Expert: EPSO assessing potential over knowledge

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Candidates for positions in the EU institutions are primarily being tested for ability and potential, rather than specialised knowledge, under the new system launched by the European Personnel Selection Office (EPSO), Carmen Peter, a Brussels-based executive coach and trainer, told EURACTIV in an interview.

Carmen Peter is a Brussels-based executive coach and trainer. She runs her own company specialising in personal and professional development, communication skills, team-building and preparing candidates for all stages of EPSO [European Personnel Selection Office] competitions for EU posts.  

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Let's talk about EPSO [European Personnel Selection Office] reform and the new EU recruitment system. What would you say are the main changes under the current exam and assessment centre format compared to the previous system?

For me – but it's a subjective interpretation and this is my perception of the system – the main difference would be that in the past, knowledge was still evaluated, while what I understand of the new system is that what will mostly be evaluated is ability to learn, resilience, ability to speak and write, ability to communicate, ability to work in teams.

So the emphasis will be put more on abilities and potential, rather than on knowledge already acquired. Having said that, I suppose there is already a basic knowledge acquired which comes with a diploma, so when we are talking about lawyers, jurists, economists, engineers or other such profiles coming from the European education system, we suppose that there is a basic level of knowledge.

Then my understanding is that EPSO will evaluate not so much their knowledge – a little bit, yes – but they will evaluate much more their potential. I'm not saying intelligence, but ability, potential and willingness to learn.

The future would-be civil servants will then have a good basis of theoretical knowledge and some practical knowledge as well depending on the level of expertise or the number of years’ experience.

On top of that, willingness and ability to learn will be tested, so their idea is probably to train the civil servants much more than to recruit them when they are already at their peak.

What would you say are the biggest differences in the new system compared to what was there before?

On philosophy I explained the difference is [that emphasis is placed] more on the potential than knowledge.

Then, there will differences in the way EPSO assesses this knowledge. In this respect, I would say that in continuity, there are still the tests on verbal and numerical reasoning, but next to that, still in the pre-selection phase, they have to pass an abstract reasoning test – which is a kind of intelligence test – and a situational judgement test, which is a kind of emotional intelligence test.

This means that the pre-selection test will already give a very good evaluation of their ability to do the abstract, numerical and verbal reasoning, which as I said is kind of an intelligence test, and situational, which is emotional intelligence.

Your IQ gets you into the institution, and your EQ [emotional intelligence] gets you up the ladder. With this testing, we already have an IQ quota evaluated, and we have some kind of EQ evaluated as well.

That for me is the main difference from the old system.

Then, the second stage in the old system was the written part. That written part will still be in the system but as a case study during the assessment centre.

Has the EU knowledge part been abolished?

Not necessarily, because the EU knowledge was general knowledge about the EU institutions and EU policies, and that does not exist any more as such. The written part of the old system was on specific, technical content knowledge – so the economy for economists, law for lawyers, and so on.

That part is still evaluated at the assessment centre during the case study. But again, the difference is that here, it will be something like 20% of the whole score. During the assessment centre we also have the three tests, where again we're going a lot into ability to work with others, and testing motivation, interest, willingness, ability to learn and ability to integrate. I would call this part emotional intelligence. 

The assessment centre will test communication – oral and written communication – and then the dialogue and group exercise will test much more emotional intelligence and maturity.

Would you say the new system represents a big improvement on what existed before? Do you expect the reform to be successful?

I'm a big fan of the new system. I think the new system tests a little bit of technical knowledge, but much more than knowledge it tests abilities, motivation and emotional intelligence. This way you will have much more ability to train the person, because you're testing these talents and abilities at an early stage in the selection process.

Having said that, the system is well-conceived, but now we have to see how we'll succeed in doing the evaluations. How will we successfully select according to the vision?

What potential problems or pitfalls do you see with the new system? We've already had one round of testing with huge numbers of people applying. Is the system capable of processing so many people?     

We have to make a distinction here between talking about the system as such, which is more technical and I'm not going to go there, because I don't know and don't have the information to assess that.

EPSO specialists would be able to tell you whether the system is able to function with 50,000 participants in the proper manner.

As for the potential pitfalls of the new system, the first I can see is whether the way we assess gives the right responses for what we want to assess.

We want to assess motivation. Will we really be able to see, understand and measure motivation? Second, we'd like to measure potential, like their learning ability and willingness to learn, their resilience – the question is, talking about pitfalls: can we really measure this? Are our exercises able to measure the specific things we want? If so, then superb.

We would like to measure ability to work in a team, the ability to relate to others in a multicultural environment. Wonderful. Are we really able to evaluate that? Are these exercises conceived for the assessment centre able to tell us 'yes' or 'no'? If there are pitfalls, they would be here.

Do you expect the assessment centre to be able to manage this?

I'd say 'yes' for the moment. At present it is assessment centres that are able to give such responses, so if there is a system able to respond to these questions, then it's the assessment centre system. Now, is the EPSO assessment centre able to respond? I hope so – as I said, at the moment in today's situation, yes, the assessment centre will be able to respond.

Regarding the large numbers of people that the new system looks like it's going to have to process, do you think the assessment centre is an efficient enough way to process so many people? Do you see the potential for capable people to be filtered out before the assessment centre stage simply because the centre is not capable of handling so many people within a short space of time?

I suppose that there is a clear decision to be taken beforehand on how many people will pass the pre-selection tests. This will not be related to the ability of the assessment centre to process them – that's my guess. Again, I don't know, but that would be my guess.

For example, pre-selection will decide that you'll have to get 36 out of 40 points to pass pre-selection. If so, that means that relatively-speaking, a reduced number will go to the assessment centres.

What I imagine is that if tomorrow there 100,000 or a million participants, probably tomorrow they won't go with 36 out of 40, but they'll go with 38 or 39 out of 40. In this way, they'll make sure that it's a reasonable number that passes pre-selection in order to go to the assessment centre.

Now, your question is what if a very smart, very capable individual gets 37?

Exactly. Is it possible that the threshold may be too high, simply because there are too many people?

Yes, that's possible. It's possible in the sense that pre-selection only evaluates certain measures of intelligence, like verbal, numerical and abstract reasoning, and situational judgement. We could have people who are very good at that, like an autistic genius, get 39 out of 40, but then go to the assessment centre and be refused.

By him passing, probably someone who is good but not a genius didn't pass. That could be one pitfall, but these are exceptional cases we're talking about. Keep in mind the autistic genius that will pass the pre-selection tests but won't pass the assessment centre.

Do you think that the quota system according to nationality has been a success?

We're on shaky ground here, so let me start with a word of caution: I don't have the statistics and I don't have the statistics of who was employed and who was dismissed.

What I know from my coaching experience and my years from the Commission is that I've heard some happy stories and some unhappy stories, but the vast majority are somewhere in the middle.

It's mostly managers who come from outside, because most administrators and assistants enter through a more or less normal open competition, whereas managers enter through specific recruitment where the quotas play a role.

As I said, through my coaching I've heard stories about the 10% successful individuals and the 10% unsuccessful individuals who have eventually been fired or have left the Commission, but the majority are somewhere in the middle, and are not necessarily exceptionally good or bad.

Do you think that the new system with the pre-selection tests and the assessment centre is going to allow the European Commission to find the right geographical balance?

That's a very good question. The only potential problem or hindrance in getting this balance right will be linguistic ability. I can imagine that a very smart individual – and I've had this situation, a Spanish girl who did her PhD in economics in German in Germany: all the preparation we did for the competition was done in English even though she said she was not very keen on English because she said 'I still have two official languages'.

My point was that she was going for an economics competition, so she was going to be an economist: economic affairs in the Commission takes place in English. So I was assertive enough to convince her to do all the preparation in English and asked her to take her exam in English even though it was her third language.

This was a happy success story – she passed the competition and she's an administrator and everything is OK.

Now, can you imagine this situation with someone from a country like Estonia or Lithuania? When they speak their mother tongue first and Russian second, their third language will probably be German. Then they will come to English and French as only their fourth or fifth languages.

I'm afraid we could lose some bright individuals here who would probably make very good civil servants because they are not able to express themselves in French and English as well as we are used to others doing. So yes, I do see a risk for the balance in that sense.

Moving on to the kind of clients you have – do people from new member states express such fears about their language skills to you? Are they worried that the main languages of the Commission are English, French and German?

Yes, absolutely. I speak Romanian, Italian and Spanish as well as my French and English. Nevertheless, I do practically all my coaching in French and English, because people would like to improve their communication abilities in those languages.

Despite the fact that I could do the coaching in Spanish, at the request of the client I will do it in French or English. Many times I could do it in Romanian, but I'll do it in English instead to help the client.

What about the demand for your services? Which countries do most of your clients come from? Is there more demand for your services from new or old member states, or from certain countries over others?   

I think we need to make a distinction between the run-up to the new competition, when we had about four years or so of 10+2 new member states, and since April. We had a lot of competitions for citizens of the 10+2, so a lot of my private clients came from there.

In that period, I certainly had many more Poles than Lithuanians, but population size probably played a role there.

Now, with this year's competition, which citizens of all 27 EU countries were able to come for, I could see the trend that everyone – including citizens of the old member states – is coming back for these exams.

Do you find that certain nationalities are keener on coaching than others?

I wouldn't make the distinction between nationalities but rather age […] my feeling is that the average age for the last competition was 30. Is this a sign that they are more European than others? Is it a sign that they are more open to taking coaching? Does it imply that they are less confident and therefore take coaching? I don't know.

Do you think that there is an optimal age at which to take a competition?

If I were to say 'yes', I'd be going against the experience that I have had in coaching, because I've had people – and I'm really happy about this – pass the competition in their 50s and become assistants in the Commission, which is quite late. So that's one extreme…and then on the other extreme I've had someone pass at 24 years old. 

24-54 – that's the range. Having said that, probably when you have some years of professional experience and not a lot of family and social obligations, then probably it's easier for you to invest time in passing a competition.

Even though the new competition is shorter it's still kind of one year of studying, even though you don't need to memorise European history and politics, you still have to practise in order to perform at your best. When are you in a situation where you can invest a year of your life to prepare for a competition? When you're young and have no family obligations.

Having said that, I've just had someone pass who's a mother of four.

Would you say that there is an optimal age at which to go for it?

In your early thirties when you don't have many family obligations, even though I'm seeing mothers of four who are working, taking care of their families and still passing the competition. There's no rule here – we're talking about people.

What other services do you offer professionally?

Coaching once you have a job, and accompanying you throughout your professional career to ensure that you perform at your best. I'll probably then accompany you in order to become a manager, and if life is good to you and this is what you want, then probably a few years later I'll accompany you to become a senior manager. This is coaching throughout your professional career.

The other thing is working with teams, in order to coach teams, do team-building or brainstorming in order to help them in their decision-making or in order to facilitate events.

Last but not least, I do a lot of training courses in all that you can imagine you might need to know in order to be successful during your career but never learn at school.

I live in Brussels, but I work in Europe. 

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