The Evolution of an Assessment Center Program in a Pharmaceutical Sales Organization over a 15-Year Period

The purpose of this paper is to describe the design, implementation, and evolution of an assessment/development center program conducted by Psychological Consultants, Inc. (PCI) in a biopharma sales organization.  The participants include high-potential sales representatives being prepared for front-line sales manager positions, as well as current managers being prepared for manager of manager positions.  The case study describes the practical aspects of using assessment centers to accomplish various talent management objectives in commercial environments, including identifying and developing emerging leaders, determining their training needs, and planning for leadership succession. Reasons why the programs evolved over time are presented, along with lessons learned in this process.

Initiation and Implementation of an Assessment Center for Future Sales Leaders

Following the merger of two pharmaceutical companies, the senior leadership committee of the newly merged company decided to establish a new assessment center to replace the program that one of the legacy companies had previously conducted.  The prior program relied heavily on internal resources (regional sales directors), and the senior leadership team wanted the new program to be conducted entirely by external, professional assessors.  They believed that given the recent merger and rapid changes in the industry, it was essential that directors stay focused on the sales management function rather than on the time-consuming requirements of being assessment center observers.  They also wanted to ensure that the new program was as objective and legally defensible as possible.  Concerns had been raised that the previous program was too “opinion based,” given that the major component of that process was an in-depth behavioral interview focused on leadership and achievement motivation.  The new senior leadership team wanted to put a much greater emphasis on objective behavioral observations drawn from a wide variety of management simulation exercises, reflecting the increasing demands of the front-line sales manager job.

The focus was to be on identification of management potential among current sales representatives who had expressed an interest in moving into a district sales manager role (and whose sales managers had supported their aspirations).  After a series of presentations, meetings, and conference calls with the senior leadership team, approval was given for PCI to conduct a pilot program that would incorporate the specific features desired by the company.

Key Features of the Pilot Program

  • Eight participants (current sales representatives); four external, professional assessors from PCI.
  • Competencies (based on a job analysis of the district sales manager position): influencing, problem analysis, decision making, planning and organizing, delegation, management control, sensitivity, stress tolerance, oral communication, written communication.
  • High-fidelity management simulation exercises based on real life challenges faced by pharmaceutical sales managers (and incorporating the newly issued laptop computers used by sales representatives and managers in the field):  budgetary decision group exercise, promotional decision group exercise, curbstone conference exercise, coaching and counseling exercise, analytical exercise, inbox.
  • Provision of an overall “promotional readiness” evaluation
  • Scheduling of telephone feedback conferences within a month of the session (with participants’ district sales managers included in the discussions)

Reactions to the Pilot Program

Most participants provided positive feedback on the assessment center, reporting that it was a high-impact learning experience, a challenging opportunity to “try on” the district sales manager role, and a good forum in which to receive objective feedback.  While many managers seemed pleased with the new program (remarking on the thoroughness of the reports and the detailed behavioral observations), some managers expressed the concern that they were not directly involved in the center and that the external assessors might not understand the company’s “corporate culture.”  During and after the feedback calls, they raised questions about the new exercises, the assessors, and the rating system.  Based on these questions, it became clear that the managers needed a better understanding of the exercise content, the qualifications of the assessors, and the rationale behind the rating system.  In response to these comments, PCI and the training department prepared a detailed written explanation of the new program (including a full description of the simulations, with an emphasis on the job-specific and industry-specific nature of the exercises) and distributed it to senior sales management.  This served to clarify the purpose of the assessment center, the reason for using professional assessors, and guidelines on how to use the written report for developmental purposes.  The memo also included an evaluation survey “to assess the ability of this process to provide timely and accurate feedback.”

Based on the written feedback from the pilot program participants and their managers, the decision was made to continue with the program and schedule a series of sessions over the remainder of the year.  In addition, several changes were made to the program:

  • PCI designed a detailed “Manager’s Handbook for Career Planning” to help the district sales managers support the developmental planning work of their sales representatives.  The handbook included a comprehensive list of developmental activities and learning strategies (including skill practice opportunities within the territory and district, coaching tips, books, audio/video resources, and seminars).  In addition, the handbook included guidelines on how to support and encourage the sales representatives as they worked to develop their management skills.  The participant’s managers were encouraged to provide continued support of the sales representatives’ development and to set deadlines for the attainment of developmental objectives.
  • PCI produced a “Career Planning Guide” to help participants establish a step-by-step developmental planning process to follow after the assessment center.  The guide included short tutorials on each of the competencies, as well as a self-assessment (with 20 evaluation statements for each of the 10 competencies) and planning forms (with a list of developmental action steps and target dates for completion) to help the sales representatives build a personal development plan.  The forms made provision for input from the participant’s manager and director.  A six-month development plan review was also included.
  • Separate conferences were scheduled with the participants’ regional sales directors to discuss the results of the feedback conferences.  This enabled the PCI feedback givers to discuss the degree of “buy-in” or “push-back” demonstrated by the participants during their conference.  Special challenges were discussed and possible support strategies were considered.
  • Welcome dinners were added to the agenda for the arrival evening, giving the participants the chance to learn more about the content and objectives of the program.  During the dinner, a training manager from the client company provided a brief overview of the process and responded to questions from the participants.  This served to reduce any pre-program anxiety.

During the 12 months following the pilot, 79 sales representatives attended the program.

Reactions of Managers – One Year Later

A managers’ meeting was held to address questions that had been raised during the first year of conducting the assessment center programs.  Based on input from the district sales managers and the regional sales directors, the following changes were proposed by the training department and PCI, and accepted by the senior management team:

  • Recast the rating categories to match the internal performance evaluation criteria: exceeds expectations; meets expectations; or needs improvement.
  • Add an inbox interview session after the exercise to provide the assessors with a more comprehensive understanding of the participant’s thought process and decision-making rationale.
  • Add an exercise/dimension matrix to the reports, showing ratings on each competency by exercise, and including the relative weighting of each rating.  These weightings were determined via a survey of current district sales managers and regional sales directors who were requested to allocate 100 points among the ten competencies, based on the relative importance of each to success as a pharmaceutical first-line sales manager within this company.  As a result, each competency was given a weighting on a 1 to 4-point basis.
  • Assign one external feedback giver to each region, allowing the regional sales directors to establish a working relationship with that person and to tailor the developmental planning process to the needs and opportunities available in each region.
  • Schedule a “pre-feedback strategy session” between the PCI feedback giver and the regional sales director to discuss a plan for the feedback conference, including an exploration of potential learning opportunities within the context of the participant’s current role.
  • Use the term “Career Development Center (CDC)” instead of assessment center.
  • Encourage regional sales directors to attend a Career Development Center session at some point during the upcoming year in order to become more familiar with the exercise content, the external assessor team, and the program methodology.  The expectation was that these line managers would be in a better position to provide ongoing developmental support to participants if they understood the program more completely.
  • Provide guidelines to district sales managers to help them in their efforts to support the ongoing development of their sales representatives.  These included recommended “on-the-job” coaching tips, as well as monitoring and follow-up techniques to help “keep the plan alive.”
  • Make video recordings of all group and one-on-one exercises so that the district sales managers could review them with the participants after the CDC and provide further coaching and development.
  • Arrange for assessors and role players from PCI to spend a day in the field with a sales representative and an administrative day with a district sales manager in order to expand their understanding of the nature of the job and the demands of the position.  In addition, several assessors attended managers’ meetings.

Launch of an Advanced-Level CDC

Given the success of the CDC at the “sales representative to manager level,” the company decided to expand the program to the next level up (for managers being developed for the regional sales director position).  As the company continued to expand its sales force (given the approval of several new “blockbuster” products), new regional sales directors needed to be identified and developed.  The company’s preference was to promote from within as much as possible, so the training department was charged with creating a new program for this purpose.  Work was undertaken to design a set of robust new director-level simulations.  Based on input from senior sales management regarding typical challenges faced by regional sales directors, the following exercises were designed:

  • Leaderless group discussion
  • Management dialogue
  • Re-alignment case study
  • Group presentation exercise
  • Inbox exercise
  • Strategic presentation exercise

These advanced-level CDC programs were conducted with participants who were currently in the roles of  district sales manager, training manager, and marketing manager, all of whom were aspiring to regional sales director positions. Sales vice presidents took part in two of the exercises (strategic presentation and group presentation), and they asked challenging questions of the participants after their presentations, often following up with specific probes about long-term effects, return on investment, and potential unintended consequences of their recommendations.

Initially, this program measured the same competencies as those used in the district sales manager-level program.  However, the client later launched an internal competency modeling study and identified a set of competencies specific to the regional sales director position.  This model was incorporated into later sessions of the program.  These included:  leadership, strategic focus, judgment and decision making, building talent, communicating with impact, interpersonal savvy, building effective teams, written communication, and work management.

Design of a “Management Development Lab”

The company continued to expand its sales force, and it became clear that a more comprehensive management development program was needed.  In an effort to pre-qualify possible participants in the management development program (of which the Career Development Center was a major component), the concept of a “Management Development Lab (MDL)” was introduced.   The program was designed for sales representatives who had expressed an interest in pursuing opportunities in first-line sales management.  The MDL was intended to provide exposure to key job activities within the district sales manager position, as well as introductory training in the competencies related to successful performance in this position.

A design team comprising staff from the client and PCI produced three simulation exercises (group discussion, coaching exercise, and inbox exercise) that could be conducted at regional locations, using regional sales directors as the facilitators.   After an initial pilot program, the decision was made to shorten the program and simplify the process, as the original version was too time-consuming to conduct.  Following a re-design, PCI conducted “train-the-trainer” sessions to provide the facilitators with skills in observing behavior, giving behavior-based feedback, and designing specific development plans.  In addition, district sales managers were trained to be role players, and regional administrative coordinators were trained to facilitate the electronic inbox exercise.  These MDL programs were then conducted internally by the client company at regional locations.  The MDL participants who were deemed “ready now” moved on to the Career Development Center (CDC) within a 4-12 month time period.  Those needing further development were given time to complete a development plan before being considered for the next step of attending the CDC.   Follow-up research showed that adding the MDL program to the overall management development process greatly reduced the percentage of CDC participants falling into the lowest two overall rating categories (from 24% to 5% of participants) and increased the percentage in the top category (from 21% to 38% of participants).

After seven years of conducting this internal MDL program, the client company decided to discontinue it, based on the heavy time and staffing requirements. Realizing that nearly all high-potential sales representatives would benefit from introductory leadership training, the company instituted a series of region-based workshops, focusing on basic management skill sets.

Ongoing Evolution of the Program

Shifting the Focus from “Assessment” to “Development”

Following another merger/acquisition, the prevailing philosophy of the company shifted towards an emphasis on development of management talent rather than assessment.  Despite the name of the program, the Career Development Center was viewed more as an evaluation of readiness for management than an opportunity to learn about leadership functions and effective management practices. Several changes to the program were therefore recommended to place a greater emphasis on learning and development:

  • Video Review Sessions

On the first day of the program, video recordings of each coaching and counseling exercise were made, and then at the end of the second day, an external facilitator reviewed one of the recordings with the participant in a private session.  At various intervals, they paused the playback to discuss observed behaviors, both effective and ineffective.  This new feature was very well received by the participants.

  • Development Discussions

The PCI facilitators also conducted an in-depth discussion with each participant, exploring their thoughts regarding ongoing development, including their preferred learning style, e.g., self-directed strategies, such as reading books, listening to audio or online programs; classroom learning, such as academic coursework, seminars, or workshops; on-the-job learning; etc.  (This discussion was based on a “background review form” that participants completed as pre-work, prior to attending the CDC.)  As a result of these discussions, the assessor teams were better able to offer customized developmental strategies to each participant.

  • Feedback Conferences

During the hour-long telephone feedback conferences, which were conducted 2-3 weeks after the CDC, the assessors focused more on “where to go from here” than “what you did during the program.”  Both the participant’s immediate manager and second-line manager joined the feedback conference and took part in helping to design a 6-24 month developmental plan of action.  This plan was to be in writing, with progress reports built in at three-month intervals.  These changes were instituted in order to gain greater support for developmental action planning and to increase the likelihood of improving management skills post CDC.

Validation Research

Given the large number of participants in the assessment/development center over many years, PCI offered to conduct a validation study to determine whether there was a correlation between a participant’s performance in the assessment/development center and his/her performance as a district sales manager.  Regional sales directors completed a survey that involved rating their district sales managers on 10 job performance factors.  Various linear correlations were calculated to assess the degree to which the assessment/development center results (the overall weighted score) were related to on-the-job performance ratings.   Results showed a strong positive correlation between the two variables, such that as assessment center results increased in value, on-the-job ratings increased as well (r = .377, p < .01).    The study demonstrated that there is a significant accuracy by which the assessment/development center results relate to later on-the-job performance ratings.

Program Status – 15 Years Later

After 15 years of conducting the assessment/development center program, over 1200 participants have taken part in the sessions, and many of them have subsequently been promoted to manager, director, and senior executive positions.  The program started out being sponsored by the training department and later came under the “ownership” of the human resources department, enabling more comprehensive support.  Many lessons have been learned, but the following are worth highlighting:

  • Exercises need to be regularly updated to reflect the evolving role of the position being simulated.
  • Management needs to be involved at all levels for ongoing program and participant support.
  • The purpose and use of the program must be explained and communicated to all parties, both participants and users of the results, on an ongoing basis (not just periodically).
  • Providing feedback via video has been one of the most successful additions to the program.  Participants appreciated the immediate feedback and often commented that they observed behaviors that they never realized they were doing.
  • Involving participants’ managers (and directors) in the feedback conference has ensured a better understanding of the results and improved the “buy-in” of the developmental recommendations.
  • Requiring assessment center participants to complete a written career development plan in conjunction with their managers increases the likelihood that action will be taken.  Incorporating the training department in longer-term follow up also helps to “keep the plan alive.”
  • Effective assessors need to possess a unique combination of traits and capabilities.  First of all, they must be observant of human behavior, aware of effective management practices, and clear in their communications.  In addition, they must be supportive facilitators, gracious hosts, and wise counselors.

Areas for further research have also emerged, including the following:

  • Since the addition of internal assessors to the assessment center, how much more (or less) predictive of future success are the overall scores?
  • To what extent have competency ratings (and overall scores) improved over the years, given the additional training and development offered to emerging managers?  More specifically, what is the relationship between completing the post-assessment center career development plan and competency improvement?
  • Which competencies and simulations explain a greater degree of the variance in later on-the-job management performance?

Over the years, the program has been widely supported across the organization, and it continues to evolve as the industry changes in response to economic and political forces.  Despite modifications to competency models and exercise content, the process is still grounded in the fundamental principles of careful behavioral observation and effective leadership practice.

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