Hiring, of course, isn’t just a matter of finding the right people, but weeding out the wrong ones. According to Forbes, last year Vista companies administered 850,000 tests to hire just 6,000 people. Retired Navy seal Rear Admiral Alex Krongard, now an investment banker, told me that timed exams can be especially informative when an employer wants to eliminate candidates who won’t thrive in trying conditions. The software business is not the Navy, but a programmer or sales rep may be called on to perform under pressure. Administering a difficult timed test is roughly analogous to observing a seal candidate swim while bound hand and foot in water—you see whether someone can remain calm and function under stress. Krongard points out that the Navy has never really been able to predict who will complete the arduous process of becoming a seal, but “they have been able to use testing to determine who will most likely not make it through training.”
Testing’s power to weed people out is one reason that it lost favor, however. In the middle of the last century, courts found that employers were using discriminatory tests to keep racial minorities out of the workplace. The cognitive tests that firms are using today purport to avoid such biases; Mettl, for instance, says it rejects questions that rely on topics or language that would be “unequally familiar to different groups.”
Many companies also attempt to mitigate bias by assessing other characteristics, including technical and social skills, not intelligence alone. The new tests could nevertheless prompt legal challenges from another protected class: older people who are no longer at their cognitive apex. (Research suggests that some aspects of cognitive performance peak early in life.) Technology firms might prefer to have younger, sharper workers, but federal law bars discrimination based on age.
Another reason the mid-century vogue for testing came to an end: The tests just weren’t effective. William Whyte once persuaded a group of corporate presidents to take some of the assessments popular at the time. None of the executives scored high enough to be hired by their own company. Are today’s tests any better? Some evidence indicates that the new regimens might have improved. In a recent working paper, the business-school professors Steven Kaplan and Morten Sorensen looked at more than 2,600 executive assessments by ghSMART, a leadership-consulting company. The assessments are more subjective than the Ccat, but they do include numerical rankings of the executives’ skills, as gleaned from a wide-ranging four-hour interview. Kaplan and Sorensen found that “general ability,” which includes brainpower and analytic skills, is a significant factor in predicting who will become a chief executive officer.
Some executives I spoke with, however, felt that the most-important skills in the C-suite aren’t ones that register on tests of cognitive ability. Stephen Tomlin, a managing partner at the venture-capital firm Avalon Ventures, told me that no 15- or 30-minute test can capture the qualities of successful business leaders, particularly at technology companies. Tomlin described two kinds of “intelligence” that he wants in a leader. The first is heavily domain-specific, meaning that a candidate knows “a ton about their industry, the underlying technologies and their possibilities, and their present and potential competitors.” The second is emotional: “a healthy understanding of manners and ethical behavior (so as not to be a complete jerk in the boardroom or to his or her teammates, or to get everyone sued). Raw cognitive processing power seems like a distant seventh or eighth in the kinds of things I would be screening for in a CEO.”
For the moment, Tomlin’s view remains more common than that of Vista’s Robert Smith. If you’re considering a mid-career move, knowledge of your sector and impressive emotional intelligence (which peaks much later in life) are more important than solving a bunch of brainteasers. Can’t hurt to ace the test, though. The bat costs $1.05. The ball costs a nickel.