In the last decade, organizations have significantly increased the importance placed on selecting and developing executive talent, as companies increasingly compete for a limited talent pool. According to Allan Church, PhD, vice president of organizational and management development at PepsiCo, "Accurately identifying and developing high potential talent is critically important for meeting business needs."

Selecting and developing executives such as presidents and CEOs can be challenging. In most cases, individuals with leadership potential all have strong skills and abilities, comfortably above minimum qualifications for an executive position. Industrial and organizational (I/O) psychologists are regularly asked to help organizations identify those individuals in an organization's talent pool, or external candidates, with the greatest likelihood of success in an executive role. The assessment process includes valid and relevant assessment tools, such as a range of personality, cognitive and interest measures, as well as career background interviews, 360-degree interviews and surveys, and executive simulations. The use of valid assessment data is a cornerstone of accurate, predictive executive assessment by I/O psychologists.

In making these assessments, I/O psychologists take into account how well the knowledge, skills and abilities of the potential executive--as well as the individual's work interests and motivations--match the demands and responsibilities of the executive role. This two-way match requires psychologists to assess both sides of the selection process; consequently psychologists need to have a broad understanding of both business organizations and executive work. The successful executive match also requires careful consideration of other variables, including expectations of boards of directors or trustees and CEOs, the nature of the existing executive team, the overall organizational culture and the current international business zeitgeist.

Many organizations aspire to develop a pool of individuals with potential executive talent inside the organization because early identification and development of talented individuals is a key factor in later organizational success. For these purposes, I/O psychologists often conduct internal empirical studies to identify which specific skills and abilities are critical to executive effectiveness. These studies also frequently identify and validate assessment tools predictive of later executive success. These tools can help organizations identify individuals with executive potential early in their careers, so that they can be given the developmental support and opportunities to help them maximize the likelihood of their later executive success.

Along with selection, executive development is also a major area of science and practice for I/O psychologists. This includes initiating individual and group development plans, programs and experiences. Within this context, psychologists often play a critical role in structuring and implementing executive succession planning and talent-management efforts at all levels in large organizations. This may also include serving as coaches and advisers to the senior executive team.

There are major benefits to collecting valid and relevant data, often on both individuals and the entire executive team, when creating executive-development programs. For example, the Center for Creative Leadership's weeklong Leadership at the Peak program for senior executives, U.S. admirals and generals and high-level leaders in nonprofit organizations begins with extensive assessment and data collection on each participant, and then helps individuals tailor their own development planning programs. In building such programs, it is essential to identify the individual's unique development needs, the individual's learning style and the specific lessons to be learned or skills to be gained.

Historically, I/O psychologists have played central roles in designing and conducting executive leadership development initiatives in a range of organizations, such as Bristol-Meyers Squibb, PepsiCo, IBM, AT&T, Merck, Capital One Financial and the U.S. military academies. Later, I/O psychologists have frequently conducted follow-up studies to determine which developmental assignments and programs have actually had an impact on the individual's skills and knowledge.

APA's Div. 14 (Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology--SIOP) has made a concentrated effort to help psychologists build their scientific knowledge and their practice skills around executive selection and development. SIOP has published a series of science and practice books (see Jeanneret & Silzer, 1998; Silzer, 2002; Zaccaro & Klimoski, 2001), has organized an annual Leading Edge Consortium devoted to key I/O psychology practice areas (see Drasgow, Dowell & McCauley, 2006; Hough, Silzer & Campbell, 2005) and is regularly recognizing and supporting research on executive selection and development (see Bono, Purvanvo & Towler, 2004 for a study of executive coaches). Readers can learn more about these efforts by going to www.siop.org or contacting the SIOP office at (419) 353-0032.

For a list of references, go to the main APA Monitor page.

Further Reading

  • Bono, J.E., Purvanova, R.K., & Towler, A.J. (2004). Executive summary for coaching survey (Tech. Rep. CR 04180). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota.

  • Drasgow, F., Dowell, B., & McCauley, C. (Co-chairs). (2006, October). Talent attraction, development, and detention: The leading edge. Leading Edge Consortium organized by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Charlotte, NC.

  • Hough, L., Silzer, R., & Campbell, D. (Co-chairs). (2005, October). Leadership at the top: The selection, globalization and ethics of executive talent. Leading Edge Consortium organized by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, St. Louis, MO.

  • Jeanneret, R., & Silzer, R. (Eds.). (1998). Individual psychological assessment: Predicting behavior in organizational setting. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Silzer, R. (Ed.). (2002). The 21st century executive: Innovative practices for building leadership at the top. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

  • Zaccaro, S., & Klimoski, R. (2001). The nature of organizational leadership. San Francisco; Jossey-Bass.