Group exercises have been a staple of graduate recruitment for many years now and many careers professionals working within HE will be well versed on supporting their clients through the process. However, a shift towards high volume school leaver programmes means that it will inevitably become a regular feature of these recruitment processes too. The concept of the much dreaded group exercise can be daunting enough for a 21 year old, let alone for someone at a significantly younger age so let’s have a quick run through of the basics so we can be in the best position to advise our clients.
What to expect
The nature of the exercises will vary enormously from one organisation to the next and it is impossible to predict the exact challenges that will be set. However, in the majority of cases, candidates, in small groups, will be given a scenario or set a task. Depending on the role and the level of the job, it may be commercially focused (for example, looking at a hypothetical business problem and potential solutions) or, and particularly in the case of less experienced applicants, it may be a much more general problem, such as a survival scenario (for example, a discussion centred around which passengers to prioritise in a sea rescue operation) or a planning exercise (discussing the most important facilities in the construction of a new town). It is important to understand that what the assessors are looking for here is less about the candidate’s knowledge and more about how they apply themselves in a team environment. After all, there are very few jobs out there these days which don’t require good team working, or strong interpersonal skills.
Group exercises are usually timed but there is likely to be no right or wrong answer to the given task. Instead, the assessors will observe how the applicants work together and the process through which they manage to reach a group consensus (if they do at all)! Group members will be scored on their individual input, rather than the overall result for the group, so someone may still do very well in a team that has generally underperformed. Another thing to bear in mind is that candidates should expect the unexpected – it is not unusual for an exercise to deliberately involve a last minute change of circumstance that requires all applicants to think on their feet and show adaptability.
What are the assessors looking for?
Essentially, this task is about making a balanced contribution. Assessors will not be keen on those who unnecessarily dominate the exercise (remember – this is about teamwork, not about leadership alone) but participants need to have enough to say for themselves so they do not appear to be sitting back and letting others do the work for them. Assessors will also be looking out for analytical thinking and problem solving skills, and applicants should demonstrate the ability to time-manage the exercise appropriately, whilst remaining focused on the task at hand.
The other hugely important side to this exercise lies in being able to display a sound attitude towards others. Candidates should be able to show that they are able to work with a range of different personalities and get the best out of them, whilst showing sensitivity towards the ideas and opinions that others present. However, skills like persuasion and the ability to influence can also be very valid.
Top tips for success
The good news is that, however unpredictable the detail of the exercise, there are several strategies the applicant can take with them that will serve them well regardless. Like with every stage of the recruitment process, this is an opportunity for the applicant to reflect the core competencies of the organisation that they are interviewing for, so knowledge of these competencies is an important part of preparation. Commercial awareness, for example, can be crucial in a business-based scenario and candidates should be prepared to show an understanding of the organisations business needs through their contribution. Candidates should also be encouraged to show proactivity and a good (and easy) way to do this is to volunteer for a specific role within the team, whether that be timekeeper, note-taker or chairperson. However, it is essential that their role does not interfere with their focus on the exercise.
A strong team ethic can be shown by addressing other team members by their names during the exercise and by talking in the context of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ in order to seek the opinions of others. (“What does everyone thing we should do about….?” rather than “I think we should….”). Additionally, acknowledging and giving credit to the points made by others whilst (gently) trying to encourage quieter member of the group to join in and find their voice are likely to be behaviours well received by the assessors. Finally, don’t forget that these exercises are strictly timed and time is precious. If discussions start going off at a tangent, applicants should try and be the person to get things back on track so the focus of the discussion can be regained.
To summarise, candidates should aim to contribute at least 5 useful points to the discussion but should be wary of jumping in too quickly or unnecessarily. They should listen to what other team members have said, be careful not to talk over others in order to get heard and should demonstrate a logical and collaborative approach to talking through problems.