Feature

Masquerading manager

Meenakshi Radhakrishnan-Swami undergoes an assessment to check her C-suite worthiness 

You never wanted to be a ‘suit’. So what are you doing here?” The voice inside my head refuses to shut up. I’m on my way to the office of talent management company DDI in Mumbai, having agreed to subject myself to a leadership assessment that’s used to test senior executives on their suitability for even more senior roles. And having muddled through the preparatory work, I’m having second thoughts.

But once inside the eerily quiet office, where a room has been set aside for me, I’m no longer Meenakshi, journalist, who disappointed her family by not getting an MBA. I’m Kelly Myers, in my first day on the job as vice president of a robotics company nearly 15 years in the future. For the rest of the day, I will be addressed only by that name; I will answer emails and telephone calls as Kelly and I will negotiate the minefield that is the corporate world in that persona. I log on to the system and am bombarded with emails that have to be dealt with immediately.

Within the next hour or so, I need to take a decision on whether to go ahead with a joint venture or not, sort out a stubborn but productive employee at a plant overseas and take a call on whether or not to delay a product launch. All in a day’s work for the inhabitant of a C-suite, but I’m already gasping for breath.

But we’re not done yet. I negotiate with a recalcitrant team member (played by a DDI staffer), praising his wealth of experience and gently nudging him to cooperate more with the sales team and getting his grudging acceptance. A few emails later, I’m on the phone with an uncooperative partner in Paris (again, a staffer), whom I cajole and coax into sharing some of his research team with the parent organisation.

Then I’m on to making a business plan for the rest of the year for the commercial robotics team. I look at spreadsheets and pie charts and scribble out my thoughts on a paper — I will probably lose some points for not whipping up a slick PPT presentation but, by this time, I’m more worried about getting through the day than what the assessment will finally reveal about me. 

Did I say ‘minefield’? Make that a steeply-inclined treadmill studded with mines. And the hamster-in-a-cage feeling intensifies every time I think my every word is being analysed; my telephone call and face-to-face interactions have been recorded and will be picked apart once I leave. At nearly four in the afternoon, I wrap up my presentation to the CEO of the robotics company on my vision for the department. And I am — or rather, Kelly Myers is — finally done. 

Know then thyself

Two weeks later, I’m back at the DDI office waiting to hear my results (I don’t get a copy of my assessment, unlike regular candidates). Smita Affinwala, DDI’s head of consulting in India, starts with a disclaimer. What I went through was a truncated version of the real assessment — really? It didn’t feel that way — and the results, therefore, may not necessarily reflect the whole truth. While the online tests I had filled out before the assessment would be an accurate measure of my personality and leadership abilities, the analysis of the simulation is considered more important. “Your personality is who you are, but the observed behaviour is about what you do. And that can be changed,” she explains. 

I’m also not getting the regular version of feedback — candidates are usually sent their reports two or three days before someone from DDI goes over the report with them over the telephone (not face to face). A strategic talent review is then conducted with the supervisor and the organisation’s HR team, where the candidate’s strengths and suitability for the new role is analysed. The whole process takes several months from start to finish. 

How receptive are candidates to the assessment? (I’ve already been warned that it can be brutally frank.) Affinwala points out that in the four years since DDI has been in India, some 5,000 such senior-level assessments have taken place — each costing between #75,000 and #2.5 lakh. “Many walk in dismissing this as mumbo-jumbo but, so far, only two have walked away retaining that attitude.”

Somewhat reassured, I take a deep breath and ready myself to hear what I’m sure are going to be uncomfortable truths. As it turns out, it’s not too bad. My observed behaviour shows me as a person with the ability to balance people with the needs of the business and forge relationships. Apparently, I have an “effective influencing style” and I displayed “organisational strength”. There are areas of development, too (DDI takes care not to call them weaknesses). I need to “enhance my strategic agility” and take a more zoomed-out view of the business. Broadly, the personality tests reveal similar themes — praising my learning orientation and prudent approach and shaking a finger at my tendency to spoon-feed people rather than coaching them properly. 

I need to work at developing talent — while I was good at “leveraging people to meet business objectives”, I wasn’t taking a broader, view of the roles they could fill (back to the strategic view issue). “The solutions you developed were in the here and now, rather than about addressing issues that may crop up in the future,” explains Affinwala. Ah well, I console myself — you’re a journalist with daily deadline pressures. You have to live in the here and now. 

So, how do I rate as a leader? I’m a problem-solver than a business visionary. Affinwala tells me I would make a “good corporate citizen”. But I’ve had a small peek at what the corporate world could be like and I’m not so sure she’s right. The voice in my head, meanwhile, says I made the right decision all those years ago and whispers, “It’s time to say goodbye to Kelly.”

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