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Testing for Talent: An HR Case Study

Barnum Financial Group used an assessment of employees' behavioral instincts and preferences to guide coaching, communications and teamwork.

​​​​​ Michelle Hite
​​​Amelia Nathanson​​

May CoverHR professionals and managers typically have a general sense of employees’ strengths—and we at Barnum Financial Group were no exception. But in 2012, our managing director asked us to take talent assessment to a whole other level. We were tasked with finding a formal method for evaluating the innate strengths of our employees—all of them. 

Barnum is a Connecticut-based office of MetLife with about 400 employees, including 275 highly trained financial representatives who interact with clients, product and investment specialists, and an operations area that processes transactions for 230,000 clients across the U.S. We are one of MetLife’s most successful firms and have grown rapidly in recent years in both staff and assets under management. 

​While we work closely with MetLife Human Resources, Barnum operates its own HR function responsible for sourcing talent, performance development and human capital management firm-wide. Our HR team is relatively small, and we need to be flexible to meet the emerging needs of a growing company in a fast-paced, competitive industry. 

Paul Blanco, the managing director of Barnum, has overseen growth that has taken us from a tiny, seven-person office in 1993 to today’s sizeable and successful organization—MetLife’s Firm of the Year for 2013. Paul is a hands-on manager, always speaking with employees about their work and its value while looking for new ways to keep us at the top of our game.

​Having the right people, of course, is critical to success, but as HR professionals know, it is equally important to place people in positions where they can work productively with one another. That is what Paul had in mind when he challenged us to come up with a way to evaluate employees’ intrinsic strong points more systematically and holistically.

Increasing Industry Demands

Our evaluation objectives arose in the context of increasing demands from clients facing complex financial decisions in a volatile economic and market environment. The era of the lone financial representative as the source of all wisdom is fast fading. Firms providing financial guidance and planning are turning to teams of specialists to get the job done for clients. Team leaders may work with two, three or more professionals who analyze portfolios, provide guidance on estate planning, suggest ways to save for college, or meet other specific client requests.

Our goal was to shape client service teams that functioned most effectively and efficiently. Finding a reliable way to evaluate individuals’ talents was an important first step. Because financial representatives and their client service teams must coordinate and interact with associates in all areas of the company—sales, administration, operations, etc.—we wanted to assess the skills and aptitudes of everyone from certified financial planners to administrative assistants.

Testing Assessments

We began our search by reaching out to our colleagues at the MetLife home office, who provided some suggestions. We, along with some members of the firm’s leadership team, then completed several assessments ourselves and discussed the tests in a series of conference calls with vendors. The assessment tools varied—some short, some long, some personality-based.

After learning plenty of information about ourselves, we zeroed in on the Kolbe System, which has been in existence for some 35 years. Kolbe posits three distinct parts of the mind—Cognitive, or thinking; Affective, or feeling; and Conative, or doing. Conative strengths are particular to the individual because they are driven by intrinsic instincts, which translate into the way one solves problems and attains goals.

The system provides a simple, yet sophisticated, assessment tool to determine an employee’s innate strengths and intrinsic work style. In a multiple choice format, an employee chooses what he or she would be most and least likely to do in certain situations. There are no negatives in the assessments, which provide an overall result called an M.O. (mode of operation). This is a summary of an individual’s strong points in various work modes, such as simplifying, systematizing, improvising or building.

While other indexes measure personality, social styles or overall preferences, the Kolbe Index tells us what a person will do—their natural way of taking action. This was one of our primary reasons for selecting Kolbe. No system or tool is perfect, of course, and its usefulness depends on an organization’s objectives. For us, having a reliable predictor of behavior and preferences shortens the learning curve and allows managers and team leaders to act as more helpful coaches to individuals.

An Implementation Strategy

To implement our assessment tool, we built a strategy, rolling it out to early adopters via pilot teams representing various functions:

  • A formal team of financial advisors and their support staff.
  • A team of infrastructure associates working in various administrative capacities.
  • A team managed by an agency sales director.

We are only in the early stages of assimilating the tool into the Barnum culture, but the impact is already evident. Everyone in our organization takes at least a Kolbe A Index, the assessment of one’s own natural instincts. Our offices and cubicles are adorned with the red, blue, green and yellow signs used to identify the “Action Modes” of individuals: Fact Finder, Follow Thru, Quick Start, and Implementor. Each individual has strength in each mode; what distinguishes employees is their particular combination of strengths, as we explain in our one-on-one interpretation meetings with employees.

Employee enthusiasm has spread widely as familiarity with the tool has grown. Our teams use the tool’s language when interacting with one another, and many find it helpful in understanding how clients solve problems and reach their decisions.

We have conducted several workshops that allow Kolbe-identified behaviors to be seen through hands-on applications, including a “Glop Shop,” which predicts how a team of associates will muddle through a bag of “stuff” to build a product prototype based solely on their M.O.

We have received a lot of individual feedback, including from the head of our operations area, Zory Lilova: “The assessment verified for me that I am a big-picture person and don’t need reams of information to make a decision. Many of the people who report to me, though, are what the assessment tool calls ‘Fact Finders.’ They want a good deal of verification when making decisions. We all have to keep one another’s comfort zones in mind.”

Coaching employees has been one of the most gratifying aspects of implementing the assessment tool. In addition, we have discovered that the intrinsic structure behind Kolbe—the three parts of the mind—provides a framework for a selection strategy for hiring:

  • Cognitive—this can include the candidate’s resume, experience, knowledge and credentials.
  • Affective—the interview(s) and candidate interactions.
  • Conative—the Kolbe A Index.

This framework helps us to make recommendations to our advisor teams as they grow and add support staff.

Finding the Right Assessment Tool
  • Be precise about what you want to accomplish. Do you want to assess a particular group within the organization or the entire firm?

  • Forge a rough consensus among management. What tool might best fit the culture of your organization.

  • Do the assessment yourselfThis will allow you to gauge its accuracy and how it might be received by employees.

  • Keep budget in mindAs you integrate the tool, remember that you will need to make an initial investment, but also continue to incorporate new hires as time goes on.​

​We’ve learned a lot in the process of evaluating and selecting an assessment tool that was right for our firm. We can now coach individuals toward career paths and have already made changes in workforce teams. Moreover, we are highlighting optimal methods of communicating, while creating an awareness of potential stressors. For many people, simply knowing that a particular action may evoke stress can help them move past the emotional component to what needs to be done. Most important, the tool has helped managers and team leaders to make good staffing decisions. By recognizing and then drawing on our individual proficiencies and work styles, we have become much more effective as a whole.

Michelle Hite is director of human resources and Amelia Nathanson is director of training for the Barnum Financial Group, an office of MetLife based in Shelton, Conn.


6/24/2014 2:33 PM Hilary Scott


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