Leslie Pratch, '00
Leslie Pratch, '00 is the founder and CEO of Pratch & Company. Pratch & Company advises organizations on the human dimensions of executing corporate strategy. In addition to her role as CEO of Pratch & Company, Leslie recently published a book, Looks Good on Paper?: Using In-Depth Personality Assessments to Predict Leadership Performance. In her book she shares insights from more than twenty years of executive evaluations and offers an empirically based approach to identify executives who will be effective within organizations—and to flag those who will ultimately fail—by evaluating aspects of personality and character that are hidden beneath the surface.
Leslie’s work is a valuable resource for how we define our own leadership successes. She compares candidates with impressive careers and tries to determine which ones are likely to act with consistently high integrity and exhibit sound, timely judgment when faced with unanticipated business problems. Central to effective leadership is a psychological quality called “active coping,” which she defines and explores by referencing case studies, historical figures, and her own scholarly work.
Pratch & Company is defined by two aspects: executive assessments to predict performance among already highly accomplished candidates for senior executive roles, and services to coach and mentor up-and-coming executives. Pratch’s Active Coping AssessmentSM System has a success rate in excess of 98% in predicting performance outcomes, based on ratings of clients in a position to evaluate executive's performance over the course of many years. It evolves from research she led at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Leslie, what are some common mistakes employers make when considering candidates for leadership roles?
One mistake is the common belief that "Past performance is the best predictor of future performance." All that past performance shows is that the person was able to do what was demanded of that in the past; it says nothing about what they could do with new challenges (or even with challenges that look might close to past challenges but with some subtle important differences).
Pressure on the team from the top. Someone at the top likes a candidate, and everyone else tries to sweep their concerns under the rug. But maybe their concerns were valid.
Not defining well enough what you are looking for. You need to know the challenges that the person is going to have to deal with. Many investors have never been CEO's of companies of the type they are investing in, and may not have a great feel for the challenges of dealing with the rest of the management team, with customers, and with investors!!
Hiring someone who looks like me. This is a widespread bias. People like people they can communicate easily with and feel somehow that some commonality in background reduces uncertainty about who this other person is. Which is usually not true in any material way.
Inadequate background checking. Especially into the human effect the person had on colleagues.
How did you first become involved in the role you play for companies now—evaluating candidates for leadership positions?
I have been evaluating candidates for leadership positions for more than 15 years. But I didn't get to this spot by accident; creating the tools and building the capability to do this was something I pursued for many years across multiple universities and graduate degrees. I had a sense that there was a way to apply some ideas that intrigued me in a way that would be valuable to others and have high impact. I just had to figure out exactly how.
First, I was a graduate student in psychology. As a graduate student, I had the chance to help set up a talent program for high potential professionals at Arthur Andersen. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I researched if it were possible to predict the emergence of leaders in a high performing group, using a psychological approach I was developing. It turned out that it was possible.
After graduate school, I worked with State Farm on the development of a competency framework for their whole organization. That led me to the development of my own competency framework, which I use in my work today with my clients. I also got an MBA, after I had begun evaluating executives, to give me better tools to understand the issues my clients and their candidates face.
How does holding an MBA help you in your work?
Having a strong understanding of business lets me understand at a sophisticated level, what my clients are doing and trying to do with their companies and investments. Using the approaches I learned at the U of C, I can quickly understand and think critically about the investment thesis, understand the strategy of the firm, and see the implications of all of that for the job that will be ahead for the candidates I'm evaluating. I can hit the ground running, and my client and I can quickly agree on, in light of the business challenges and opportunities, the critical human issues that need to be handled right. Having a strong understanding of business lets me be a business discussion partner as well as a skilled psychologist.
Why do you continue to track candidates for months and years after they have secured the position they were being considered for? Does it take this long to see whether they are effective in their job role?
These are long-term jobs. The usual investment horizon for my clients is 3-5 years, and most public company boards think about giving top managers some time before deciding if a new CEO is a success or failure (with rare, glaring exceptions when someone is clearly failing). And since I am not predicting how a candidate will perform on a specific task but rather how the candidate will handle the complex task of leading an organization over time, we have to let time pass to see what happens.
What is active coping, as you define it for business leaders?
Active coping is being ready and able to adapt creatively and effectively to challenge and change. Active copers continually strive to achieve personal aims and overcome difficulties, rather than passively retreat or be overwhelmed by frustration. They move towards the problems and opportunities with open arms and open minds. They choose engagement over passivity, retreat or feeling overwhelmed.
Is active coping something that can be learned, or do you either have it….or not?
Active coping is something that is learned—but best over a lifetime. It's something that happens as your personality is formed, as a result of both nurture and nature.
But you are probably asking about when someone is an adult. It is something that someone can get better at, but the improvement process is slow, incremental, and mostly internal. It means learning much more about the ways you've learned to protect yourself from what you fear—by retreating, by lashing out, by neurotically doing X, and then choosing to abandon those techniques—even though they "feel like you"—because there's a better approach available. It means asking at a time of crisis, "What would Nelson Mandela do?" and doing that, even though it feels ridiculous to you at the moment.
How did you isolate active coping as the “difference maker” in leaders?
Everyone notes how the world is changing faster than ever—and they've been noting that for decades. I was interested in leadership for fast-changing times, and it occurred to me that organizations might need leaders who had strengths in coping with change. That, to me, didn't seem like a skill as much as an orientation to the world—to see change as an opportunity to grow rather than as only a threat. For people to see change as an opportunity, they need to be simultaneously stable and open to change. "Stable" means able to withstand external pressure long enough to assess the situation and consider appropriate actions. "Open to change" is the ability to adopt new behaviors and strategies when old ones are no longer viable. People who are active copers have this flexible balance of stability and openness to change that lets them thrive in fast-changing times, and that's why active coping is "the difference maker."
What are some examples of leaders in business (or elsewhere) of people who seem to have excellent active coping skills? What about the opposite?
It’s hard to tell from people’s public personas or even from their actions—if you can see the private ones you still can’t tell in a short- or medium-amount of time. I’m willing to hazard a guess about people whose public image seems consistent with active coping, that is, they haven’t yet ruled themselves out based on anything that I know.
As a public figure, Nelson Mandela. Mandela decided to get smart rather than get angry when imprisoned, learned Afrikaans to be able to understand the Afrikaaners, the oppressors. He kept his eye on the goal and was willing to switch tactics, embrace opponents, invent new forms of interaction, and generally do what it takes to move forward. And he did it all with a style and charm and balance. Or so at least it seems.
Lewis and Clark. These guys headed west from St. Louis in 1804 with a group of 33 men to find a water route to the Pacific. They had no good maps, and little information to go on. They journeyed successfully to the Pacific and back over a period of two years and a few months, through territory filled with potentially hostile American Indians. They prepared well, but just about everything was unexpected. They succeeded though, and only one member of the expedition died.
Jim Lovell—the guy who commanded Apollo 13. While the safe return from space was clearly a group win with many participants, the crew was a key part of the response. "We were given the situation," Lovell explained, "to really exercise our skills, and our talents to take a situation which was almost certainly catastrophic, and come home safely. That's why I thought that 13, of all the flights—including [Apollo] 11—that 13 exemplified a real test pilot's flight."
In the world of business, there are some candidates presented in the work of Jim Collins and Jerry Porrass, in Good to Great.
For non-active copers, we can certainly start with plenty of executives who appear to have a narcissistic personality. A narcissistic personality can be a very successful one. I won't name names, but a quick Google search for narcissists and CEOs will find where other people have made the link. You've heard of a lot of these people, in part because they are big on promoting themselves. Why are they not active copers? If you’re a narcissist, you lack empathy. You are not seeing the reality of the world. You’re seeing the world filtered through your view of yourself as the grandiose center of the world, assuming that whatever action you take will be praiseworthy.
You write in the book that women leaders need to be even better at active coping than men to be seen as effective in their roles. Why is this?
Because a female leader actually faces certain higher barriers to reaching any goal than a male leader does, and active coping is about overcoming barriers to goals.
Specifically, a woman will have a harder time getting and keeping followers than a man will. Here's why:
A woman's followers will have mixed thoughts about her when she is strong and directive, and mixed thoughts about her when she is collaborative and interested in others. When she's directive, she'll get credit for acting like a boss, and be blamed for not acting like a woman. When she's collaborative, she'll get credit for acting like a woman but blamed for not acting like a boss.
A man's followers, on the other hand, will laud him for being strong and directive, and give him a pass when he is collaborative and interested in others. When he's directive, he's acting like a man and like a boss. When he's collaborative, he's given a pass because he's the boss. He gets a pass, not a whopping double negative here, because of simple discrimination. It's not fair, but it's reality.
A female leader trying to achieve the same goal from the same starting point as a male leader has a harder task, simply because of this tangle of attitudes, which stem from typical expectations about men, women, and leaders. As a result, a woman needs to be a better active coper than her male counterpart would need to be.
How can someone tell if they are an active coper, a passive coper, or neither? Are there a few telltale behaviors?
You can tell by how they behave in an unexpected crisis. If during a crisis, you see someone who remains open to the people around her, listens to bad as well as good news, doesn't take unfair advantage of others (even in a crisis) and remains actively aware of her own motivations, strengths and shortcomings, you are looking at an active coper.
In a crisis, a passive coper will be prudently hoping that the problem goes away, or trying to do what he or she did before in vaguely similar circumstances.
Of course, the challenge is to know before the crisis who will be the active coper.
If you’d like to improve your active coping, what are a few things to keep in mind?
Know what you want. Can you define what it is you want to achieve? Are your goals realistic or are they grandiose? Are they specific or are they nebulous? Are they compatible or do they conflict?
Recognize sources of threats or frustration. What in the outside world is preventing you from getting what you want? What inside you is preventing you from achieving what you want? Your plan to get what you want requires understanding what you are up against
Possess the psychological freedom to act. It’s hard but crucial. Can you actually reliably take the action that is in your own best interest, as opposed to the action that feels easiest or somehow least threatening?
Be ready to deal with resistance and overcome threats as opposed to avoiding, withdrawing, or giving up. How prepared are you to tackle obstacles that may hinder the execution of your plans? When stressed, do you retreat into yourself or lash out at others? If so, you may fail to motivate and inspire at a time when the need for leadership is greatest.
Pursue what you really want in a way that is consistent with your values and ideals and those of your community and which are for the moral good of mankind. Knowing what is really most important to you, you are able to commit to pursuing meaningful goals and accept the fact that you may not succeed. You'll feel confident if you pursue goals that are realistically within your grasp—but high enough to stretch you.
Why should businesses and other organizations seek out active copers to be leaders?
Business should seek out active copers to be leaders because businesses cannot reliably predict the future. Unexpected events (positive or negative) occur, for which no playbook has been written. And even if a playbook has been written, executing those plans still requires coping with unexpected twists and turns. An active coper does not lose his or her footing in such cases, but rather thrives on the opportunity to seek out information about what is happening, rally the right team, and learn as part of the process of steering towards success.
Leaders with other personalities and styles may do as well in circumstances that can be predicted in advance, but active copers are the best people to have in place when the unexpected occurs.
What are some ways in life outside of the office that active coping can be helpful?
Active coping is helpful wherever it's not likely that everything will go as planned—that is to say, everywhere and anywhere.
Active copers experience each twist and turn in life—even unavoidable losses such as deaths of close relatives or their own impending death—as an opportunity as well as a loss.
With each new moment, active copers ask:
• What can I learn from this event?
• How can I use this event to strengthen my commitment to the ideals that I pursue?
• What's really happening now, and what is the healthiest response that I can make?