Executive Assessment: What Separates Academic from Corporate Leaders?

Last Friday, Witt/Kieffer released a groundbreaking report comparing personality characteristics of 100 higher education leaders with a larger group of corporate executives. That same day, both the Wall Street Journal and Chronicle of Higher Education saw fit to cover the report and the executive assessment study it was based on, understanding its potential significance.

Leadership Traits and Success in Higher EducationThe study—based upon three types of assessment tools that gauge personality as well as motives and values—calls into question whether academic and corporate leaders are really all that different. If they do differ in some areas of executive assessment—the academics scored much lower in terms of their “Commerce” orientation, for example, which reflects their interest in business and financial matters—how do these differences affect the “cross-over” ability of both types of leaders? Can higher education leaders become more businesslike in their approach or, conversely, can corporate leaders become more academic if they seek positions in higher education?

“There has been a real shift to the professionalization of higher education administration,” Lucy Leske, Witt/Kieffer vice president and co-leader of its Higher Education practice, told Melissa Korn in the Journal. Korn paraphrases Leske in adding: “That often means that schools are tapping people from outside academia to lead their institutions. If they’re not making that leap quite yet, schools are at least putting more weight on factors like business sense and creative problem-solving rather than just research prowess.”

Executive Assessment Tools: Merely Hocus-Pocus?

Despite criticisms from faculty and others in education that executive assessment tools can be “hocus-pocus,” the Chronicle’s Jack Stripling sums up their importance in this way: “Is the president a grouse or a softy? A diplomat or a daredevil? An extrovert or a wallflower? Such questions may be difficult to answer through traditional interviews and reference checks, but some trustees say they can now get a pretty good idea of the type of president they’re hiring with the help of a questionnaire.”

As the report concludes: “If indeed the role of the future university leader is to be more ‘businesslike’ than in the past, it may be helpful to know this, and to consider precisely which characteristics and competencies correspond with leadership success. Similarly, this assessment information can help institutions in the future identify new leaders—perhaps even those from the corporate world—who are most likely to fit well in certain colleges and universities and thrive in academic leadership positions.”

[Editor’s update March 5: Insider Higher Education’s Kevin Kiley has also contributed a thoughtful summary of the report–see his article and scroll down to the “Rethinking Searching” section.]

Here again is the link to the full (and free) report.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Writer

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  1. Emily says:

    It’s definitely time to use personality traits to get a deeper understanding of people. There is a need for academics in business and business professionals in academics. The convergence of fields will only broaden the reach of the work that is being done in both places. I think questionares or surveys are a great approach as long as the questions are based in psychology and the results are analyzed by psychology-driven analysts.