Systematically Get The Evidence You Need

man sitting at desk looking at group of arguing people

By Leslie S. Pratch

The last two posts, we’ve looked at an approach to assessing portfolio company managers efficiently during due diligence. To evaluate portfolio company managers, you need evidence that demonstrates they have or lack the necessary competencies. Interviews and reference checks are the main tools available during due diligence to see if the managers have the skills you’ve defined in your competency framework. During due diligence, it’s important to learn both what an executive has accomplished and how. To do so, you must evaluate the personal characteristics, skills, knowledge, experience and attitudes used to achieve results and consider these factors against the criteria you identified for successful performance.

COMPETENCY FRAMEWORK UNDERPINS INTERVIEW GUIDE

A competency framework provides guidelines and interview prompts to help you collect evidence. A deal team can use a framework to identify the most important competencies for the role, define those competencies operationally, develop questions to ask in an interview and know how to evaluate the answers. Good questions will provide evidence of behaviours that indicate the competency. You’ll validate what you hear by drilling down with questions about the time the behaviour was displayed such as: what was your role, what were you thinking, what did you say and do, what was the outcome.

The deal team can craft an interview guide that defines each competency, provides both positive and negative examples of behavioural indicators for each competency, and offers questions designed to elicit evidence of the candidate’s historic demonstration of the competency.

What are you looking for in the interview?

Before you conduct an interview, establish the areas you will probe. For example, competencies required of a CEO might include a subset of the following high-level competencies:

 

Your value creation plan dictates the performance criteria for each management role. For instance, if negotiating skills are vital, ask the candidate to recount a time he or she applied these skills either successfully or unsuccessfully. Probing areas of poor performance and lack of success is important to understand how the candidate copes with setbacks and defeats, and whether he or she learns from failures and grows through adversity.

Probing for Strategic Leadership competency

Portfolio company CEOs almost always need to be competent at Strategic Leadership, which can be operationally defined as:

  • Defines the enterprise’s basic long term goals and objectives and acts and allocates the resources to carry out these goals.
  • Identifies conflicts among goals and considers tradeoffs and the time horizons in making decisions
  • Identifies how specific decisions will lead to specific outcomes
  • Leads by example and motivates others to follow.

As investors, you know how to ask questions related to strategic leadership. You might consider adding questions like:

  • What do you want important subordinates as well as outsiders to understand in your business? How do you bring about that understanding?
  • What are your staff’s main worries? What have you done about them?
  • When you have to tackle a complex problem for the first time how do you approach it? Walk me through a specific example.
  • Describe a situation when you solved a problem or clarified an issue that others could not.

Positive and negative behavioural indicators help you evaluate the degree to which the manager you have interviewed is capable in this area:

When the interview is over

After the interview, compare your notes to the interview guide, indicate positive and negative indicators demonstrated by the candidate, identify specific supporting comments, and rate the candidate.

Also note your overall impressions of the candidate, both as a person and as an executive. Can you see yourself working with this person? Can you imagine this person working well with key investors, founders, and other important subordinates? The answers to these question will go a long way to determining whether the person will be a successful addition to your executive team or not.

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER YOU BUY/ HIRE?

You can use the performance criteria you’ve established and what you’ve learned in the interview to guide how you build and support a new investment’s management team and the resources and support you provide to it. Next week we’ll look at ways to monitor the management team and measure performance against the value creation drivers for the deal.

A version of this piece appeared in The European Financial Review.


About the Author

Leslie S. Pratch is the founder and CEO of Pratch & Company. A clinical psychologist and MBA, she advises private equity investors, management committees and Boards of Directors of public and privately held companies whether the executives being considered to lead companies possess the psychological resources and personality strengths needed to succeed. In her recently published book, Looks Good on Paper? (Columbia University Press, 2014), 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 organisations — and to flag those who will ultimately very likely fail — by evaluating aspects of personality and character that are hidden beneath the surface.

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Getting Systematic about Management Assessments

By Leslie S. Pratch

When you’re acquiring a company or building a management team, assessing skilled managers effectively can lead to improved ROI. Private equity investors can do more to achieve sustained success by making the process as systematic, rigorous, and efficient as possible. Having a system in place to guide judgments about management talent can add value.

A systematic process can have different roles for different team members at different stages in the deal:

A competency model outlines the behaviours that a firm’s managers should demonstrate as leaders. Competency models are based on the critical elements of accurate job descriptions and are the foundation of most systems for assessing managers.

In this letter, I’ll describe the first step: crafting the position description, which is the basis for the competency model and the assessment. In future letters, I’ll outline how to create the competency model and how to use it wisely.

DEVELOPING POSITION TEMPLATES

Begin by developing a position template. You and your firm undoubtedly have had some discussion of the position. Typically, a template includes:

1. Business Context

What is the strategy and what is the business model?

2. Critical Business Imperatives

What are the priority activities necessary to realise the strategy/objectives, and how will culture inform the execution of strategy?

  • The current and future nature of the team. What type of person would best complement the existing team? How should the team evolve?
  • The most important activities the company must do to realise the strategy (e.g., closing a major account, developing a major OEM partnership, completing a critical product development, or building the organisation).
  • The culture of the organisation. What are the organisation’s values? Management style, communications, and approach to training and development of people?

3. The Job

  • Job title and purpose.
  • Dimensions: budgets, people, materials, capital investment and key result areas.
  • Nature and scope and in particular, the difficulties and challenges in doing the job well.
  • Key relationships, both internal and external
  • Principal accountabilities: what are the two or three key objectives and the job’s expected contribution to the organisation; what is most important to the organisation from this position?
  • Performance measures related to the critical business objectives.
  • Time-span horizon of the role (how long it will take to achieve the longest task in the role).

4. The Person

What is the definition of the ideal candidate? Characteristics might include functional/ professional/ technical skills, work experience, career flow, prior level of performance desired, and key required competencies.

The ideal candidate definition is specific to a specific job at a specific portfolio company at a specific moment. The two or three principal accountabilities or tasks the jobholder needs to perform in order to be considered successful drive this definition. For example, what behaviours, actions, and contributions would a high-performing jobholder make in carrying out these critical tasks? Finally, what are the competencies associated with these successful behaviours, actions, and contributions?

WHO SHOULD DEVELOP POSITION DESCRIPTIONS?

Members of the deal team most closely involved with articulating the company’s strategy and overseeing its implementation should develop the position template, possibly assisted by a competent HR person and/or operating partner within the firm. If the deal team uses third party consultants to provide expertise in the market or industry that the deal team lacks, then those experts should be involved too.

WHAT ARE THE TRICKY BITS TO BE SURE TO GET RIGHT?

  • Be specific and real. Start with the leadership challenges implied by the strategy. Focus your assessment of management capability during due diligence on what the management team needs to achieve. Link the position description tightly to what you actually need managers to do well — the critical business imperatives of the role — in order to carry out the strategy. Anticipate what might get in the way to achieving the position objectives.
  • Don’t be too specific. It’s easy to get carried away with making things too specific and while there’s no constant definition of what’s too specific, you want to focus on the critical “what’s” that must happen while not specifying the “how” in inordinate detail.
  • Don’t forget culture. Take culture into account. If you plan to change the company’s corporate mindset as part of the strategy, the CEO’s job description should include shaking up the organisation and its bureaucracy quickly and deeply and probably taking other necessary, aggressive steps.
  • Write position descriptions that can serve as the basis for position scorecards once you own the company. You may be planning to use financial or other performance indicators as part of determining compensation and bonuses. More specific performance measures that measure success at moving the company closer to achieving the strategy are valuable to monitor progress, and if you think about them as you write the position description you won’t need to get outside help after the deal closes to put these metrics together.
  • Think through how long the person has to achieve each performance measure. Is a key item to be achieved in three months or within a year?

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

After you have the position description, you can easily model the competencies for position. The competency model translates the requirements of the position into the set of skills you want to be sure the candidate has and suggests the indicators you can look for that will indicate that he/she has the skills.

In future posts, I’ll look at competency models and putting them to use.


A version of this piece appeared in The European Financial Review

About the Author

Leslie S. Pratch is the founder and CEO of Pratch & Company. A clinical psychologist and MBA, she advises private equity investors, management committees and Boards of Directors of public and privately held companies whether the executives being considered to lead companies possess the psychological resources and personality strengths needed to succeed. In her recently published book, Looks Good on Paper? (Columbia University Press, 2014), 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 organisations — and to flag those who will ultimately very likely fail — by evaluating aspects of personality and character that are hidden beneath the surface.

Experience can be deceiving when it comes to securing success

 

ThinkstockPhotos-502867683-537x350Are you confident

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.

How to Avoid an Ugly Mess

 

 

How to Avoid an Ugly Mess

By Leslie S. Pratch

Not every management assessment is the same. Picking the right assessment approach could mean the difference between having an outstanding investment return and having to explain an ugly mess to your partners. Different options answer different questions, so you need to figure out what you most want to learn.

What you might like to know

Has he done it before?

This question is good to ask when you know what you want and are sure it isn’t going to change. A good way to answer this question is with a talent and skill assessment. Search firms, many assessment firms, and many psychologists focus on past achievements. They document if the “candidate has done it before in a compelling fashion”. Typically, they use behavioural interviewing to understand how and when the candidate has “done it before”.

If you plan to exit the deal in three to five years, and know that the company won’t change and the world won’t change in that interim, and that there will be no unexpected opportunities and no unexpected problems, then this could be a good approach — for your needs.

How will he cope with change?

Will he capitalise on opportunity? Can he do something no one has ever done? How much do you care about how well the candidate will perform under new or unexpected conditions? You can pick someone who seems like he fits the bill but the world changes for better or worse. When it changes for the worse, you see how adaptable he is. But you may not know when it changes for the better, because the executive doesn’t take advantage of the change until the competition does.

In faster-moving or more uncertain markets, expecting the unexpected makes sense. You need someone with skills but ability to cope — which requires raw cognitive capability and a stable information-seeking personality much more than specific pre-defined skills — is also critical. Talent and skill assessments don’t address these at all. An approach aimed at understanding active coping capabilities as they will be needed for the business challenge fits well here.

How can you get the most of the executive?

Sometimes a candidate brings a lot but isn’t perfect. That introduces the other party in the interaction — you. How can you act so you capitalise on the executive’s strengths and proactively protect against his weaknesses as a leader? Talent and skill assessments won’t shed any light here; Pratchco’s approach to understanding personality as part of the assessment will.

How will he cope in a private equity environment?

The pace is fast and CEOs have to cope with having investors challenging their thinking. If they’ve been in a private equity environment in the past and you know the investors they worked with before, a talent assessment is adequate. If they’ve never been in a private equity environment or you don’t know the other investors, you should use Pratchco.

Are incumbents worth keeping, even though the strategy is changing?

You are inheriting a management team. They know the business and losing them would be a big loss. But they haven’t done what is being called for next, even if they thought of it (similar to founders’ problem with startup), so they will all fail a simple talent assessment. But they might very well be keeping if you could supplement them with your skills or add a team member at the right time. If you assume they can’t do it, you will have to hire a new team, which will lack the understanding of the company the original team had.

What’s in it for the executive?

Executives don’t generally relish the opportunity to be assessed. Putting them through a painful assessment that provides no value to them won’t be a great way to start a relationship and might even be a way to end one.

Talent and skill assessments document what the executive says and usually provide no value to the executive. Assessments that find underlying themes can help executives understand themselves better and can provide guidance that the executives can use to improve how they interact with others (including but not limited to you).


A version of this post appeared in The European Financial Review

About the Author

Leslie S. Pratch is the founder and CEO of Pratch & Company. A clinical psychologist and MBA, she advises private equity investors, management committees and Boards of Directors of public and privately held companies whether the executives being considered to lead companies possess the psychological resources and personality strengths needed to succeed. In her recently published book, Looks Good on Paper? (Columbia University Press, 2014), 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 organisations — and to flag those who will ultimately very likely fail — by evaluating aspects of personality and character that are hidden beneath the surface.

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.