Suzanne Bates, CEO, Bates Communications
How many leaders have walked onto a big stage and stumbled at precisely the moment when we hoped they would shine? When Mary Barra appeared before Congress in April to answer for events leading to GM’s recall of 1.6 million vehicles with faulty ignitions, her careful, overly-scripted testimony landed with a thud. The moment cried out for Barra to show up as the CEO heralded to be the “new GM” and to appear concerned, sincere and authentic. Instead of reassuring the public that GM would address the issues, and expressing empathy toward the victims, her responses inspired a Saturday Night Live opening skit that lampooned her lack of candor and responsiveness.
It’s hard to imagine a higher degree of difficulty for a new leader, isn’t it? Who would want to be in her shoes? Yet Barra missed an opportunity. Why is it so difficult for executives thrust into the spotlight to seize the moment and to demonstrate a brand of leadership that earns trust and confidence?
While a PR pundit might offer more formulaic armchair advice on crisis management, there’s a deeper, richer lesson in leadership worth exploring. Exemplary leaders, those we admire, seem to approach such challenges with a kind of strength and ease, exuding a calm, caring demeanor and a sincere, reassuring tone. They speak the truth and make promises they can keep. These are just a few of those “X Factors” in leadership that my own research has been able to define as “executive presence.”
Defining Executive Presence
For years, the phrase executive presence (EP) has been tossed around as something rather mysterious—a way to describe seemingly “soft” factors that differentiate great leaders. Most people appreciate EP goes way beyond presentation skills, executive image or style; it’s a complicated set of interrelated qualities that together enable a leader to project a pervasive, positive tone. It’s the stuff that seems instinctive, but, in fact, we develop it with time. It’s a cultivated way that admirable leaders learn to communicate, inform, inspire, and ultimately win hearts and minds. While often people default to describing it as “I know it when I see it,” that makes it tough for a practicing leader to do anything about it.
In all my firm’s many years of working with executives in Fortune 1000 companies, we had never come across a robust, accepted definition of Executive Presence. So, we set out to research and develop one. Our objective was to create a rigorous, science-based based model that would fill a critical gap in leadership thinking. We took a deep dive into theory and empirical studies from psychology, communications, social action theory, management, and philosophy and ethics.
What happened as a result? We were finally able to “solve for X.” What emerged was a rich, multi-dimensional model of EP—think of it as three layers of the person—Character, Substance, and Style.
The outer layer, Style, is the overt way we engage, interact and communicate with other people. It includes such facets as appearance and interactivity. The middle layer—Substance—represents those more mature qualities of leadership that develop over time—the way we display to others the depth of our thinking (vision) or the quality of our judgment (practical wisdom). The innermost layer is Character, i.e., those aspects of disposition and temperament that emerge in our early development, such as humility and restraint.
What do these research findings mean to leaders who are in the seat, making decisions every day? The most exciting insight is that these qualities aren’t fixed in stone. Contrary to other leadership assessment approaches, the qualities that can be measured are not immutable; you aren’t a “type.”
This new EP model encourages an examination of a leader’s strengths and areas of development in terms of the impact they have on others in a social organization. My colleagues and I know from years of coaching that leaders can learn to strengthen and amplify these qualities. In other words, you can learn to be a highly communicative, influential leader, one who inspires others to give their best effort, overcome difficult challenges and rally around a common purpose. The “secret sauce” is to understand your strengths and areas of development, so that in new situations you develop, aiming not just to “survive” but “thrive.”
The Challenge-Development Curve
Challenging times can become inflection points that take our leadership capabilities to a higher level. In fact, the available literature on this proves that these can be the very moments when we learn to become the leaders we want to be. As we are promoted, or take on challenging assignments, we can either fall back or leap forward to become more adept at managing situations that we hadn’t previously encountered. We don’t have to struggle so much when we’ve “cracked the code” on these behaviors.
For example, when we learn that we need to be better at sharing our insight or judgment with our peers, we will quickly become more influential with them. If we are aware that others experience us as hasty or impulsive, we can learn to check that and begin demonstrating a calmer disposition. With the support of coaches and mentors we can face down situations of greater complexity, inspired to try new approaches, adapt, and grow.
A model and assessment that my firm has since developed called the Bates ExPI (or Executive Presence Indexß) compares a leader’s self-perceptions to others’ views of him or her. Through a multi-rater 360, the leader is introduced to a rich set of observations on 15 facets of behavior. The coach interprets the feedback in the context of real business challenges. The leader comes to understand not only how she’s perceived, but to what behaviors would enable her to “show up” differently.
Let’s say people who know you pretty well respond that you’re the real deal—very authentic. If asked, they’d tell others “What you see is what you get.” However, you’re new in a role, and after six months, lots of people have heard “rumors” about you but haven’t had a chance to get to know you. They’re viewing you as distant or hard to get to know. That’s a valuable insight. You can now arrange your time to be present, to communicate more intentionally through virtual and in-person meetings, and to make it a point to reveal more about yourself in these communications.
This research has implications especially for leaders who are developing leaders. Imagine you’re assessing the capability of a leader on your team to take over a new business or function, or integrate a new business acquisition. She’ll need to quickly assimilate and win the support of the new company’s key talent. She’ll need to build bridges and get everybody rowing in the same direction. If you are aware she has a development need like inclusiveness (the ability to actively involve others and welcome diverse points of view), you can guide her to intentionally get people involved, and to listen to their ideas from the start.
The so-called “soft side” of leadership presence is often dismissed, but research shows it is hard-wired for exceptional business results. It’s what allows leaders to align performance, drive change, and inspire above-and-beyond effort. For instance, if a leader’s peers appreciate the way she solicits their opinions, but her direct reports say she seems too busy to stop, listen and hear them out—which is one way we measure “Concern”—that could explain why they aren’t bothering to brainstorm good ideas and share them with her. If the team admires a manager for making even daunting goals seem possible (one way we measure “Vision”) but his boss doesn’t see that fire in his belly, it could explain why he hasn’t received funding for an innovative project.
It’s important to remember that we all have strengths. Sometimes we’re not even aware that people view us as confident, or visionary, or resonant with others. When reviewing an assessment of any kind, it is important not to just go to what needs to be “fixed.” The best advice is not to be overly concerned about areas that are rated lower. The feedback is a gift, and your strengths can be leveraged to help you develop in new areas.
Advice on Cultivating Executive Presence
We utilize a process called Bates Leadership Pathways™ to help executives make the cognitive connection between where they are today, and where they want to be. One Pathways exercise is to envision qualities of leadership you’ve noticed in others that you want to cultivate in yourself. In our Leadership Pathways coaching and EP Mastery Programs, leaders take the step of sharing their stories with other leaders to partner with them and explore the impact and lessons.
Here’s how you can start today to use your own Leadership Pathways process to uncover and experiment with new approaches.
- Reflect on a quality you admire in someone, one that you would like to develop
- Think of a specific time when that individual demonstrated the quality
- Tell a friend, out loud, exactly what happened, why, and what enabled a positive interaction
- Reflect on a situation that you’d like to approach differently
- Try out a new way of doing it and see how it feels
- Ask for candid, specific feedback from people you trust
Many successful leaders have stumbled early on. New England Patriots football coach Bill Belichick, now destined for the Hall of Fame, made the playoffs only once in five years when he coached the Cleveland Browns early in his career. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani got mixed reviews as mayor before he hit the ultimate inflection point after the 9/11 tragedy. Mary Barra will have new opportunities to demonstrate that executive presence is amenable to change. Fortunately, with time, effort and coaching, executive presence can be mastered. The reward of this sometimes formidable journey is becoming that leader who others admire.
About the Author
Suzanne Bates is CEO and founder of Bates, a global coaching and consulting firm that helps leaders influence the world. She advises the CEOs and top executives of international companies on driving business strategy through communicative leadership and executive presence. Suzanne is the author of the bestselling business books Speak Like a CEO, Motivate Like a CEO, and Discover Your CEO Brand (McGraw-Hill) and writes a popular leadership column, Thoughts for Tuesday (www.bates-communications.com).