By Dr. Thomas N. Tavantzis

There are two beliefs disguised as truths that I have heard repeatedly over the past several years. These so-called ‘truths’ come from a variety of individuals at national and global companies, usually the Senior Talent Manager or the person in charge of Leadership Development. The ‘truths’ are offered as ‘givens’, usually accompanied by a head-nod and a sage-like look. Because I always find deconstructing beliefs disguised as truths interesting and instructive, when something stays with me but doesn’t ‘digest’ well, it usually warrants more reflection and analysis.

Here are the ‘truths’ I’m talking about:

1. All assessments are just data points 2. Any assessment is only the beginning of a conversation

Neither of these statements is inherently wrong, but the context it is generally made in makes it appear wrong. In my experience of coaching leaders over the past 20 years, I have found that both statements are generalizations that may appear true, but that the context they are made in more often than not, challenges and refutes their accuracy. Let me explain.

All assessments are not created equal. Otherwise I could conceivably use Astrology or a technique taught to me by my beloved Kastorian Yiayia (Grandmother) when I was a child growing up.

Whenever a person finished his Turkish (now called Greek) coffee and the dark, syrupy dregs were left at the bottom, she would ask him if he would like a life reading. With his agreement, my Yiayia would then turn over his coffee cup and wait a few minutes until the dregs had dried. Then she would wisely examine the settled and dried coffee staining the sides of the diminutive cup, and, while assuming the authority of a guru or the humility of a supplicant, begin her interpretation of the shadows, clumps and Rorschach-like designs left behind. Clients would wait eagerly to hear about themselves, and, lo and behold, all the advice provided by my Yiayia would elicit nods of agreement and even a personal question or two. How was this possible? Today I look back on my Yiayia and see her as a mix of Forer and P.T. Barnum’s observation “we’ve got something for everyone” supports the notion that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to personality assessments that are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, and some types of personality tests.

A related and more general phenomenon is that of subjective validation. Subjective validation occurs when two unrelated or even random events are perceived to be related because a pre-conceived belief, expectancy, or hypothesis demands a relationship. Thus people seek a correspondence between their perception of their personality and the contents of a horoscope. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forer_effect)


Both the Barnum and Forer effects are categorized by the following qualities: 1) they are perceived as uniquely personalized; 2) they are generally positive – describing traits we can all understand and see in ourselves; 3) they offer future hope and potential control of our futures; and 4) they perform the role of the village adviser and prophet, in the same way as my Yiayia. Of course I would never discredit my dear departed Yiayia by suggesting she was a well-meaning fake. After all, she thought she was doing others good by way of her gifts!


It is obvious why I tell this story, apart from any possible chuckle it may provide. I tell it to suggest to you that many self-assessments end up coming down to the same active component, i.e., our well-meaning role as interpreters/guides/coaches, using self assessments that can be questionable. Many self-reports manuals provide little or no evidence of predictive or concurrent validity even if one form of reliability which is routinely used, i.e., test-retest, is r=.90. More often than not, we all use the same tools because we ‘know they work’, or ‘we have had good results with them,’ etc. Should that be the basis of starting a conversation about a person’s life?


I have taught a graduate level course I call ‘Assessment in Organization’ for the past decade, I can confidently say that many popular self-assessments fall far short in providing Validity data. One well known and widely used self-report offered the following comment on the assessment’s validity when asked about it by one of my students: ‘over a million people have taken this assessment’. I can start a conversation just as well with a coffee reading!


The other ‘truth’ is reliance on ‘one of several data points’. You probably have an idea where this is heading as many of the same points underlie this ‘truth’. Many leaders I work with have had many internal and external leadership developmental opportunities provided over the years: the coachee has had many data points. That is fantastic, so what is the problem? Rarely, if ever, are the data points put together in any systematic way. It is only data, but not information. It is a rare instance when someone integrates the ‘data points’.

Because so many of my clients have attended my Center for Leadership programs, I have more experience with this than others, and I find when I ask them, that their ‘data points’ are gathering dust. My sense is that this is like telling someone to read a self-help book. Inevitably, what the reader finds is what he believed to begin with, while what he can’t digest through his defense mechanisms is what he really needed! Because if self-help books really worked we would all be out of work!

Only in the last few years have I made a decision about the two ‘truths’ I stated earlier. I have decided that the first assessment to use is the Highlands Ability Battery. Here’s why:

1) It is faster than a 360.

2) It consists of a) timed and b) objective worksamples; and c) is not self-report (except for Highlands version of Eysenck’s Extroversion-Introversion d) there is transparency to the client in its validity and reliability.

3) Usually a new coachee will complete the Battery within several days after the assignment and prior to the next coaching session.

4) The feedback session gives a tremendous opportunity to ‘start’ an in-depth conversation and discuss specifics of behavior and attitudes of the coachee while providing him with insight into factors impacting his behavior, e.g. ‘I was aware that I did that but didn’t put together how the downside worked’.

5) It focuses on the strengths of the coachee. I still encounter the reluctance to assign labels, although much less now then 10 years ago (this may be a function of the fact that I work primarily with engineers and scientists).

6) It dispels the idea that to be great, a good leader has to be all things to all people.

7) It introduces the concept of complementarity to leaders, both to high potentials and those moving up the leadership pipeline to work primarily through others.

8) It gives me a wider angle view for understanding the individual coachee when s/he discusses the various issues s/he faces.

9) It provides a framework in which to train a coachee to see himself and how he goes about making decisions and how he learns.

10) It provides THAB with a shared perspective for understanding the feedbacks provided by quantative and qualitative 360s and the comments of the BOSS.

11) By means of its intensive one-on-one ongoing coaching sessions, it provides opportunities for developing the self-observing perspective that appears to be lacking, especially in high potentials.

Additionally I have found that using the Battery and its 8-Factor model is key, as this provides an opportunity for integration of other internal and external leadership opportunities experienced by the coachees over the years. I have learned that if we dust off all the data we have gathered, we can work together to get a more meaningful picture.

I don’t expect anyone to abandon a favorite assessment tool he has long used, but I do ask that you remember my Yiayia the next time you are asked to read a coffee cup.