Leslie Pratch is the founder and CEO of Pratch & Company. A clinical psychologist and MBA, she advises organizations on the human dimensions of executing corporate strategy. She specializes in helping private equity investors and Boards of Directors of public and privately held companies identify whether executives being considered to lead companies have the psychological resources and personality strengths needed to succeed.
ON EDUCATION AND CAREER PROGRESSION
I have been evaluating candidates for leading businesses for more than 17 years. But I didn’t get to this spot by accident; I created the tools and built the capability to do this work over many years across multiple universities and graduate degrees. I sensed that some ideas that intrigued me could be valuable to others and have high impact. I just had to figure out exactly how.
First, I was a graduate student in psychology at the University of Chicago. While at the University of Chicago, I had an opportunity to set up a talent program for high potential professionals at Arthur Andersen. At the same time I began studying clinical psychology, and discovered I had a knack for using certain sophisticated clinical techniques to assess personality. I was attracted to these techniques, and I realized that to use them outside of research I’d need a license in Clinical Psychology, and that meant changing schools. I transferred to Northwestern University Medical School and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I used data from research that I was leading at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. My research focused on how to predict the emergence of leaders in a high performing group, using a psychological approach I was developing.
After graduate school, I worked with State Farm to develop a competency framework for the whole organization. I then developed my own executive competency framework, which I still use today. Later, I got an MBA at the of Chicago, concentrating in finance and competitive strategy, to give me better tools to understand the issues my clients and their candidates face.
BUILDING PRATCH & COMPANY
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.
Every person’s mind has structure, or patterns that have become well-grooved, second-nature, and active without conscious effort. Active coping is my term for the structure that creates both stability and openness to change, and that’s why active coping is integral to my model for predicting business leadership. Making predictions about leaders, whether they are executives, or politicians, aims to reduce the risk of failures in leadership. By correctly identifying strong, competent future business leaders as well as future time bombs, Pratch & Company contributes to a larger social good.
Over the years, I’ve had different associates and assistants who have learned to deliver portions of my services. As the economy and factors in my personal life have changed, I’ve had the chance to practice some active coping of my own.
ON GENDER AND ENTREPRENEURSHIP
I was able to start with creating an opportunity to get paid to do what turned out to be the foundational research.
In 1990 I submitted a proposal to the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business (now Booth) to lead research into predicting leadership. The School had a problem: How could the Business School more reliably select students who would emerge even stronger from the program and also avoid choosing those who would not hold up under its pressures?
The Business School hired me as Principal Investigator to answer these questions by conducting longitudinal research into the relationship among coping style, motivation and leadership effectiveness. The project lasted four-years and studied two elite cohorts of University of Chicago MBA students. The school hired a team of statisticians and assistants to assist. The findings supported my hypotheses and were replicated and published in peer-reviewed academic journals. This research validated my model and methods that gave me the confidence to take my assessment system to the Street. I incorporated Pratch & Company and fund operations from profits from the business.
There really is gender bias out there, and I have experienced it. I have decided that the route of plugging ahead makes sense even though I have to “dance backwards in heels.” A man might not have had to establish the empirical validity of his predictive model in order to gain acceptance doing the kind of work I do. Doing the spadework of scholarship may be one example of a woman having to work harder and cope better than a man under similar conditions.
ON CONTINUING PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
Empathy and making accurate predictions are the most important. I track the results of all my work and see what it tells me about what I need to adjust. The research is ongoing.
ON RISK TAKING
I am an independent thinker and a creative risk taker when it comes to work that will be meaningful to me. The biggest risk has been to develop and validate my own system for assessing executives to predict leadership performance and to base my career on it. I took that risk because I believe it works better than anything else out there. There are too many failed leaders, and failures that could have been avoided. Thanks to my approach lots of failures have been avoided.
ON GENDER AND THE CONSULTING INDUSTRY
During my entire education and career, females have been in the minority. I’m used to a four to one gender ratio. Being a thought leader gives me a legitimacy that might be granted a male by virtue of gender.
My leadership style is collaborative. I am directive when necessary. My company’s culture is trust-based. Intellectual curiosity, intellectual honesty, collaboration, transparency, accountability, and mutual support and respect are among our values.
ON COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
My biggest advantage is my scientifically proven assessment system for predicting leadership performance. Most private equity investors and their consultants believe that past performance is the best predictor of future performance. But past performance only shows a person could meet the demands of the past; it says nothing about how they will handle new challenges.
Another advantage is having an MBA in conjunction with clinical skills I can understand at a sophisticated level what my clients are doing and trying to do with their companies and investments. 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. Having a strong understanding of business lets me be a business discussion partner as well as a skilled psychologist.
ON WORK LIFE BALANCE
Writing is part of getting better at knowing what you do and how to communicate it so that others understand it. My friendship circles revolve around hiking, reading, music, and relaxing at the beach. I meditate, get six hours of sleep, and run or swim daily.
ON FUTURE CHALLENGES
My goal is to see that investors (or at least smart ones) don’t ignore a critical variable for their success. No one would lay out a financial plan for the life of an investment but only look at it again when someone tells them the bank balance is negative; they monitor financial health to make sure it is being managed. But they just hire a team of executives and don’t check on progress until it’s clear something is working very poorly—when they could monitor human capital health and make sure it is being managed. I want to see human capital assessment and management become an ingrained part of the plan for creating value when private equity firms are contemplating buying a company. And of course I want to help my clients develop more productive relationships with their portfolio company executives and help them work better internally as teams leading private equity firms.
THREE THINGS YOU WILL NOT LEAVE HOME WITHOUT
My breath and my occasional focus on it, my eyeglasses, and a copy of my favourite poem.