Every four years, we go through the process of vetting candidates and voting for the next President of the United States (POTUS). As an American, I am honored to vote and am privileged to have the opportunity to participate in our great democracy.
At the same time, I look at the candidates and ask myself, “How do I know if any of these people are qualified to be President?” I am — for the most part — an informed voter. I watch the debates as well as listen to and read about the candidates. The problem is that I don’t get to learn the things about the candidates that I need to know to make an informed decision. I may know their stance on issues and their legislative plans while in office, but I don’t know if they would be successful at getting any of it done. I don’t know if the candidates are being truthful. I don’t know how they would act in a crisis situation.
As an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist who designs assessments used for hiring, promoting, and developing people, I can’t help but think about the process I would use to hire the President if it were up to me. If money and time were no object, what would I do? I’ve thought about this, and I would want to apply personnel selection best practices such as job relevance, consistency, and valid psychological measurement to the process. Here's how:
Conduct a Job Analysis
The first step to designing a selection process for any job is to define the job duties and responsibilities with a job analysis. What are the daily, detailed duties of a President, even when he or she is not in the spotlight? I can glean a lot from television shows, interviews, and documentaries about presidents, but I would still need to see POTUS in action to really understand the day-to-day duties of a president. To be thorough, I would need to shadow the current President to get a good understanding of what he does on a daily basis. I would couple this with interviews with subject matter experts like former Presidents, Chiefs of Staff, and First Ladies, as they see the presidency from different perspectives. From this, I would be able to pull together a list of behaviors and tasks performed by the President and then identify the knowledge, skills, abilities, and other characteristics (KSAOs) that lead to success on these tasks. This list of KSAOs would be the framework for building a competency model and then choosing the selection tools or predictors that would be used to evaluate the candidates.
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Start Recruiting Presidential Candidates
For many executive-level positions, talent scouts or recruiters are used to finding the most qualified candidates and convincing them to move into a new executive leadership position. In the case of a Presidential candidate, information gleaned from the job analysis would identify the traits and experiences that lead to effectiveness as the leader of a country. So, I would start by looking for individuals who meet the basic qualifications (e.g., in the case of a US President, at least 35 years of age and a natural born citizen) and possess the experience and underlying competencies needed to be successful. Once the basic qualification screen (and reference check) is completed for each political party, nominees would be put forth, and the final decision would still be up to voters.
Administer an Individual Assessment to Understand Candidates' Competencies
After a small group of candidates had been screened for experience and basic qualifications, each one would go through an individual assessment process (which is regularly used to hire executives in all job types). This consists of several psychological assessments and a comprehensive interview by a trained psychologist. The interview information and assessment results are integrated into a comprehensive psychological profile of the individual that includes a discussion of how well the candidate fits the key competencies established by the job analysis. The process can be long and expensive, but it provides great return on investment for positions where an ineffective leader can be very costly (I think POTUS qualifies as such a position).
Obtain Work Samples to See Candidates in Action
Next, I would want to use some realistic work samples to simulate challenging situations that the President would likely face on the job. In these scenarios, trained assessors would evaluate the candidates’ effectiveness on key leadership competencies such as learning agility, influencing skills, stress tolerance, decision making/judgment, and oral communication.
For presidential candidate selection, I would use elaborate role play/simulations that would place the candidate in the role of POTUS in critical situations, like a simulated situation room responding to a national crisis, meeting with key international leaders to negotiate a deal, or delivering a key speech to the public on a controversial issue.
Conduct a Structured Behavioral Interview to Understand Candidates’ Skillsets
Rather than televised debates, I would hold a televised structured behavioral interview for each candidate. While political issues could be vaguely discussed, they wouldn’t be the focus of the interview, it would be about the underlying KSAOs that make executive leaders successful. Every candidate would receive the exact same questions, some asking about past behavior and some about future hypothetical scenarios. Each candidate would be asked standard questions so their responses would be directly comparable, and they would be interviewed separately without hearing each other’s responses. A group of highly trained interviewers would probe for details and ask for specific examples of when each candidate was able to demonstrate behaviors related to the key competencies.
This approach would give voters the chance to hear each candidate’s answers and understand their strengths, skills, successes, and failures. The interviewer would be trained to ensure the candidates were answering honestly and directly.
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Complete a Motivational Fit Interview
Finally, after each political party has identified a candidate, it would be time to find out where he/she stands on the issues. It’s important to identify the candidates who are effective leaders before looking at belief systems — one could agree with a particular individual on every political issue, but if the candidate isn’t able to effectively influence or handle the demands of the job, he/she will be ineffective as POTUS. Another structured interview, this one focused on major issues facing the country, would be an efficient way to gather the information on where each candidate stands. Each candidate would state his/her stance on an issue and what he/she would want to accomplish while in office. And maybe at this point, a structured debate to address key questions from voters could help the public get a strong understanding of each candidate’s beliefs and goals.
This selection process is my ideal scenario, and I realize it’s a bit unrealistic. But, the key thing to remember is we’re trying to identify the best person for the job— this is applicable in any hiring process, and it works. So, by looking at the actual competencies that make a leader effective, we can confidently put forth the best person for the job.