Presidential Personality

More and more colleges and universities are asking finalists in presidential searches to undergo personality assessments.

August 28, 2015

Imagine this scenario: a presidential search is underway at a college. A candidate visits campus and is perceived by a board member as being overly ambitious and narcissistic. The trustee is ready to cut the candidate from the short list, but a subsequent test reveals that while the candidate is ambitious, that ambition is reserved not necessarily for self but channeled into whatever organization he or she is affiliated with.

The candidate is hired.

The test in question? A personality assessment.

Though the practice remains unusual, more colleges and universities than in the past are considering using psychological assessments or personality tests as they search for the next leader of their institution. The scenario above isn’t fiction, but an example cited by seasoned search consultant Lucy Leske of how such assessments can aid the often arduous search process.

Leske’s firm, Witt/Kieffer, now offers leadership assessments as a standard part of their presidential search package. And though search committees decline the service more often than not, Leske says more and more are beginning to embrace the practice.

Other search firms also report increased client interest in assessments. Yet that interest is often superseded by concerns over whether personality assessments are accurate predictors of a candidate's behavior. The practice, while common in the corporate world, remains an outlier in higher education, although it appears to be slowly gaining ground.

Jessica Kozloff, president of higher education search firm Academic Search, said in the last year at least three clients have expressed interest in personality assessments.

That's likely because search committees want candidates to possess an ever-broadening set of skills. More and more governing boards are “equally concerned about evaluating the soft skills of somebody, as well as trying to evaluate the hard skills,” she says.

“In the days before YouTube and social media and all that, a lot of people made mistakes in their positions but it didn't get that much attention. Today it does. So every failure or every misstep has the potential to ruin someone's career,” Kozloff said. “People are becoming much more interested in how you lead and your temperament and your ability to roll with the punches, as well as these impressive things you've done in the past.”

Kozloff's firm doesn’t offer an in-house assessment service -- only a few do. Instead Academic Search suggests firms that specialize in such tests, and tries when possible to integrate the assessment of soft skills into the interview and reference checking process. So far none of her clients have ended up pursuing an assessment, but interest nonetheless is increasing.

“We’re seeing the train trying to leave the station on this,” she said. “We’re all trying to figure out how this impacts us.”

Witt/Kieffer declined to share how many clients have used personality tests in their presidential searches, and only said that there’s been a dramatic increase since the firm first began offering the tests three and a half years ago.

Leske attributes the uptick in interest to “the increased scrutiny and risk of these hires.” Standard references and interviews, she said, don’t always reveal how a candidate will respond to controversy.

“Just look in the newspaper. Look at these people. The skills and competencies that they’re required to bring to the table have to be so well developed to handle today’s jobs,” she said. “All boards are concerned about risk when hiring a chief executive and this is an additional way to assess the risk in an environment where the landscape is changing so rapidly that you’ve got to rely on competencies now, not just experience.”

The assessments measure everything from interpersonal behavior to reactions to stress, behavioral risks, core values, interests and goals.

Witt/Kieffer uses an assessment developed by Hogan Assessments, a firm that specializes in developing personality tests. Witt/Kieffer had about 100 sitting presidents take the assessment themselves and compiled the results to create a benchmark for higher education leaders.

One Witt/Kieffer personality assessment aims to measure the following qualities:

  • Adjustment: confidence, self-esteem, composure under pressure
  • Ambition: initiative, competitiveness, desire for leadership roles
  • Sociability: extraversion, gregarious, need for social interaction
  • Interpersonal Sensitivity: tact, perceptiveness, ability to maintain relationships
  • Prudence: self-discipline, responsibility, thoroughness
  • Inquisitive: imagination, curiosity, creative potential

​Another assessment aims to determine if the subject has these personality types:

  • Excitable: moody, hard to please, emotionally volatile
  • Skeptical: suspicious, sensitive to criticism, expecting betrayal
  • Cautious: risk averse, resistant to change, slow to make decisions
  • Reserved: aloof, uncommunicative, indifferent to the feelings of others
  • Leisurely: overtly cooperative but privately irritable, stubborn and uncooperative
  • Bold: overly self-confident, arrogant and entitled
  • Mischievous: charming, risk taking, excitement seeking
  • Colorful: dramatic, attention seeking, interruptive
  • Imaginative: creative, but thinking and acting in unusual or eccentric ways
  • Diligent: meticulous, precise, hard to please, micromanaging
  • Dutiful: eager to please and reluctant to act independently or against popular opinion

Faculty Members Skeptical

Though more governing boards and search committees are embracing personality tests, skepticism about the practice is prevalent in higher education.

Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who spent two decades as the president of George Washington University, is a consultant with search firm Korn Ferry. He’s worked on about 30 searches for the firm, and in each one boards have declined to have their finalists undergo a psychological assessment.

Trustees are often interested in an assessment -- after all, many trustees hail from the corporate sector, where personality assessments are common when hiring for a leadership position -- but faculty members usually express concern, the consultants interviewed for this article reported.

“The professors on the search committees, most of the time, see it as somehow totalitarian, a variation on Big Brother, and an intrusion into the inner mind,” Trachtenberg said. “They don't trust it even though we believe we can demonstrate, empirically, the validity of the test.”

Leske recalls similar concern when her firm began offering the assessments.

“At first it was, ‘Oh, no, we don’t do that in higher education. We don’t value this kind of psychometric quack kind of stuff,’” she said. “There was a lot of suspicion from faculty whether these had any value. But the trustees started saying to us, ‘We’re really interested.’”

Some of the concern stems from the methodology used to create the assessments, said Jan Greenwood, owner of the higher education executive search firm Greenwood-Asher and Associates and a licensed psychologist.

“You just have to be careful and responsible in the use of the [company] you hire to do this type of psychological evaluation and the instruments they use, because it might affect a person's career,” she said.

The American Psychological Association offers guidelines for developing psychological assessments. Concerns also stem from the way in which a university uses assessment results: Are they used to eliminate candidates, or as tools to coach a finalist once chosen? Greenwood recalled an instance when an institution chose one candidate over another after an assessment revealed differences in the management styles of the candidates.

Kozloff says assessments are better suited as tools used to assess a finalist's strengths and weaknesses and provide coaching. Witt/Kieffer shares test results with an institution's governing board -- not the search committee -- and also goes over the results with the chosen finalist in a two-hour session. Leske underscored the fact that a personality assessment is just one element of a sweeping search process.

“Our assessments are about potential. It's not etched in stone. People can surprise you,” she said. “It's one tool that should be used in a range of evaluative processes and tools. You still need to do the referencing. You still need to do the interviewing. You still need to spend time with people.”

Kozloff says developing an assessment in-house is cost prohibitive for her midsize higher education-specific search firm. The price tag could be as much as $400,000.

“If we were to ever offer our own assessment tool, it would really require a great deal of product development and also hiring people who can really evaluate it, and we don’t have that kind of economy of scale,” said Kozloff, whose firm conducts about 80 searches a year.

Plus, there are other ways to evaluate a candidate's personality and behavior, she said.

“We try to train our search committees to ask questions that really get to a description of how you would approach something,” she said. “Philosophically we are most comfortable with trying to embed assessment of soft and hard skills within the search process. That’s really what we believe is the right way to go.”


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