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Active Coping as a Healthy Response to Stressful Situations

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Looks Good on Paper
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As the CEO and president of Pratch & Company, Leslie S. Pratch provides a host of business advisory services focused on identifying executive candidates and evaluating their leadership skills and business potential. A licensed clinical psychologist, Leslie S. Pratch is the author of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance (Columbia Business School Publishing, 2014).

In Part I of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? Ms. Pratch explores the theory and practice of active coping: “When a person always seems prepared and quickly recovers from any setback, that is active coping. When a person earns the trust of her friends and colleagues by refusing to take unfair advantage of others and refuses to let others take unfair advantage of her, that is active coping. When a person has the vision and self-confidence to rise above ‘business as usual’ when necessary, that is active coping.”

Ms. Pratch goes on to note: “To many, the word ‘cope’ has connotations of barely scraping by. I use it quite differently, to refer to a sense of mastery, an orientation to life. All human beings encounter difficulties on a daily basis, both internal (to the self) and external. We have intricate internal landscapes filled with drives, values, dreams, and ideals. Some are compatible and some are in conflict. ‘Coping’ is how we reconcile and express these many parts of ourselves, endeavoring to bring into balance our internal needs and the external demands of our environment. Individuals can learn to master themselves and the circumstances that surround them, taking an active coping stance toward the world.”

Further excerpts on active coping and how it relates to responses to stressful situations are available at www.amazon.com/Looks-Good-Paper-Depth-Personality-ebook/dp/B00K4JVSEY.

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Effective Human Capital Management Yields Results

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Leslie S Pratch
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Author and businesswoman Leslie Pratch has dedicated her career to understanding and assessing leadership qualities in executives. In an article for the European Financial Review entitled “Serious Human Capital Management for Seriously Good Performance,” Leslie Pratch discusses the necessity for private equity firms to monitor their leadership teams as closely and carefully as they do other aspects of their companies. Knowing the CEO and all the people who report to him or her can help avert disasters down the line and also can positively impact returns.

For some firms, the article recommends hiring a part-time human capital advisor. The person in this position “gets to know the managers, and with them, conducts a structured analysis of their jobs. With the manager, the advisor identifies key targets and metrics and documents the relationships that will be crucial for the manager’s success.” With the help of data from psychological assessments, the advisor focuses on building relationships, developing managers, and helping the investors achieve their goals.

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How Experience May Not Tell the Whole Story of a Job Applicant

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Leslie S Pratch
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As founder and CEO of Pratch & Company, Leslie Pratch helps investors, management committees, and company boards assess potential candidates based on psychological resources and personality strengths. In a recent article for The European Financial Review, Leslie Pratch explained how assessments can detect personality traits that impact leadership abilities that may not be evident by looking at a resume.

The article demonstrates the value of assessments by sharing the example of a CEO named Jack, a successful corporate attorney who was heading a start-up in a fragmented distribution industry. While Jack had experience, assessments found that he had a reactive and avoidant coping style that was likely to undermine his effectiveness as a leader. Pratch explains: “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 … are precisely the issues likely to bring out his passive coping.”

Coping Strength and Ernest Hemingway

At Pratch & Company, licensed clinical psychologist Leslie Pratch assists companies by providing psychological assessments of candidates for executive positions in order to determine their potential to become effective leaders. Utilizing her experience in the field, Leslie Pratch wrote the manuscript LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER?, which offers insight into how people adapt to changing conditions. The following excerpt looks at coping strength through an examination of novelist Ernest Hemingway.

“A high level of coping is rated H, a medium level is rated M, and a low level of coping is rated L. A rating of HHH, for example, means that the subject demonstrated high levels of coping across all three levels of awareness, the sign of a person with strong active coping. Someone with an LLL rating would invariably be passive. Most people fall somewhere between these two extremes. Any time there is a large discrepancy between coping on different levels (HHL, HML, and HLL) the rating indicates that the test subject has an unstable structure of coping. …

“As we age, our defenses weaken and our underlying coping styles come to the surface. This effect can cause a noticeable change in behavior and personality. Ernest Hemingway was famous for his toughness and machismo, but his suicide in later life could indicate a weakness in his unconscious coping, an example of an HHL personality. Conversely, some people may seem outwardly passive but have inner reserves of activity and strength. A tired, middle-aged black woman living in the South in 1955 may get on a bus and refuse to move to the back. This may exemplify the LHH rating (although in that time and place, neither women nor African Americans were encouraged to be active copers). Under stress, Hemingway reverted to a passive stance and Rosa Parks to an active one.”

How active coping skill is the best predictor of executive performance? – Columbia University Press interviews Leslie Pratch

Leslie Pratch, Author of LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER: Using In-Depth Personality Assessment to Predict Leadership Performance discusses on Columbia University Press blog how active coping skill is the best predictor of executive performance.

Q: How did you first become involved in the role you play for companies now—evaluating candidates for leadership positions?

A: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.

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.

Q: How does holding an MBA help you in your work?

A:Having a strong understanding of business allows me to understand at a sophisticated level what my clients are trying to do with their companies and investments. I can 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. Having a strong understanding of business lets me be a business discussion partner as well as a skilled psychologist.

Q: Why do you continue to track candidates for months and years after they have secured the position they were being considered for?

A:These are long-term jobs. The usual investment horizon for my clients is three-to-five years, and most public company boards give top managers some time before deciding whether a new CEO is a success (with rare, glaring exceptions when someone is clearly failing). Since I am not predicting how a candidate will perform on a specific task, but rather how the candidate will handle the complex job of leading an organization over time, we have to let time pass to see what happens.

Q: What are some common mistakes employers make when considering candidates for leadership roles?

A:There are several, For example, 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 of that person in the past; it says nothing about what the person could do with new challenges.

Another 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. 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, yes, the other investors.

A third example 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.

Q: What is active coping, as you define it for business leaders?

A:Active coping is being ready and able to adapt creatively and effectively to challenges 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 arms and open minds.

Q: Is active coping something that can be learned, or must you either have it … or not?

A:Active coping is something that is learned over a lifetime. 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 techniquesbecause there’s a better approach available.

Q: How did you isolate active coping as the “difference maker” in leaders?

A:Everyone notes how the world is changing faster than ever. 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 rather than as a threat. For people to see change as an opportunity, they need to be simultaneously stable and open to change. People who are active copers have this balance of stability and openness to change, and that’s why active coping is “the difference maker.”

Q: What are some examples of leaders in business (or elsewhere) of people who seem to have excellent active coping skills? What about the opposite?

A:It’s hard to tell from people’s public personas or even from their actions, but I’m willing to 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 learned 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.

Jim Lovell,who commanded Apollo 13. While the safe return from space was clearly a group win, 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, 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. 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 other people have made the link. 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.

Q: 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?

A:Because a female leader 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. 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. 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 be.

Q: How can someone tell if they are an active coper, a passive coper, or neither? Are there a few telltale behaviors?

A: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, 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.

Q: If you’d like to improve your active coping, what are a few things to keep in mind?

A:There are several, but some of the most important are:
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? 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?

Possess the psychological freedom to act. Can you actually take the action that is in your own best interest, not the action that feels easiest?

Be ready to deal with resistance and overcome threats. 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?

Pursue what you really want in a way that is consistent with your values and ideals. You’ll feel confident if you pursue goals that are realistically within your grasp—but high enough to stretch you.

Q: Why should organizations seek out active copers as leaders?

A: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. 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.

Q: What are some ways in life outside of the office that active coping can be helpful?

A: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?

Integrity and Effective Leadership

Based out of Chicago, Leslie Pratch has served as the chief executive officer and president of Pratch & Company since 1998. At the firm, Leslie Pratch advises businesses on whether potential hires could become effective leaders. Previously, she led research into personality predictors of effective leadership among high-achieving business executives at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.

In addition to guiding clients, she has written about these issues in the manuscript LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER? The following excerpt considers the importance of integrity for effective leadership.

“Leaders have a particular need for a strong grounding in integrity because they must make decisions that will affect many people, and they must make choices quickly, often without the luxury of consulting with their friends and colleagues. The integrity and self-esteem I describe in this chapter are different from the ‘self-esteem’ of the narcissist, who cares only for himself and his self-interests and has little or no regard for the rights and perspectives of others. Not all forms of self-esteem are positive; an individual may score high on self-esteem on a personality test but be a criminal. Self-esteem in and of itself does not confer integrity, but an individual cannot maintain a strong moral structure without an equally strong belief in himself and his ability to make correct choices. Individuals may be highly narcissistic and demonstrate high self-confidence but their self-confidence is a defense against an underlying sense of insecurity.”

“Integrity as perceived by others means that the person consistently does what he promises and has consistently acted in the appropriate way, defined in terms of the norms of the community. All of us have at least a vague idea of what is right and what is wrong and what is appropriate and what is not. Behaving with integrity may come at a cost but persons of integrity are rewarded with high self-esteem, self-confidence, and the trust of others. Only with trust can the wheels of commerce run smoothly.”

Article Examines Cognitive Maturation and Leadership

A licensed clinical psychologist and graduate of both the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and the Northwestern University Medical School, Leslie Pratch has written extensively on matters related to business leadership. In her paper “Tape Measure for a Job Fitting: Introduction to Stratified Systems Theory,” Leslie Pratch discusses the importance of cognitive development as it impacts managerial capability. Below is an excerpt.

“So far, we’ve described a static system. Individuals have a certain level of cognitive power. A job requires a person to have a certain level. Everybody is either at the right level, too high, or too low. But in fact, the system is not static. For one thing, jobs change. […] More importantly, people change. Cognitive power changes over time. Obviously, the person who is able to run a division was not born with that ability. [Social scientist Elliott] Jaques found that individual’s paths of development follow trajectories within distinct bands, which he called modes. […]

This growth proceeds gradually, as physical growth does, but the passages from one cognitive level to the next occur in discontinuities or spurts. When they occur, the individual’s time horizon increases so that he becomes capable of handling more responsibility in a job with a greater time span at a higher organizational stratum.

A person’s developmental trajectory brings him or her to certain levels by certain ages. This is why we can’t learn a higher cognitive mechanism by study or practice. As with puberty or old age, we have to reach it when the time comes.”

Leslie Pratch Book Examines Psychological Assessment Tests

LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER is the provisional title of a book written by Leslie Pratch, a clinical psychologist. In it, she describes how she tries to identify the psychological qualities associated with effective business leadership. She discusses unstructured, semi-structured, and structured methods of psychological assessment in the excerpt below.

“In psychological assessment there is a frame of reference of tests that are highly structured, semi-structured, and unstructured. This dimension refers to the degree to which a test does or does not have a high degree of specificity in the tasks involved.

“Examples of structured tests include personality inventories (true means this statement describes me; false, this statement does not describe me) or the Graduate Management Aptitude Test. Tasks are so highly defined that the respondent is fully aware of what is expected of her—to find the standard answer rather than the one reflecting personal choice. Because the task requires that the individual respond with a prescribed answer, her responses provide little information about her uniqueness as a person.

“Indeed, on structured tasks, the more unique the respondent’s answers, the stronger the inference that an internal psychological process has become so powerful it has pervaded the situation from which the respondent should be able to exclude it. In such situations, straightforward, objective questions do not bring forth straightforward, objective answers. Instead, answers are so colored by the invading personalized material that they spoil the appropriateness of the response and reflect a diminished capacity for coping with everyday situations.

“In contrast, with unstructured tests, the respondent has minimal information regarding the demands of the task. That means that the respondent must turn to his or her own personal resources to formulate what the task involves and how to cope with it.

“Reviewing a person’s responses to structured, semi-structured, and unstructured tests makes possible comparative inferences on all three levels of personality, to assess whether the person has the capacity to cope effectively with all three types of demands. If the respondent is not successful on all three, then I note whether there is difficulty only in the more personal, unstructured situation, whether the difficulty is more pervasive and includes difficulty at the semi-structured level, or whether the difficulties permeate all aspects of functioning.

“By mapping this continuum of structured to semi-structured to unstructured situations onto life situations, one can understand the degree to which an individual is dependent on external guidance and direction for effective coping. My definition of the effective and emotionally healthy person is based on the concept of the capacity to cope with most of life’s situations, ranging from those that permit little initiative to those that require a great deal of initiative. A battery of tests, of the type just described, provides a basis for judging the individual’s ability to match that definition. From this description, one might expect that more effective coping on unstructured psychological tests would differentiate effective from ineffective leaders, and that active coping across the three levels assessed would characterize most effective leaders.”

The Four Different Kinds of Coping

Leslie Pratch, a licensed clinical psychologist with a Ph.D. from Northwestern University, is the founder and CEO of Pratch and Company, a business advisory firm that specializes in the assessment and development of senior executives for public and private organizations. Dr. Pratch has authored a book provisionally entitled LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER, to be published by Columbia University Press in March 2014, on the aspects of personality that contribute to effective leadership. Central to her book is the construct, “active coping.”

Webster’s definition of “cope” is “to deal with or overcome difficulties.” All human beings encounter difficulties on a daily basis, both internal (to the self) and external. We have intricate internal landscapes, filled with drives, values, dreams, and ideals. Some are compatible and some are in conflict. “Coping” is how we reconcile and express these many parts of ourselves, endeavoring to bring into balance our internal needs with the external demands of our environment.

We all have to make an effort to achieve our goals. To do so, we usually have to solve problems and overcome obstacles. Some of these are created by our surroundings, some by other people, and some by who we are. Encountering these obstacles creates stress.

When dealing with stress, a person can respond in one of four ways. The first is to identify the stress and remove it, maintaining—even improving— physical and emotional health. The second is to identify and tolerate the stress without changing it, keeping a status quo but not growing. The third is to defend against the stress by denying it, distorting the perception of it, or reacting to it in an unrealistic manner. The fourth is to suffer a complete breakdown in functioning.

The first response is active coping. The second response is passive coping. The third response is neurotic, defensive coping. The fourth response accompanies personality disintegration.

Active coping is the healthiest response to a stressful situation, and the one most likely to lead to a successful resolution.

It is like the structure of a car. We can manage to get where we need to go if we are driving a clunker, and we can make it through life with a less than optimal coping style. But driving a car with superb engineering will get us farther, faster, with less likelihood of accident or breakdown. A strong framework of coping does exactly the same thing.

Formally, active coping is the readiness, willingness, and ability to adapt resourcefully and effectively to challenging and changing conditions. It is a stable, albeit complex, psychological orientation across time and circumstance. Think of it as a constant state of being “open for business” that springs from a healthy personality structure. It comes into play in the now, at each moment of decision or challenge.

Leslie Pratch, Ph.D. – Good on Paper

CEO of Pratch & Company, Leslie Pratch, Ph.D., specializes in assessing candidates for senior leadership roles in organizations, public and private. She is presently writing a book, provisionally entitled LOOKS GOOD ON PAPER, to be published in March, 2014 by Columbia University Press.

Leslie Pratch emphasizes that it is not enough to assess the candidate in the abstract. It is also important to try to get some sense of what new problems might face the business so that the assessment can focus on the qualities needed to cope with those kinds of problems. For example, George Fisher had been an outstanding leader at Motorola. He seemed an ideal candidate to reposition Kodak from film-based to full-spectrum-imaging technology. But he failed to grasp that the shift to digital imaging would make the manufacture and production of paper and film obsolete. Leslie Pratch’s assessment might have predicted that his self-confidence included a blind spot to the scale of disruptive technological change.

To evaluate leadership potential, a psychological assessment works hand in hand with insightful business analysis. Assessing a candidate begins by understanding the situation in which the executive is expected to perform. For this insight her principal source is the client, along with her own research into the industry, the company, customers, and competition.

It is possible to predict, at least much of the time, how an executive will cope with unexpected complexities and changes. For this, Leslie Pratch does not rely on a model that seeks to explain a wide variety of situations in general, one-size-fits-all terms. She does not seek to establish the average effect of one powerful variable on a large set of companies. Rather than establish the average effect, she seeks to tailor-make a fit.

Just as investors evaluate a company to understand the underlying basis for its earnings growth, Leslie Pratch assesses an executive to predict his potential to grow and perform in a specific role. Identifying a candidate’s coping style forms the core of her evaluation process, but not the full extent. The comprehensive predictive model she has developed takes into account the interactions of the executive, the corporate strategy, and the operating environment. Each situation is unique, but knowing the effects of each component with a high degree of detail strengths her ability to predict whether executives will perform as required.

Leslie Pratch developed her psychological model of leadership by by studying the theories behind the concept of active coping and the qualities required for effective leadership. She thought about what effective leaders did, felt, and thought; why they behaved as they did, why they made the decisions they made, and why those actions were effective—or not. She condensed these thoughts and theories to create her personal definition: leadership is effective when it influences the actions of followers toward the achievement of the goals of the group or organization.
With this definition, Leslie Pratch identified four elements of the active coping style that underpin effective leadership: integrity, psychological autonomy, integrative capacity, and catalytic coping.