The #1 Personality Trait to Look Out for When Hiring Your Next Executive

The best leaders have an innate ability to deal with whatever’s thrown at them. Here’s how to tell who’s got it and who doesn’t.
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 abilities? 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—think David Pottruck at Schwab or Doug Ivester at Coke—it’s clearly 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 mechanism.

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 their nature and their 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 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.

An active coping style lets a manager go further and faster more surely. Consider an analogy with a car: we can get where we need to go driving an ordinary, inexpensive car, and we can make it through life with a less than optimal coping style. But to drive on curvy, treacherous roads in dark and foul weather, we need a superbly engineered car, and that car will also get us farther, faster, with less likelihood of accident or breakdown in other situations. A strong framework of coping enables a leader to survive the rough spots and to perform better than others would in ordinary times too.

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. With each new challenge, active copers ask: what really is going on now, and what is the best way for me to deal with it? What can I learn from this event? How can I use this event to strengthen my commitment to the ideals that I pursue?

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.

Resourcefulness. Active copers invent solutions to problems by creatively pulling together the resources they have at hand or by developing new ones.

Decisiveness. 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.

Leslie S. Pratch ’84 is the founder and CEO of Pratch & Company. A clinical psychologist and MBA, she advises private equity investors and 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 20 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 very likely fail—by evaluating aspects of personality and character that are hidden beneath the surface.