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What the 'Murder Board' Taught Me About Leadership

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By Arun Chittur

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I've never been fond of tests. Not to measure how much you "learned" last semester. Certainly not to see how much "potential" you have to succeed. So when other training directors rolled out what they called a "Murder Board," I was skeptical.

My experience with "murder boards" is exclusive to the military, although I've heard of similar concepts in both the private and public sector. Candidates for a new set of responsibilities or job progression receive study material that's been categorized in some manner. For example, you're looking to promote one of your storefront associates to assistant manager. To determine which ones are ready to make the leap, you build a slideshow that describes every part of the business (e.g., operations, inventory, finance). You ask them to study it for a week, then prepare to answer questions, one or two from each category, when they come to work next week. You let them know the session is nothing more than a "datapoint," something to help indicate their proficiency as associates. But in reality, it's a filtering mechanism. If an associate misses a certain number of questions, you'll pass him over for someone else. Or if none meet your standard, you may hire from outside the team. You know the standard and the consequences of not meeting it, and keep both to yourself. This was a moment in our evolution as Air Force nuclear missile operators.

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