What are some examples of leaders in business (and elsewhere) 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 whether they are active copers, but I will hazard a guess about people whose public image seems consistent with active coping.

Nelson Mandela decided to get smart rather than get angry when imprisoned. He used the time to learn Afrikaans to be able to understand the oppressors. He kept his eye on his goal and was willing to switch tactics, embrace opponents, invent new forms of interaction, and generally do what it took to move forward—and he did it all with style, charm, and balance.

Lewis and Clark. In 1804, these men headed west from St. Louis 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. Over a period of two years and a few months, they journeyed successfully to the Pacific and back, through territory filled with potentially hostile American Indians. They prepared well, but just about everything was unexpected. They succeeded, and only one member of the expedition died.

Jim Lovell, who commanded Apollo 13. Although the safe return from space was clearly a group win, the crew was a key part of the response. As Lovell explained, “We were given the situation to really exercise our skills, and our talents to take a situation which was almost certainly catastrophic, and come home safely.”

In the world of business, Jim Collins put together his list of the 10 greatest CEOs. Although he wasn’t looking necessarily for active copers, one of his choices was Kathryn Graham, a terrific active coper. In 1971, as chief of the Washington Post, she considered the risks of publishing the Pentagon Papers, the leaked Defense Department study that revealed government deceptions about the war in Vietnam. If the Post published, it risked being prosecuted for theft of government secrets, which, in turn, could doom its pending public stock offering and other businesses. Graham wrote, “I would be risking the whole company on this decision.” Nonetheless, she approved publishing and the Post still had an extremely successful IPO.

For non-active copers, we can certainly start with plenty of executives who appear to have a narcissistic personality. I won’t name names but a quick Google search for “narcissists” and “CEOs” will show where others have made the link. Narcissism can be extremely successful but extreme narcissists are not active copers. Why?  They lack empathy. They are not seeing the reality of the world; they’re seeing the world filtered through a view of themselves as the grandiose center of the world, assuming that whatever action they take will be praiseworthy.

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Common Mistakes Employers Make When Considering Candidates for Leadership Roles

A very common belief is that past performance is the best predictor of future performance. But all that past performance shows is that the person was able to do what was demanded in the past; it says nothing about what the person could do with new challenges.

Another is hiring someone who looks like me. People like people they can communicate easily with, and feel that a common background reduces uncertainty about who this other person is – which is not an effective way to choose leaders.

A third example is not defining well enough what a company is looking for. You need to know the challenges that the person is going to have to deal with. For example, many investors do not have experience leading the sort of company they have invested in, and so they lack a feel for the challenges of dealing with the rest of the management team, customers, and even the other investors.

Skills and Traits associated with Active Coping

I’ve found in my 20 years working to evaluate executives that active coping is an attribute of a healthy personality structure. This means that the “activity” is not always overt and observable; sometimes it takes place internally, in decisions made, visions developed, and conflicting drives resolved. An active coping stance, however, often gives rise to certain observable traits and skills. These should be sought out in anyone being courted to run a business. They include:

  • Awareness. Active copers are able to see reality, including their own needs, capabilities, and limitations.
  • Courage. Active copers are brave. They seek out new experiences; they are not intimidated by challenges.
  • Resiliency, toughness, and the ability to learn from experience. Active copers, like all humans, make mistakes. Life is too complicated to anticipate every possible contingency. Active copers regroup and recover.
  • Energy, fortitude, and the willingness to persevere. Active copers summon the energy to continue to move forward even under the most trying circumstances.
  • Active copers invent solutions to problems by creatively pulling together the resources they have at hand or by developing new ones.
  • Active coping gives a person the fortitude to handle conflicts among competing goals. Making a choice means giving up an alternative. Active copers face that loss and move on.
  • Executing a Plan. Active coping involves planning. Active copers anticipate, strategize, and weigh the risks of potential actions. Then they act. Active coping combines introspection and action.

These are the kinds of traits active copers show and business leaders need to have for dealing well with fast-changing and always uncertain situations.

Predictive Validity and Utility of the Active Coping Assessment System

Using the methodology that I have researched, developed, tested, and validated at the University of Chicago and in my practice,[i] I have been assessing senior executives for public and privately held firms for 20 years. I have assessed over 450 corporate executives and over 50 partners at private equity firms. I know what makes motivates and impedes business leaders and especially what it takes to make it in the world of private equity.

My assessments have a documented predictive validity of 98%. That means that over all of the situations in which I’ve assessed executives and made recommendations, in 98% of cases, the client who observes the executive’s subsequent performance says that my analysis and conclusions capture the key elements of the person’s performance and of the challenges of working with that person.

In an assessment, I learn what conscious and unconscious characteristics make the person succeed or fail – not just whether he succeeded in the past. I come to understand how he approaches and manages (well or poorly) key relationships, and the challenges in how he leads that he will have to overcome, work around, or have other people work. When a private equity sponsor has me assess a CEO as part of due diligence, pre- or post-close, then I become a uniquely capable resource for also monitoring and coaching the company’s most valuable human capital.

[i] In research funded by the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, I led the first systematic effort to identify in advance individuals with the psychological resources needed to be successful business leaders. This research established the ability of measures of active coping to predict leadership beyond conventional standards of chance occurrence among already high-achieving leaders (Pratch & Jacobowitz, 1996, 1997, 1998). Subsequently, we conducted the first-ever empirical study into the personality characteristics of successful CEOs of private equity-funded ventures (Pratch & Jacobowitz, 2004) and have continued to refine our predictive model through ongoing empirical research in the field (e.g., Pratch & Jacobowitz, 2007, 2008, 2010).

 

An Investor’s Least Favorite Statement – “Oops, Wrong CEO”

Effective leaders must meet challenges and resolve them productively, day after day, for many years. They must constantly adapt to the unforeseen—and must mobilize, coordinate, and direct others. But when hiring executives, how do you know which candidates possess such qualities?  When they all look good on paper, how do you make a choice?  Given the frequency of CEO turnover, and the frequent cases of CEO failure after long, successful careers in the same place where they became CEO (e.g., Jeffrey Immelt at GE, David Pottruck at Schwab, Doug Ivester at Coke), it’s apparently not that easy. But it can be done, by including an analysis of executives’ readiness to acquire new skills and strategies for coping with complexity and change – in other words, their active coping.

Active Coping is a Style of Approaching Life, Baked into Who You Are

How a person approaches life’s challenges develops as a result of nature and nurture. Some people run from problems, some lash out at others, and some passionately wait and hope that problems (or even opportunities) will just go away.

Active copers, by contrast, are built to be capable and eager to deal with whatever obstacles and opportunities they face. 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 from or be overwhelmed by frustration. They move towards the problems and opportunities with open hearts and open minds.

In business, unexpected events occur, for which no playbook has been written. Active copers do not lose their footing in such cases, but rather thrive 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.

Whereas active copers seek to confront and resolve, passive copers are reactive and avoidant. Passive coping is refusing to tolerate the full tension that a situation imposes, for instance, reacting before the facts are sufficiently understood. Passive coping is retreating from reality, tuning out information, and resisting change. It’s dealing with minor problems in order to avoid confronting the anxiety of major problems. In a crisis, passive copers will be prudently hoping that the problem goes away, or trying to do what they did before in vaguely similar circumstances.

Experience can be deceiving when it comes to securing success

Sometimes the wrong person looks like the right person, but backing the wrong person can be a disaster. Just because someone is in an industry and has been successful to date does not mean they have the “right stuff” for what you need now.

Are you confident the people leading your companies have the “right stuff,” or are you just hoping based on what they’ve done in the past? Do you have a deal coming up where you’d be more comfortable knowing that the person leading the team has the skills and stability to thrive even in changing and unexpected times?

Consider the case of Jack, a CEO who turned out not to be what was expected….

The sad tale of Jack

Jack was the CEO of a start up exploiting opportunities in a rapidly consolidating but still highly fragmented distribution industry. He was a successful, smart corporate lawyer with a mergers and acquisitions background in this industry.

Jack’s start-up enjoyed no important advantages in terms of technology or marketing. The plan was to identify good targets and to close deals at attractive prices. Competition was intense as several of the industry’s global players were pursuing the same strategy. Management capability was crucial, and Jack was part of a management team with formidable strengths. Investors had already agreed to supply Jack’s company acquisition capital when they asked me to assess him.

What I reported after assessing Jack

Jack is hard working, self-reliant, and verbally very intelligent.

But his coping style is reactive and avoidant. He is especially weak when working with others. He is not good at generating goals or overcoming obstacles. He does not easily tolerate ambiguity; the more poorly defined the problem, the more passive his coping.

When confronted by matters that require him to take initiative, improvise, or be decisive he becomes extremely anxious. At such times, he is unable to withstand the tension that would accompany seeking a full understanding of issues and working to resolve them. In an effort to get rid of problems that vex him, he offers facile, simplistic solutions that gloss over crucial details. As a result, he forecloses options when he would be better off reflecting in order to develop effective solutions.

This passive coping compromises the quality of his judgment to the point that would put the venture at risk. Unfortunately, the issues most likely to make his business successful – such as finding targets at attractive prices and handling them in a timely manner – are precisely the issues likely to bring out his passive coping.

Jack has a narrow expertise, and beyond this range, his coping breaks down. If his company were to run into difficulty – if it missed deadlines, timetables, or forecasts – his passive coping would interfere with the venture being as successful as it needed to be.

What happened (the ugly, the bad, and the good)

As investors worked more closely with Jack in his first negotiation with a seller, they saw the poor judgment our assessment had highlighted. He entered into an agreement with a seller on terms the investors had explicitly rejected. After Jack rejected their directives and moved ahead without considering their concerns, they put on the brakes by withdrawing funding. Fortunately (for Jack), another private equity firm did the deal. Unfortunately (for Jack), they had to replace him with a new CEO. The company subsequently thrived under the successor CEO.

Conclusions that can be drawn

Assessment can help you identify a disaster waiting to happen before it happens. You have to know where to look.

Management assessment leads to action and improved ROI

A good management assessment can help you understand the person behind the more easily observable track record and activities. Below is a much-abbreviated version of an actual report I sent to the investors who had hired me to assess a potential CEO whom I call “Mack.” It will give you a flavor for the difference the assessment can make in maximizing ROI (and minimizing anxiety in investors).

The Happy Case of Mack

Mack had turned around underperforming operations but had never been CEO. His 25-year industry record looked good to the investors who had bought a large, family-owned company with plans for dramatically improving its performance.

The investors were concerned, though, about Mack’s ability to lead a billion dollar business. And they were interested in how he would work with the founding brothers (who would stay as operating executives) and other top managers through the wrenching change program.

My report on Mack (abridged)

Mack is strongly motivated to succeed as a CEO. He is honest, reliable, hard working, and extremely competitive. He has high standards for himself and for others. Cognitively, he is limited. He is not a great thinker. He sees in black and white, without noticing ambiguity or nuance.

Mack is rigid. His implementation is mechanical and reactive, without intuition or feeling. Supremely self-confident, he presumes that all problems will conform to his ability to solve them. He expects subordinates to execute in a logical, let’s-do-it manner. If they resist, he assumes they are wrong and he will not compromise. He does not consider that subordinates might not agree with his solution.

Mack succeeds by being intensely driven and self-confident. He responds to challenges directly, aggressively and with focus. Unfortunately, this style also means that Mack will likely cause conflict during the change program that a more listening, nuanced leader could avoid.

My recommendations

Mack operates best in a chain of command. He wants clear directives from the Board to implement and impose on subordinates. Mack won’t see trends and conceive or adjust the strategy; you (investors) will have to devise corporate strategy. Then Mack will work hard to execute it.

You will also need to monitor the other managers’ morale as Mack bulldozes over them to achieve your goals. Mack is neither interested nor capable in the softer aspects of organizational culture. In dealing with such issues, he will likely be ham-fisted and hard-hearted; he will fray human connections and will destabilize the company. On the many matters likely to significantly affect morale, you will have to act as a control rod and force Mack to think about how changes would affect others. You will need to develop relationships deeper within the organization to know how employees accept or reject Mack’s directives.

Mack is not a perfect fit, but he is capable of doing what the organization requires.

Outcome

The investors addressed Mark’s deficiencies, and his style and their guidance proved an effective combination in a turnaround situation. Investors created the strategy and told him to implement. They also monitored his impact on the organization, stepping in to communicate changes in ways others could accept. His implementation of an aggressive strategic plan yielded costs savings and revenue enhancements. The strategy and Mack’s outstanding, focused execution transformed the company into attractive platform on which to build a national competitor.

Four years after hiring Mack, investors sold the company to a financial sponsor. They called the investment “a home run,” having earned a return of 4.4 times their invested capital.

Conclusions that can be drawn

The assessment provided investors insight and confidence about what it would take for Mack to succeed. They understood what they needed to do, based on Mack’s managerial strengths and weaknesses. That awareness led them to provide him strategy in bite-size pieces he could implement, and to mitigate the effects of his hard-charging style.

Management for when you least expect it

If you’re in private equity and serve as the Board representative of your investors, you help select and oversee the top management of your portfolio companies.

Is that oversight as smooth and efficient as you would like?

CEOs for portfolio companies need to handle the unexpected

When you pick a CEO, you need someone who can handle well both the expected and the unexpected.

  • ​The expected.  You want someone who can execute your investment thesis.  So you’ll check their track record to see that they’ve done the needed tasks before.  You’ll rely on your own due diligence or get help from your search firm or even an outside interviewer or an evaluator.
  • The unexpected.  The future is never what we expect.  You need to know “how will the candidate respond when the future presents something unexpected.”

How you can proceed

Looks Good on Paper? (Columbia University Press, 2014) outlines my approach, and private equity investors use it to identify CEOs who can lead through turbulence and seize upside opportunities.

  • You can learn more in the coming months.  I’ll be writing on this topic, and I’d appreciate your letting me know what you think and if you’d like me to focus on particular aspects.
  • We can talk.  My ultimate goal is to apply what I know to make you more successful.
  • I want to reduce the time and energy you spend on overseeing your portfolio companies, and give you more time to raise money and find deals, and at the same time
  • To improve the performance and ROI of your portfolio companies.

Psychological Autonomy in Business

Leslie S. Pratch

Leslie S. Pratch

The president and CEO of Pratch & Company in New Canaan, Connecticut, Leslie S. Pratch capitalizes on her decades of experience as a clinical psychologist to assess and/or coach corporate executives and candidates for senior administrative positions. In Good on Paper, her comprehensive study of business psychology, Leslie S. Pratch defines and explains the importance of psychological autonomy.

Loosely defined as an inherent or learned freedom to choose, psychological autonomy involves the ability to disregard immediate professional and personal pressures when weighing the essential value or lack of value in any given business situation. This can be tremendously difficult to accomplish in the face of ongoing demands of company superiors, board members, customers, suppliers, the media, and/or the general public.

Psychological autonomy requires both substantial self-awareness and an equally perceptive awareness of others. First and foremost, one must be fully aware of both the internal and external influences that might interfere with his or her ability to make critical decisions. Then, the person must learn to assess these influences in terms of overall legitimacy and significance. Finally, individuals must learn to eliminate any unworthy influences from the decision-making process.

The Skills of a Successful Business Leader

Looks Good on Paper pic

Looks Good on Paper
Image: amazon.com

Leslie S. Pratch, PhD, MBA, has worked in the field of psychology for more than 20 years. The founder and president of Pratch & Company, Dr. Leslie S. Pratch helps stakeholders of privately held and public companies determine if executive leadership candidates demonstrate the personality traits and psychological resources necessary for success within a business.

In 2014, Dr. Leslie Pratch wrote Looks Good on Paper?: Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance.

Some of the information discussed in her book was featured in an Investor’s Business Daily article outlining the qualities experts have identified in the most successful business leaders. To experience success, aspiring CEOs must have the ability to do the following:

Take aim. Formulating realistic and specific goals will help individuals clearly identify and ultimately reach their business ambitions.

Strive for the top. Dr. Pratch reminds executives to strive for successes that are the most meaningful, those that best align with personal values and ideals. The means by which confidence is won in business entails setting achievable goals that force personal and career growth.

Prepare for difficulties. Business leaders require the ability to deal with resistance from outside forces. A strong leader ensures each and every goal incorporates tactics for addressing setbacks and roadblocks.