Security Career Paths: Preparing for Personality Assessments
Imagine this scenario: You apply for your dream corporate security job, a senior leadership position at a reputable company. You’re confident. You have more than a decade’s worth of security management experience, plus an impressive array of degrees and certifications.
You get to the final stage of the hiring process, and HR informs you that you are one step away from an offer. All you need to do is answer one question within 30 seconds: Find the next number in the sequence: 2, 7, 28, 63, 126, ___.
Did your heart just skip a beat? Welcome to the new world of hiring, in which assessments matter and objective reviews of prospective candidates rule over subjective evaluations and opinions.
Until recently, attempts to move up the corporate ladder into a senior management role as a security professional were typically very competitive but straightforward. Often, they followed a four-stage process: learn about the job opening, submit a detailed résumé and cover letter, participate in interviews with HR and the hiring manager, and receive a job offer, if selected.
Arguably, some senior security roles were filled based more on who you know rather than what you know, so references and recommendations could also be crucial.
But the world has changed, and few reputable companies still use the old format. Many have added more difficult steps, including challenging personality and cognitive ability assessments, which can catch even the most competent security professional off guard.
Why the Assessments?
In terms of qualifications, many of today’s organizations want their senior security leaders to have executive presence, proven leadership skills, and the aptitude to manage people, programs, and budgets as efficiently and effectively as the leaders in every other department of the company.
But now, a candidate’s performance on a formal assessment is another component to be evaluated during the hiring process. In general, an employer will give more weight to the results of formal assessments if the organization is hiring someone to actively lead change across the entire enterprise, rather than a caretaker manager who will mainly keep watch over the security department.
In part, this is because change agent managers will be working in a dynamic and sometimes tumultuous environment, and assessments can help measure if applicants can think on their feet and meet unexpected challenges. Employers do not want to hire someone who has topped out at their current level and who does not have the motivation to excel in a more demanding role. Nor do they want someone who cannot handle stress and accept feedback or who does not collaborate well with others.
A major reason that applicants for senior roles face more challenges is because human resource leaders know that about 80 percent of hiring mistakes are due to “inaccurate” interviews—interviews that failed to effectively assess if the candidate would be a good fit for the position. In addition, training and research firm Leadership IQ found that 46 percent of all new hires fail within 18 months.
As a result, human resource professionals have turned to assessments to provide more key data points. Not scoring well on these assessments, in contrast to the candidate’s professional accomplishments, will send a mixed signal that applicants want to avoid. But high assessment scores, complemented by an impressive résumé and strong interviews, will offer further confirmation that the applicant is the right person for the job.
Hurdles in the New Hiring
To identify the right candidate for hire, many companies have expanded the previously mentioned straightforward four-stage system into a longer and more grueling process. This expanded hiring process varies depending on the organization and role, but if an applicant prepares for the worst-case scenario, a process with fewer stages will only be easier.
This new formula starts with the traditional, easily prepared for interviews. But later in the process lies a potentially fatal trap, which will bring an unprepared applicant’s journey to an abrupt halt with no second chance. The trap consists of a battery of assessment tests that the candidate must perform well on to proceed.
Regardless, the initial interview stages of many hiring processes often include a screening interview with a gatekeeper from human resources. This is usually followed by interviews with the hiring manager and the candidate’s potential peers. Many companies use formal interview protocols with specific questions that can be scored, although some still use conversational interviews and subjective grading.
The middle stages of the hiring process often include interviews with senior leaders, such as the general counsel and other key executives. After this middle stage, but before the final stage, the candidate is sometimes invited to take an array of online assessments and discuss the results with a psychologist.
This is a critical step. For the applicant, the good news here is that simply making it to this stage indicates strong interest, since the company is willing to pay for third-party assessments. The bad news is that failure to perform average to above-average on the assessments will end the process altogether.
One important disclaimer: applicants should know that while surviving the assessment stage usually means they have cleared all major hurdles, this will not hold if they have lied on their résumé or about their accomplishments. Many companies have a final process stage, and discovering false representations in it can cause issues. This last stage often includes providing professional references, including ones from supervisors, peers, and direct reports, as well as reviews of your job history, criminal record, and credit report.
Another recent change here is that many companies no longer request generic professional references from people who can attest that the applicant is a great person, but who cannot provide specific examples that confirm accomplishments stated on the résumé, nor specifically attest as to why the applicant would do well in the prospective job.
If it seems possible that the résumé and interview answers could crumple under scrutiny during targeted interviews with references, the applicant should take the time to ensure accuracy before applying. Common problem areas here include misrepresented or exaggerated numbers of direct reports, overstated numbers in budgets managed, or taking direct credit for an accomplishment that should seemingly be easy for a reference to confirm, but the reference cannot. Here, the general rule is to make sure that all embellishments are avoided.
Another potential area of concern is a candidate’s online presence. Social media and LinkedIn profiles should align with the candidate’s résumé to minimize the possibility of misunderstandings. One of the quickest ways to get ghosted is when an HR professional discovers a misrepresentation within the applicant’s social media presence.
In sum, the days of simply believing an applicant’s résumé and making a hiring decision based on a strong interview and intuition are over. But just knowing the new landscape and giving oneself time to prepare is likely to give the applicant a tactical advantage.
Assessment Specifics: What to Expect
Personality assessments do not evaluate experience, education, technical knowledge, or accomplishments. What they do measure are personality traits that influence how a candidate thinks, feels, and acts. They are also designed to assess cognitive skills and abilities that influence learning, problem solving, and decision making. Taken as a whole, these assessments are part of the employer’s strategy of identifying the right candidate and avoiding a bad hiring decision.
Companies often use more than one survey to assess different aspects of the candidate’s personality and cognitive abilities. Some of the test questions will overlap, but this allows the tester to look at trends across surveys, which can provide a more accurate picture of the candidate. Overall, these tests are scored based on the number of right and wrong answers, and the overall results are compared with a large candidate norm group.
In practical terms, the assessments are usually divided into two groups—
timed tests and untimed tests. The timed tests typically allow five to 20 minutes for completion, and they focus on verbal comprehension and reasoning, as well as numerical ability and reasoning. The tests cover both verbal and math exercises, which are excellent predictors of analytical and problem-solving skills, offering multiple opportunities for a candidate to demonstrate skill. They can also be considered critical thinking tests, which look at a candidate’s ability to correctly infer, recognize assumptions, evaluate arguments, make deductions, and come to well-reasoned conclusions.
In general, verbal tests assess a candidate’s ability to comprehend written passages. While it is possible that a numerical reasoning test could involve complex math, it is more likely that the numerical exercises for a security leadership position will focus on evaluating numerical information, understanding patterns and trends in data, and making sensible conclusions and judgments.
The untimed tests are usually intended to take between 15 and 30 minutes to complete. It is critical for candidates to not rush through these assessments; they should assume that every answer matters. If time allows, candidates may want to go back over all the questions multiple times to catch any obvious mistakes in their initial responses. Some applicants may wonder why they must answer questions about fractions and parallelograms, which seem unrelated to security, but there is a method to the madness, so it is best to stay positive.
The untimed tests may include questions from established assessment tools such as Critical Thinking Appraisals (also known as Watson-Glaser), Leadership Personality Tests (such as those used in Wealth Dynamics, John Maxwell, DISC profile, and Strength Finder tests), the Hogan Development Survey, and various personality assessments—such as the Personality Research Form, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Winslow, Holtzman, Hexaco, and the Neo Pi-R test.
At many companies, the candidate will meet with a psychologist after completing the tests. These sessions will often feature open-ended questions by the psychologist, which are designed to assess how candidates see themselves, and how they think others see them. The way candidates articulate how they view themselves in their own words helps the experts interpret the survey data more accurately. To ensure accuracy, most companies require the testing vendor to have two different psychology professionals review the results.
How to prepare for the assessments? Those administering the aforementioned tests often give generic preparation advice, like to get plenty of rest, take the tests somewhere free of distractions, and break up the tests into multiple sessions if possible. They will also encourage the candidate to answer all personality questions honestly and candidly, assuring that there are no wrong or right answers.
That is sound advice, but more can be done. It’s generally a safe assumption that fulfilling day-to-day responsibilities in the candidate’s current security position will not serve as adequate preparation for many of the assessment subjects. Thus, it is not advisable for applicants to take the tests cold. The bottom line is that assessments in some form are now part of the process and need to be taken seriously. Applicants should spend as much time preparing for assessments as they would creating a résumé and preparing for interviews.
The number one way to prepare for the assessments is to practice answering similar questions. If a candidate’s HR contact does not volunteer the actual names of the timed assessment tests, the candidate can request the names of the tests in advance. Then through online research, practice tests can be found and taken.
Internet searches will yield both free practice tests and tests that are offered for a fee. There are numerous smartphone apps available; Pocket Aptitude, for instance, has sample questions and answers for 24 different categories that represent content on various quantitative aptitude exams.
One suggested option is to treat the IQ and personality apps like games, and by enjoying them just a few minutes per day, a candidate will increase his or her skills. This preparation should be treated like a marathon, not a sprint; over time, each aptitude skill added to the toolbox will make the professional more competitive.
Let’s look at some sample questions to give potential candidates a better idea of what they might come across in an actual test.
1. Find the next number: 2, 7, 28, 63, 126, ___.
2. You bought 10 pencils for $5 and sold them for $6. What is your percentage gain?
3. Anne is 5 years older than Brian who is 4 years older than Charlie. The sum of their ages is 61. How old is Brian?
4. How would you answer the following true or false questions?
a. I am easily irritated.
b. I am afraid of what awaits me in the future.
c. I get nervous talking to people I don’t know.
d. I find it hard to trust people.
5. How would you answer the following true or false questions?
a. I usually believe what people tell me.
b. I am always honest.
c. Trusting someone comes easily to me.
d. I have no reason to doubt people who tell me something.
6. I enjoy making detailed plans.
Choose: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, or Strongly Agree.
7. My goals in life are clear.
Choose: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, or Strongly Agree.
8. I don’t like unexpected responsibilities.
Choose: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree, or Strongly Agree.
Answers and Feedback
1. 215. The sequence is 13+1, 23–1, 33+1, 43–1, 53+1, 63–1. Notice that the increase starts slow, then increases sharply. This is a clue that it is an exponential increase.
2. 20 percent. This can be arrived at through straightforward calculation.
3. 20 years old. This can be arrived at through straightforward calculation.
4. If you answered mostly true, you may score highly for having apprehensive, fearful, and nervous personality traits. An employer may avoid candidates deemed too apprehensive, or who cannot handle pressure. Strong candidates show they can effectively manage workplace anxiety and demonstrate resilience and emotional stability.
The question also raises another point relevant to preparation. Some applicants try to answer based on what they think the employer wants to hear, and not based on the most accurate reflection of their true personality. However, true or false questions often do not capture shades of gray, so the test-taker may be confused as to which answer is most representative.
To address this issue, an applicant can take practice tests that provide feedback. Keeping an open mind will be educational in how nuanced human traits can be best expressed through multiple choice answers.
For example, let’s say an applicant is confident but not arrogant. Very little bothers her, but she does have a few pet peeves. By taking practice tests, the applicant will learn what combination of answers best projects who she is as a person, even if it does so imperfectly.
5. These are testing for trust. Those who project low levels of trust and struggle to receive information as accurate are often perceived as weak candidates. In contrast, strong candidates come across as trusting but cautious. The ability to show a certain level of respect and trust in what someone has said or done is key to managing a healthy work environment. It is a safe assumption that one will be tested on trust for a security leadership role, so taking sample tests on this topic is advisable.
Moreover, trust is a two-way street. A candidate should pay attention during interviews to gauge the way trust is perceived, and the extent to which company’s leaders trust information they obtain from others. This can provide clues about the company’s culture. Remember, an applicant being interviewed is simultaneously interviewing the employer too, and the process provides the candidate with subjective and objective data to make an informed decision.
6 through 8. These types of personality assessment questions focus on suitability for role, and employers can choose from more than 30 scales to compare the applicant’s results to the profile they desire.
Two popular scales for security professional leadership positions are ones on confidence and achievement drive. With the former, the questions measure confidence in one’s own ability to succeed. Generally, self-confidence is an important indicator for success as a security professional, whereas a lack of confidence makes one less suitable for a security role.
Because personality tests are given after the interviews, the interviews themselves—especially with individuals in the chain of command—may be used to assess company leaders’ confidence levels. This is usually a good indicator of what those leaders consider unsuitable, suitable, and very suitable in terms of confidence level, and it is another good indicator of company culture.
The latter scale, achievement drive, assumes hiring managers are interested in applicants who have an ambition to excel in what they do. Suitable and very suitable candidates will come across as professionals with inner drive who will do their best to achieve goals and positive outcomes.
The trick with both scales is how to convey confidence and a high-achiever mind-set without coming across as extreme, like someone who would knock down anyone who seems to be standing in their path. If an applicant chooses “strongly disagree” or “strongly agree” to virtually all of these types of personality questions, their score may suggest unsuitability for the security leadership role. Again, taking a few practice personality tests online will provide insights on how to best align your answers with your personality.
When Abraham Lincoln said, “I will prepare and someday my chance will come,” he likely was not foreshadowing how a qualified security professional could achieve his or her dream job. Still, his words remind us that there is no time like the present to prepare for future opportunities.
A security applicant interacting with a prospective employer would be wise to assume that every step of the interaction is specifically designed to help HR and the hiring manager answer these questions: Can the candidate do the job? Will the candidate do the job? And how will the candidate do the job? Assessments help answer these questions, and so they are now commonly part of the professional advancement journey.
Let’s say that you succeeded in securing that dream job, and one of your duties will be to serve as a hiring security manager. Keep an open mind about using personality assessments as a valid data point in your next hiring decision.
Thomas R. Stutler, Esq., CPP, is vice president of national security operations for Cadillac Fairview Corporation Limited, and is based in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at [email protected].