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Jenny Baker
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The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice

Co-Editors: Apryl Brodersen, Metro State University; Sarah Layman, DCI; and Tara Myers, American Nurses Credentialing Center

“The Bridge: Connecting Science and Practice” is a TIP column that seeks to help facilitate additional learning and knowledge transfer to encourage sound, evidence-based practice. It can provide academics with an opportunity to discuss the potential and/or realized practical implications of their research as well as learn about cutting-edge practice issues or questions that could inform new research programs or studies. For practitioners, it provides opportunities to learn about the latest research findings that could prompt new techniques, solutions, or services that would benefit the external client community. It also provides practitioners with an opportunity to highlight key practice issues, challenges, trends, and so forth that may benefit from additional research. In this issue, Andrea Valentine and colleagues provide an overview of the development, validation, and impact of Merck’s General Management Acceleration Program that won the team the 2020–2021 Human Resources Management (HRM) Impact award.

Merck’s General Management Acceleration Program:
Developing Future Leaders in Pharmaceuticals

Andrea Valentine

Elliott Larson and Kenneth Yusko
Siena Consulting

About Merck

At Merck, we improve life and access to health by relying on key values such as a commitment to ethics and integrity, innovation, and diversity and inclusion, and we can’t do any of this without our employees. Curiosity, inventiveness, and a passion for excellence—these are qualities that drive Merck’s employees to discover what’s possible as they work to help improve health around the world. Throughout our company’s history, our people have played an integral role in our mission of saving and improving lives. Whether it’s in research and development, manufacturing, marketing, or managing global operations, we rely on our people and strong leadership to create a healthier society for generations to come, which is why we invest so heavily in developing our people and our leaders.

To achieve success, we focus on bringing together and developing the collective talents and perspectives of people from different backgrounds with different life experiences. In fact, our diverse leadership/people talent is one of our greatest assets for understanding the needs of patients and helping to solve the problems of diseases that threaten economies and lives around the world. Strong leaders connect what we do to how we do it, helping us attract and retain diverse, talented, and committed people—people who challenge one another’s thinking, collectively approach problems from multiple points of view, and treat others with dignity and respect.

The Need for a Global, Assessment-Based Leadership Development Program

The General Management Acceleration Program (GMAP) was created after Merck recognized that its approach to leadership needed to change to keep pace with transformations in technology, current business models, patient needs, and emerging markets. With regard to the need for change, Carl Segerstrom, vice president, Human Resources Chief Talent and Strategy officer, has said: 

We were skilled at building U.S. and Western European talent in their function—manufacturing, human health or research. What we needed instead were general managers who could see, understand, and manage the whole business. We wanted to build a globally diverse leadership cohort and break the mold of expert leaders in their function.

GMAP, introduced to Merck employees in 2013, is designed to provide a series of robust experiences to develop high-potential talent into future senior enterprise leaders. The goal is to equip them with the tools needed to connect across divisions and move the organization forward. While in the program, GMAP participants are challenged to solve high-level strategic priorities for the company that can positively impact the business. GMAP accomplishes this by using a combination of rotational assignments, cross-functional learning, project work, coaching, and mentoring. By developing GMAP participants in this global, cross-divisional manner, they can break down silos between divisions and serve as general managers who can understand and manage the end-to-end business.

Today, GMAP participants are working to support strategic corporate priorities such as serving as change agents for the company’s transformation. They participate in strategic discussions with senior leadership to help challenge the status quo, propose innovative ideas, and help lead grassroots change initiatives.

In the sections below, we describe how the GMAP was developed, how applicants to the program are selected, what participation in the program entails, criterion validation evidence, and a summary of the impact the program has had at Merck.

Using I-O Principles to Create a Selection Strategy Linked to Business Strategy

In developing GMAP, it was critical to tailor and fully integrate the process to meet Merck’s long-term business strategy while simultaneously implementing evidence-based approaches for identifying and developing talent. This balance of customizing to the needs of the business while rooting the talent management process in robust theory and research required a stringent use of competency modeling and the design of cutting-edge assessment tools and scoring methods (Rotolo et al., 2018).

First, the development team focused on identifying the key competencies relevant for employees to become agile enterprise leaders. In line with Silzer and Church’s (2009) structure of potential, we identified business competencies that (a) are foundational (i.e., those that are more stable), such as learning agility and resilience; (b) facilitate growth, such as ambition and openness to feedback; and (c) indicate future career success, such as the ability to inspire others and functional expertise. Although some of these competencies fit with generic models of talent, such as the ability to lead (e.g., Bartram, 2005; Silzer & Church, 2009), others were included based on the specific demands of GMAP and the business, such as agility, comfort with ambiguity, and strategic thinking. Altogether, our competency model touches on a broad blend of personality, cognitive ability, motivation, learning, leadership, and technical knowledge variables that reflect the skills needed by GMAP participants to develop and adapt to unforeseen challenges and complex leadership roles. At the same time, these business competencies highlight the future values that Merck seeks to cultivate, aligning the program closely with the organization’s transformation.

Next, we applied a multitrait–multimethod approach to assessing the diverse set of identified competencies in our talent pool. The use of multiple assessment methods (e.g., interviews, standardized personality assessments) offers converging evidence about a candidate’s skills and abilities, enhancing the accuracy and construct validity of the assessment process (e.g., Campbell & Fiske, 1959; Church & Rotolo, 2013; Silzer et al., 2016). Furthermore, using a multifaceted assessment approach provides rich and impactful feedback that is customized to each candidate’s performance. This facilitates the creation of targeted and empirically driven developmental feedback for GMAP applicants. For most candidates this feedback is paired with a one-on-one debriefing session with a manager or trained coach, affording candidates the opportunity to learn how to leverage their strengths and improve in their development areas (Roche & Hefferon, 2013).

GMAP includes a rich assortment of processes/instruments administered using a modified hurdle system wherein each stage eliminates only a small number of candidates to narrow down the candidate pool sufficiently by the end of the process.  The relatively high pass rates yield many participants who take multiple assessments, resulting in excellent content domain coverage as well as more participants receiving developmental feedback.

Although the GMAP selection process and number of applicants varies each year, an example of how the process unfolds is presented in the table below.


Approximate # of candidates

Approximate pass rate


Performance Assessment



This review ensures that candidates meet the minimum qualifications—role level, number of years of professional work experience, time at Merck, and a successful performance history. Individuals that meet the minimum qualifications and are interested in the program are encouraged to apply. The goal is to be as inclusive as possible to provide the majority of applicants access to an array of objective performance assessments.

Ability Test



The Siena Reasoning Test (SRT) helps leaders understand unique aspects of their reasoning, intellectual strengths, and development opportunities, including learning agility, creative insight, direct thinking, complex thinking, and pattern recognition.

The Aon smartPredict is a suite of three assessments that measure planning capability, working memory, and logical reasoning.

Leadership Styles



This personality-based instrument focuses on critical aspects of leadership style and provides unique, supplemental insights that enhance understanding of the candidates’ particular strengths and potential derailers. Based on a review of past candidate results, a joint Siena–Merck team customized the Hogan scoring profile to reflect Merck’s particular needs. 

Video-Based Structured



The video interview is designed to measure candidates’ fit to critical Merck performance competencies and aspects of culture fit with GMAP such as learning orientation. The video interview screen is a joint Merck–Siena process, being administered internally and scored by the consultants.

Business Case Simulation



This customized Merck-specific business simulation targets a small set of key competencies such as business acumen, financial acumen, and strategic thinking.




The interview is administered and scored by a joint internal Merck team comprised of HR business partners, I-O psychologists, and business leaders. Questions are geared toward leadership abilities and critical aspects of Merck’s mission and business needs.


Development Program Design

Applicants who successfully pass the selection process and are accepted into GMAP participate in the Oxford University-driven program, undertake two job rotations (including moving outside of their country), and engage in the following activities.





Laying the foundation


The cohort gets broad exposure to Merck and business fundamentals. They learn how talent management happens and how to navigate other systems, take a close look at their selection-process data, begin working with their learning coach, and begin forming their cohort community and growing their network.

Becoming change agents


The cohort focuses on the mindset and skills needed to make change happen. They build business cases, polish their communication skills, share best practices on entrepreneurship, step through an innovation development process, explore their own cultural preferences, and work with a culture coach. Through formal and informal knowledge shares, they contribute to their GMAP community’s growth and take responsibility for one another.

Developing as leaders


GMAP participants build their skills as leaders, practice strategies to increase agility and resilience, hone questioning and feedback skills, and continue to learn from one another as well as do “self-studies.” This segment culminates at graduation where they present this integrated work.


Measuring Success

Since its inception, GMAP has averaged a 2% acceptance rate. With 6 years of cohort performance data, we were able to explore the impact GMAP has had on the behavior of high-potential talent and examine the relationship between the selection criteria and important organizational outcomes. Also, after 6 years, the initial cohorts have now been in post-program roles long enough to find meaningful relationships with longitudinal outcomes. This is particularly exciting because most high-potential programs lack this kind of specific performance-outcome data.

Data were collected from many of the GMAP participants from the first six cohorts as well as applicants to those cohorts that were not accepted, allowing us to examine a much larger sample of more than 1,000 GMAP applicants. Criteria included manager ratings of role performance, manager ratings of potential, and movement data, which included career advancement and career development. The Aon smartPredict and the video interview are two newer components to the selection process, and we do not yet have sufficient data to explore the relationship between these predictors and the outcome measures. Results for selected GMAP assessments are presented below.







Cognitive ability

Career development—including promotions



Those who performed better on the SRT are making more career moves—both vertical (promotions) and lateral (developmental). These individuals are also being rated by their managers as having more potential than those with lower cognitive ability scores.

Career development—separating out promotions









Hogan LSI

Career development—including promotions



Personality was found to have a relationship with our outcome variables but not as much as some of our other assessments, demonstrating that it was a good add-on to our process to improve variance. Personality may become a better predictor with time as these future leaders rise within the organization.

Career development—separating out promotions









Business case

Career development—including promotions



Based on these results we see that the better one does on the business case, the more career-development-related events one engages in, resulting in more moves and being viewed as having increased potential.

Career development—separating out promotions












Career development—including promotions



A predictor variable of GMAP status was created with three categories: GMAP participant (accepted to GMAP), semifinalist (invited to final interview), and non-semifinalist (did not make it to the final interview).

People that go deeper into the selection process make a lot of career moves—both vertical and lateral, particularly for those individuals who are accepted into the program. However, regardless of whether a person makes it into the program, people that make it farther in the program make more career-development-related moves.

Career development—separating out promotions










Although the data support that those in GMAP are making moves in their careers and being seen as having potential for future leadership roles, those that do not make it in (especially those that make it as semi-finalists) also have a very high potential for success in the company. For that population, we want to make sure that we are keeping them engaged and growing in their roles and in the organization even if they are not selected into GMAP. To do so, we provide developmental feedback to all participants on their assessment activities.

On a more qualitative note, recently, we implemented a few additional tools intended to retain and engage non-selected applicants. With the notification of the program decision, candidates received a link to a video containing interviews with past finalists and GMAP participants sharing their own experiences when they were rejected from the program in the past (some applied again and were accepted). The key message in this video was that regardless of the outcome, participants gained insight and self-awareness by going through the process, which would be valuable to them through their career. The goal is to retain the high-caliber talent that makes it into the program and to develop them to become Merck’s future leaders but also to maintain the engagement of the key talent that has applied but may not have overcome the final hurdle to acceptance into the program.

Program Impact

According to company executives, program administrators, and participants, GMAP has had an impact far beyond identifying and promoting strong role performers and those with high potential, fostering career advancement and development, and getting better people into higher level roles. The GMAP has spurred a “grassroots” culture change around dimensions such as inspiring and energizing others, breaking down functional silos and international borders, challenging the status quo and spurring an innovative mindset, creating a forward-looking environment, and fostering a willingness to challenge both tradition and the hierarchy. It is safe to say, the original program architects did not expect a program that started only a few years ago with fewer than 50 applicants to grow into something so distinguished and impactful.




The GMAP was created to develop the future leaders of the organization.  The goal was to identify high-potential individuals early in their career and give them the tools they need to become the agile leaders of Merck’s future who can break down barriers and provide cross-functional leadership. The theoretical model for developing the GMAP assessment process was founded in rigorous methodologies to identify relevant business competencies, design targeted assessments, and provide rich developmental feedback for applicants, including those not ultimately accepted into the development program. Furthermore, the design maximizes inclusivity through the assessment of GMAP-relevant competencies and implementing multiple cutting-edge assessment methods. Last, the empirical data from 6 years of applicants highlights the connection between the assessments and valuable real-world outcomes. The results from this study highlight the power that data can provide in demonstrating the value of a rigorous research and data-based assessment process for researchers and practitioners. In the future, we hope to build on these results and explore the quantitative impact of the improvements we’ve made to the process.


Bartram, D. (2005). The great eight competencies: A criterion-centric approach to validation. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 1185–1203.

Campbell, D. T., & Fiske, D. W. (1959). Convergent and discriminant validation by the multitrait-multimethod matrix. Psychological Bulletin, 56, 81–105.

Church, A. H., & Rotolo, C. T. (2013). How are top companies assessing their high-potentials and senior executives? A talent management benchmark study. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 65, 199–223.

Roche, B., & Hefferon, K. (2013). “The assessment needs to go hand-in-hand with the debriefing”: The importance of a structured coaching debriefing in understanding and applying a positive psychology strengths assessment. International Coaching Psychology Review, 8, 20–34.

Rotolo, C. T., Church, A. H., Adler, S., Smither, J. W., Colquitt, A. L., Shull, A. C., Paul, K. B., & Foster, G. (2018). Putting an end to bad talent management: A call to action for the field of industrial and organizational psychology. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 11, 176–219.

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Silzer, R., Church, A. H., Rotolo, C. T., & Scott, J. C. (2016). I-O practice in action: Solving the leadership potential identification challenge in organizations. Industrial and Organizational Psychology: Perspectives on Science and Practice, 9, 814–830.

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