Lowell Hellervik, cofounder and retired chairman and CEO of
Personnel Decisions International (PDI)
Schools should help
teach students the conscientiousness sought by employers
Civic Caucus Focus on Competitiveness Interview May 31, 2013
Adams, Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (coordinator), Lowell Hellervik, Randy
Johnson, Annabelle Joyce, Sallie Kemper, Dan Loritz (chair), Paul
Ostrow, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter. By phone: Dave Broden,
Janis Clay, Tim McDonald.
Summary of Discussion:
is likely the most sought-after characteristic across all employees,
says Lowell Hellervik, cofounder and retired chairman and chief
executive officer of Personnel Decisions International (PDI).
In the early 1980s, PDI came up with an
assessment eventually described in the profession as a
"Conscientiousness Test," which has been given to 25 million
Americans. The test is a 15-minute pre-employment assessment that
became very widely used and praised. Some items try to predict
behavior and some try to measure attitude.
Hellervik doubts that training and
educational institutions pay attention to what PDI specifically is
looking for in employees. Institutions could train students to have
the competencies they need for the world of work. He would like
schools to pay more attention to nonacademic goals and pursuits, such
as teaching conscientiousness, than to the core academic subjects,
which he thinks are overemphasized, especially for students who should
not be thinking of traditional colleges in their futures. He believes
using a a combination manager-peer-parent-student assessment of
teachers would be a low-cost way to change schools, but he says the
teachers unions won't allow it.
Hellervik says companies need both
conscientiousness and creativity and also a balance of
conflict-avoiders and conflict-makers, who know when to fight and when
to pull back. He notes that high IQ is an important quality for a
successful employee, but it does not always correlate with good
Hellervik is the cofounder and retired chairman of the board and chief
executive officer of Personnel Decisions International (PDI). He began
his career at PDI in 1967, was named president in 1975 and became
chairman of the board and chief executive officer in 1989. In 2013,
PDI was acquired by Korn/Ferry International, a global provider of
executive recruitment and talent management solutions.
In the early 1980s, the company came up with
an assessment eventually described as the "Conscientiousness Test,"
which has been given to 25 million Americans. PDI has 30 offices
around the world, with 750 employees at its peak.
Hellervik was an original author of the
widely used Successful Manager's Handbook. He was also key in
developing PDI's extensive 360-degree business. He initially created
PDI's managerial coaching business in the early 1980s and made a
significant contribution to the Handbook of Industrial and
Organizational Psychology with his chapter, "Behavior Change."
Hellervik is from Montevideo, MN. He
received his bachelor's degree from St. Cloud State University and
became a teacher. Planning to train as a guidance counselor, he
attended the University of Minnesota, where he became interested in
industrial psychology. He received his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology
in 1968 from the University of Minnesota, where he is currently on the
adjunct staff as a clinical associate professor.
In the early 1980s, Personnel Decisions
International (PDI) came up with an assessment eventually described as
a "conscientiousness test."
According to Lowell Hellervik, cofounder and retired chairman and
chief executive officer of PDI, job applicants and employees were
troubled by an honesty test being used at the time by Dayton Hudson.
PDI did an exhaustive review of the literature on counterproductive
behavior and developed a test for predicting this type of behavior.
The test is a 15-minute pre-employment
assessment that became very widely used and praised, Hellervik said.
Over 25 million Americans have taken the test over the years. The test
measures the conscientiousness of employees and potential employees,
which he says is an excellent predictor of who will turn out to be a
He said the assessment contains some items
that are based on applicants' past behavior and some are based on
measuring attitude. PDI found that the test predicted
conscientiousness: attendance, getting to work on time, honesty, not
extending breaks, etc. Although most widely used for entry-level jobs,
it has been shown to predict white-collar crime and counter-productive
behavior, as well.
It appears that most K-12 or postsecondary
educational institutions are not training students in
In response to a question, Hellervik said he is not sure whether
training and educational institutions pay attention to what PDI and
companies are looking for in employees. Institutions could train
students to have the competencies they need for the world of work. He
said there are some organizations that train kids how to behave when
they go into the workforce: to show up on time and to be appropriately
In education, more attention should be paid
to nonacademic goals and pursuits.
Responding to a question about how to define outcomes for testing in
K-12 education, Hellervik said, "There has been too much emphasis on
every kid training for college. Core academic things have been
overemphasized. Writing and math competencies are not new problems
today. There should be more attention to nonacademic goals and
pursuits. Not every kid is suited for college. Many will be far better
off if they do things they enjoy and are good at." He noted that now
some people are thinking about preparation of kids for high-tech,
360-degree evaluations of teachers could be
a low-cost way of changing schools.
In response to a question, Hellervik said PDI has no clients
interested in preparing or educating teachers. He said it would a big
help if teachers could get 360-degree feedback (feedback that comes
from members of an employee's immediate work circle) from students,
other teachers, parents and administrators. The feedback would not go
to the administrators, only to the teacher. "It's a huge problem to
fight the way through the teachers unions," he said. "This would be a
low-cost way to change schools, but the unions won't allow it."
Hellervik's comments about the schools are
similar to those made by
the Civic Caucus on May 17, 2013. Rothschild, founder and chair of
Twin Cities RISE! (TCR!), is frustrated that school
districts-Minneapolis, in particular-won't use a personal empowerment
program for students and parents like the one TCR! has created for its
job-training participants. He believes such a program would help
children become self-aware and give them a reason to be in school.
"You don't do that by just teaching them math and science and taking
them to gym," Rothschild said.
Companies need both conscientiousness and
An interviewer noted how much we hear today about companies' placing
great value on creativity. He asked if there is a conflict between
conscientiousness and creativity, between conformity and
nonconformity. Hellervik responded, "All of this is multi-dimensional.
We want to measure as many characteristics as possible deemed
important to success on the job. We should be taking a shot at
An interviewer commented that in the late
1980s, industry felt that conflict was the worst thing you could have.
But, he added, the best companies he worked for had constructive
conflict. "Creativity dropped when we hired people who would say 'Yes'
only," he said. "We didn't get creative people."
Hellervik responded, "You can't have
organizations filled with conflict avoiders or filled with conflict
makers. A person's judgment isn't always equal to a high IQ. You must
know when to fight and when to back off."
An interviewer noted there are employees who
own their jobs and do them as conscientiously as they can, but
if the employees own the organization, they'll be willing to
raise questions. "They have a larger sense about the organization
holistically," he said. Hellervik responded that there must be
components of both conscientiousness and responsibility.
To help combat discrimination in hiring,
PDI developed the concept of competencies.
When discrimination in hiring became a big issue, Hellervik said, PDI
came up in the 1970s with the concept of competencies. The company
developed competency models, sometimes for a whole organization and
sometimes by job or division.
"Tests are tough to develop," he said. "You
must prove a question is related to the job. If it isn't, you're in
trouble. Competency models help a lot. One competency is strategic
thinking and one variable to help predict it would be how bright a
person is." Hellervik said that after developing competency models,
PDI researched what behaviors in simulations would reveal behaviors
that would work with the models. The company developed an "inbox
test," where a job candidate would have a limited amount of time to go
through a simulated inbox. The test would evaluate whether the
candidate's handling of the inbox showed strategic thinking, as well
as many other competencies deemed important.
An interviewer asked about leadership and
organizational change and what PDI would be looking for in, for
example, the superintendent of a large school district. Hellervik
responded, "Most people we evaluate in management and leadership are
good people. We're not necessarily in the business of stamping someone
as competent or not. Instead, we say 'This is the best candidate for
what you're looking for.'"
PDI's customers are mostly large
In response to a question about PDI's major customers, Hellervik said
they are mostly large organizations and include the public sector. He
cited the U.S. Army as one example. The Center for Creative
Leadership, an organization focused on leadership education and
research, created leadership training in collaboration with PDI. The
military, he said, pumps generals, admirals and other leaders through
these training programs.
Responding to a question, Hellervik said
PDI's model for hiring its own employees is that high-value employees
should have an advanced degree in psychology, probably a Ph.D. He said
after that degree, he would want conscientiousness. "I want hard
workers; I want them to be intelligent," he said. "Within a cohort of
employees in any job, IQ is among the very best predictors of how well
Hellervik complained that many companies
place too much emphasis on speed in the hiring process. "They don't
care about the quality of the person," he said. Their focus is on
having the right engineering degree and the right kind of computer
knowledge. Companies should be concerned about a potential employee's
basic qualities, such as conscientiousness, he said.
The Civic Caucus
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David Broden, Janis Clay, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje,
Jan Hively, Dan Loritz (Chair), Marina Lyon, Joe Mansky,
Tim McDonald, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Wayne Popham and