Amongst the range of evaluations made by The Home Affairs Select Committee recently is that “barely anything has changed in the last 30 years.” From my perspective, as an external consultant working with the FRS during much of that time, this rings particularly true in relation to senior level assessment and appointments.

When I began my career with the FRS at Strathclyde FRS in 2002 I was curious as to why so much care and attention was put into managing the assessment process for promotion from Crew to Area Manager (as evidenced by the appointment of my role as Occupational Psychologist in the assessment team) but the roles of Assistant, Deputy and Chief Fire Officer were firmly outside of my remit. For these posts, it was accepted that candidates had always been selected by local councillors via a process fondly referred to as ‘death by sherry’.

One of the early freelance gigs I won after leaving Strathclyde was interview training skills for a group of local councillors responsible for senior level appointments. Although willing, the participants found the concepts of structured, consistent interviewing and evidence-based, criteria-led scoring very unfamiliar. In the six hours I had to deliver the training, I’m not convinced I made a significant dent in the belief that ‘I’ll know a good Chief when I see them (….him)’.

The problem with interviews, as most people are very well aware, is that we have a tendency to rate people more highly the more they reflect our own views and values. First impressions are hard to overcome, and without structure, we can fall into the trap of asking questions which will simply confirm what we’ve already decided.

By the time you get to the position in your career where you can realistically apply for a senior leadership role, it´s fairly certain that you can already talk a good game. You’re likely to be personable, persuasive and engaging. You can speak eloquently about leadership and accountability, service to the community and a passion for delivering corporate and political agendas. You are knowledgeable, experienced and confident, which are all important factors. But even for the most experienced and objective interviewers it can be very difficult to see beyond this, and dig into some of the underlying attitudes, values and behaviours. Which is in itself difficult to determine through an interview alone, no matter how skilled you are as an interviewer.

There is a great deal of variety in the way candidates demonstrate their attitudes, behaviours and values using realistic job-simulation activities. Performance relating to areas such as working effectively with a broad range of others; leadership style; consideration for, and use of, strengths and differences; recognition of priorities in developing and delivering across a range of groups; and authentic approaches to ethics and values can be demonstrated through practical tasks and tests far more clearly than through interview questions alone.

There have been pockets of much better practice over the years and a growing recognition of the need to do a much more thorough and reliable job of senior level selection. Not just because behavioural and personality assessments will give a much more reliable evaluation of an individual’s ability to do the job well, but because of how it looks to the rest of the organisation. If Firefighter applicants up to Area Managers are assessed against the leadership behaviours using objective, valid and evidence-based methods, why aren’t the people at the very top who will be responsible for leading the organisation? And in many FRS’s it’s not as if they can rely on having had these type of assessments at every significant step up the career ladder to demonstrate their values and behaviours, and provide logical evidence of their on-going progression and development.

There’s a danger that I’m not going to gain popularity from the very people who will influence how to manage assessments in their organisation going forward! But personal views aside, robust assessments for Assistant, Deputy and Chief positions will support the individuals themselves to step into roles with a detailed evaluation of their strengths, preferences, motivators and stressors, and an understanding of how best to work with their teams to support these. This gives them a level of protection, and the organisation defensibility of decisions which both can only benefit from.

If independent assessment and scientific methodology is recognised as the way forward for the FRS at all levels, surely this will strengthen progress towards the ethical, values-driven and transparent Service staff across the service are working so hard to deliver. Methods of behavioural assessment and psychometric personality profiling provide in-depth information on which candidates are the very best suited to lead the Fire & Rescue Service forward and deliver decision making which will facilitate cultural change. With current levels of scrutiny, and the pressure this puts on leaders, it’s time to make use of these tools common practice.

Practice to avoid:

  • Panel interviews without clear and structured scoring mechanism and recorded evidence
  • Group exercises (too difficult to standardise)
  • Presentations (unless designed to elicit a range of behavioural and value-based evidence and not only measuring knowledge/ communication skills)


Use of exercises such as:

  • Case Study (or other written exercise)
  • Roleplay exercise (at suitable level of complexity and independently assessed)
  • Media exercise (designed around clear criteria and with use of actors)
  • Personality profiling (exploring leadership styles, motivators and derailers, in addition to general personality factors).

To discuss how VCA can help deliver a robust, independent and thorough assessment, call us on 01202 798272 or email us here.