don't need to say it, but will; no BO, polished shoes, cleaned and pressed clothes, good breath and hair combed - you get it.
  9. I would also Google assessment centers to get a few good ideas regarding what to expect.
In my management course I do 30-minute counseling sessions. Many of these are planners who want to become directors. I hate to say it but, I generally have a good idea after a few minutes if they are good candidates or not. Some of these are good planners and would also make good assistant directors. I give them suggestions where I can but doubt it will help. I hope you are not in that group. See if you can find another planner or someone else who can give you some candid feedback about yourself.

Good luck and please give me some feedback.

The Management Doctor

Response back from Candidate

Thanks for the quick response! The center was held on Friday, and I think I did very well. I was competing against a decent in-house candidate who has been serving as the interim director; and a retired planning executive who wants to jump back into the workforce. The previous director was a well-respected staffer with 24 years at the city. I live in the same county as the community, so am familiar with the issues. Furthermore, my current boss (with whom I have been lifelong friends) is a city councilman for this city. He is aware of my pursuit of the position, and has (as he should) stayed out of it for fear of being perceived as influencing the process. The previous director, though a skilled manager, was very philosophically opposed to Smart Growth, and wasn't known for being much of a risk-taker when it comes to policy.

The assessment center was conducted by a University. There were 3 persons conducting the exercises, with most of the tasks videotaped.

I did indeed come overdressed compared to the other two candidates, but figured it was better to remove items I didn't need (jacket, tie) than to need items I didn't have.

The five exercises were as follows:

  1. First, we pretended to be a group of local planning directors working on behalf of the Council of Governments to develop a list of challenges and possible solutions to deal with our region's exploding growth. I took the initiative to be the note-taker to summarize the conversations and prompt us along to the next issue. We were given about 45 minutes to do this exercise, but we never got past 'transportation' as an issue, because the out of state candidate keep giving a narrative of all the successes in his career. It reminded me of a Rudy Guiliani stump speech, where every other sentence starts off "When I was Mayor of New York." I kept trying to get us back on task, and also kept prompting the in-house candidate to speak up and give his opinions too. I think it will be clear on the tape what the cause of the breakdown was.
  2. Next, we were taken individually into a room, where we engaged in a role-play exercise. An assessor pretended to be a newly-elected (first time) city council member who had made an appointment with the planning director, subject unknown. When he walked into the room I stood up, smiled warmly at him, shook his hand, and said "first off - congratulations on your election win, I look forward to working with you." He stated the purpose of the meeting was simply a routine "house call" to introduce himself; and become informed of the role and functions of my department. He asked what, if anything, he could do to make my job easier, how I would prefer communications to be handled between him and myself, and what kinds of things should he avoid doing so as not to make my life difficult. I told him he could come into the department anytime and ask me questions, but if he needed me to "do" something on his behalf, or task our department with something, he should route the request through the city manager. I took the opportunity to advocate for the role of the manager, by saying it was in the city's and the council's best interest to have a city manager that was fully informed of council's wishes, and 'on top' of all work assignments and research requests.
  3. Exercise three was also an individual one. Another assessor pretended to be an employee in my department, asking to meet with me for the first time (the assumption was this was my first day of work as director). Her role was a senior planner at the permit desk, where most of the customer interface was happening. She told me of an ongoing situation at the permitting desk; a planner who had been there for about 5 years was lazy, unmotivated, and causing morale problems. She said if something wasn't done soon, she and another high-ranking planner were considering leaving for other positions. She said the previous director had started all the necessary documentation, but nothing concrete was done and the problem seemed to be getting worse. I promised to take the situation very seriously and make it one of my top priorities to investigate and take appropriate actions. I then used something from your book — I said "It's very important that we have our BEST people at the permit counter, because poor customer service reflects poorly on us, and the city government as a whole. If Joe (the fictional slacker) isn't performing, and we can't correct the problem, then it would be best if he found another job that motivates him. We aren't doing either of us any favors by allowing him to flounder." I also stated that personnel matters are typically private, and hoped she would understand that I would not be able to reveal details of any disciplinary actions I might take.
  4. Exercise four was the following: "You are speaking before a local service club at their weekly luncheon. They have asked you to give a 10 to 15 minute talk on the principles of Smart Growth. There will be no audiovisual equipment available in the room." We were actually given this exercise two days before to give us some time to prepare. This exercise played into my strengths as a public speaker. I have given presentations on Smart Growth for years, to groups ranging from 6 members to large subcommittees of a state legislature. I prepared a slick PowerPoint presentation, with nice graphics, photos, etc. I had it spiral-bound, full color copies of the slides, complete with presentation covers. I made enough copies for everyone and handed them out at the start of my talk. I had them follow along since the photographs were supportive of the points I was covering. I was able to keep it to 13 pages and about 17 minutes.
  5. In exercise five, we were to write a memo to the city manager with our recommendations about a controversial planning issue. It was basically a conflict between a local zoning ordinance which had been consistently interpreted to allow daycare centers as a home occupation in a certain residential zoning district; versus a set of private HOA covenants that was murky, but being interpreted by the HOA to prohibit daycare centers within their community. I think the exercise was as much about communication style than anything else.
The interviews concluded with each candidate getting to sit down with 3 other department heads to shoot the breeze and develop "team chemistry" impressions; followed by an interview with the manager alone. During that portion, I emphasized the following point:
"It's important you know that I fully understand and support the role of the Manager in a City Manager form of government. I take my direction from YOU, and my role is as much about helping YOU to do your job well as anything else. Therefore, please understand that I would NEVER allow my personal friendship with Councilman ________ to subvert that relationship. He and I are close enough friends that I am confident he would never try to come between you and me, or ask me to do anything 'back-channel;' and he also knows that if he tried, I would 'take him to the woodshed' over it and not allow it."
I would say it was a very interesting process and not as intimidating as I thought. It was the kind of process where - if you WERE intimidated, then you had no business being considered. I ordered and read your entire book in the weeks before the interview and it proved most helpful to me, especially the chapters about motivating and managing employees.

The manager will make a decision by early next week.

Jim Wood, AICP