Is Your Talent Assessment Center Letting You Down?

How to identify and develop high-potential employees and position the company for long-term success.

By Nino Lamberti, Senior Partner, The Vaya Group

This we know: The role of the pharmaceutical sales professional is changing rapidly—and with it, the complexity of the front-line manager’s job. Ten years ago, the job of the sales professional consisted of memorizing a script, passing out samples, meeting with the physician (as frequently as possible), and getting the action to prescribe. Under this landscape, the manager’s main focus was to drive call activity and keep everyone in line. They usually arrived at the position by being an outstanding salesperson—energetic, charismatic, and noticeable—but generally lacking training or preparation on how to manage other people.

Today, the job of the sales professional is a complex process that involves stringent regulatory guidelines, insurance providers, increased competition from generic drug manufacturers ,and informed patients who get their health-care news and information from Google. As a result, the job of the front-line manager now demands much more than simply driving call activity.

With these realities front and center, pharmaceutical companies are finding it necessary to invest in Human Resource (HR) programs and talent management processes that help identify and better develop “high-potential” employees for front-line manager positions. For years, the industry’s program of choice has been the assessment center—generally an annual one- or two-day event in which candidates are assessed against the “next” role’s needed skills and demands.

However, as the industry becomes more challenging and the demand for high potentials increases, many companies are finding that their assessment center falls short of expectations. At issue isn’t the quality of the assessment center, but rather the lack of preparation and development plans leading up to and following individuals’ entry into the program. The assessment center ends up serving as a stand-alone event—instead of a capstone—with poor or non-existent selection criteria for entry. Without being a part of a larger, corporate-wide talent development plan, assessment centers deliver very little, if any, return on investment and often result in discouraged or demotivated employees—a danger to the company’s well-being moving forward.

Building an Effective Assessment Center

(Hint: It’s all about the sequencing…)

The good news is that when installed within a larger talent development sequence, assessment centers can serve as an engaging event that will inspire employees, boost productivity across the organization and benefit the bottom line. The key is to create a leadership development framework leading up to the assessment center that gives employees the opportunity to take more ownership over their career development. Under this type of model, the assessment center is actually the capstone event—the last step of a rigorous process designed to ensure that only the most career-minded, driven, and qualified candidates are selected for promotions.

To help pharmaceutical leaders get the most out of their leadership development efforts, here is a checklist of recommended strategies for designing and implementing an effective program for prospective front-line sales managers.

  1. Design the talent roadmap: The first step in creating an effective assessment center is to frame the vision and write the blueprint for the company’s leadership development program. Next, establish selection criteria that align with the company’s business strategy and purpose so the program focuses on the skills needed to win in the long-term future.
  2. Develop the talent model: To make talent a sustainable, competitive advantage, it’s important to operationalize competencies specific to the front-line manager position. Specify the skills and requirements needed for the position so employees have a clear understanding of what it takes to get promoted and serve as manager.
  3. Implement an assessment protocol: A precursor to the real assessment center, the assessment protocol reviews employees’ skill levels in comparison to the talent model and identifies areas of improvement. This sets employees on the right track for enhancing their skills and developing new ones prior to going through the assessment center.
  4. Implement “work time”: During this stage of the program, employees are given the chance to learn new skills. Ensure that in-person mentors, online modules, resource guides, and other coaching initiatives are readily available. Whether this time period spans five months or a year, it motivates employees to take ownership over their careers and helps ensure that entry into the assessment center is based on merit and performance.
  5. Launch the assessment center: By the time the above steps are completed, employers will be able to identify top-notch sales reps uniquely qualified for positions as front-line managers. These candidates will best embody the company’s values and will be fully equipped to deliver the organization’s purpose. Only these individuals should attend the one or two-day assessment center—the capstone event.

Results That Matter

Today’s rapidly evolving and competitive pharmaceutical landscape necessitates that front-line sales managers are more knowledgeable, personable, and entrepreneurial than ever before. To maximize productivity and performance, companies require better, more strategic insight into their existing and anticipated workforce. Assessment centers—when created as the last step of a larger talent development sequence—can be powerful tools for promoting a culture of continuous learning and development and helping employers make more informed (and confident) promotion decisions. According to research from the Aberdeen Group, companies that use competency assessment well realize 26 percent better profit per full-time equivalent (FTE), 22 percent better customer satisfaction, and 20 percent better customer retention.

However, not every high-potential employee is created equal; each has his or her own style, strengths, and skills. In some cases, individual talent that was so distinctly an advantage in sales now could undermine the management effort. To ensure that the strengths and skills of high-potential employees will carry over into a management position, consider the steps above. Best-in-class companies develop and promote high potentials not only by what they do—but in the sequence in which they do them.

Nino Lamberti is senior partner of The Vaya Group, a talent management consultancy that applies science and precision to the art of talent assessment and development. For more information, visit

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