What We Assume
An episode of This American Life from several years ago featured “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap, the CEO who was brought in to restore the Sunbeam corporation back to profitability in the 1990s. While he’s now on several “Worst CEOs Ever” lists, at the time, he had his admirers. This got me thinking about the dramatic changes over just a couple of decades in perceptions of what makes a good C-suite executive. I’d like to invite you to think about how you envision “executive presence”—the qualities a C-suite leader possesses that convey strength, reliability, trustworthiness, and business acumen. What are the traits of someone who has it? Even more importantly, what are the disconnects between our cultural assumptions about executive presence (EP) and the realities of effective leadership?
Stereotypes of “executive presence” vary with the generations, but some common elements persist. When middle-aged or older people think of a business executive, we likely think of a white man of a certain age with a certain gravitas who wears an expensive suit and tie on weekdays, golf shirts and khakis on casual days. He’s known within his organization for “owning the room” in meetings and presentations. His handshake is firm, his voice projects, and he’s got a no-nonsense, cut-the-crap approach to most situations and problems. Employees are a little afraid of him, and he’s fine with that.
From the perspective of millennials and Gen Z, executive presence might be a white man (again) in a hoodie and jeans whose technical genius and/or innovative business methods entitle him to behavior we might not tolerate in people with less influence or money. Employees are a little afraid of him, and he’s fine with that.
In either case—the silver fox or the tech bro—these images carry with them a disturbingly high tolerance for ruthlessness in pursuit of “excellence,” however that gets defined. Chainsaw Al might be well in the past, but certain aspects of his legacy still infect perceptions of executive presence.
Today, those images are not only inaccurate as more women and people of color reach the C-suite, they are actually detrimental to finding and developing the best leaders.
What Executive Presence Really Means
In her brilliant book on executive presence, Suzanne Bates defines EP as “the qualities of a leader that engage, inspire, align, and move people to act.” She divides these qualities into three dimensions: character, substance, and style. Each of these dimensions is broken down into individual facets. You can read more about the Bates approach on your own. For now, I want to talk about four specific aspects of Bates’s approach to building (or improving or being intentional with) your executive presence. My goal is to get you thinking about how you see yourself, what pathways to improvement you might pursue, and, if you’re a talent development professional, how you evaluate and develop those who are moving up the ladder in your organization.
Simply put, you can’t improve or even assess your executive presence until you have a clear understanding of how you come across to others. Self-awareness not only means being alert to your own feelings, attitudes, and behaviors, it also means developing a sense of how you are perceived. Your intentions are essentially meaningless if you are not conveying them clearly and sincerely.
The core of self-awareness is honesty—with yourself. We like to think about optimizing our strengths, and that’s a good thing. But it’s a lot harder, emotionally and practically, to take an objective look at weaknesses and do the work to improve on them.
When I got the results of the Bates evaluation of my executive presence, I was surprised to see that assertiveness was rated as a liability and not an asset. I was surprised because I’ve always considered myself to be as assertive as they come. And that was the problem. As it turns out, many character traits—in abundance—can be “overstrengths.” While my assertiveness serves me well in some situations, such as negotiations, it can also make me appear unaware or uncaring in other scenarios. In other words, I’m the guy you want when a crisis is happening, but I might not be (or might not have been—I’m working on it) the guy you want around to help with the emotional fallout of the crisis.
I’m offering this example to show that real executive presence means a) being self-aware and b) being able to balance and control our innate impulses to suit the moment.
Meeting the Moment
Let’s add another to the list in the last sentence: analyzing what’s needed in each unique situation and adapting your presence to meet it. Let’s say I’m your leader, and there’s a big problem that needs immediate attention. Because I’m highly assertive, in the moment, I step up, find solutions, and perhaps I don’t worry so much about my tone or demeanor because, dammit, there’s an emergency. Then let’s say the crisis has been resolved. My natural assertiveness might lead me to want to move on and rally everyone to get back to work. If I’ve been making solid progress on improving my executive presence, I should instead pause, assess the situation, and recognize that the people I’m leading need me to dial back my assertiveness while dialing up qualities like listening, relating, and empathy.
Focusing on What Is Observable
A lot of this may sound kind of touchy-feely, but frankly, your feelings don’t matter. Or rather, they matter only insofar as they help you to be perceived as possessing executive presence and being a reliable leader. Have you ever seen someone give a presentation in which they were engaging, well-informed, and projected authority—only to see them later in the hotel bar yukking it up with colleagues? It’s not that they were inauthentic during the presentation; it’s that they were meeting the moment by focusing on how they come across in the context of the situation they were in: addressing what their observers need and what the business needs. Some moments are built for a certain type of leader, and others require leaders to stretch, sometimes uncomfortably, to maintain their presence and authority.
Is there a fake-it-till-you-make-it aspect of this? Yes. But as a high-level leader, pushing away from your own comfort zone is your responsibility. And, frankly, if it’s working—if you’re getting the results you need, and people are responding in a way appropriate to the situation—you’re not really faking. It’s just that your feelings are a little out of sync with your actions as a leader. Real executive presence lets you be okay with that.
You’re Never Finished
Because I am well along the way to thinking about my own executive presence, I’ve learned to be aware of and manage my assertiveness, among all my other qualities, to meet the needs of the people and issues I’m working with. Am I done? No. Leaders continue to change based on their roles and the events they experience, so there is a need for continuous self-awareness and adjustment. Let’s hope that by thinking this way, we replace those old-school ideas of executive presence with one that focuses on awareness, clarity, adaptability, and trust.
I’ll be talking about executive presence further in future posts, especially as it ties in with Turpin’s approach to meetings and presentations. Stay tuned.