Executive presence (EP) is a term that is often cited, but poorly defined – even by those who reference it in talent decisions. In a recent study, the majority of HR leaders struggled when pressed to describe it, defaulting to “I know it when I see it.” In another study, of 400 CEOs and other leaders with hiring and promotional decision-making authority, 78% stated that limited presence holds people back.
I was unsatisfied with the notion that something so important to the career success of those I work with on executive searches and coach could not be adequately described, understood, and potentially developed. So, I spent several months doing primary and secondary research, and in this month’s blog I share a synopsis of my findings.
Let’s dispel some misconceptions upfront. Executive presence is not just charisma, nor gravitas. It is also not the mere physical presence of a leader, even those with an imposing stature. Executive presence is an amalgam of qualities, and no single individual possesses every characteristic at maximum levels.
Two of the most comprehensive studies of executive presence were done by: 1) Gavin Dagley and Cadeyrn Gaskin and 2) Suzanne Bates and her team of researchers. Both groups conducted extensive research and empirically defined executive presence. Their work illuminates the term by describing the characteristics of leaders with EP.
Below I weave together those key characteristics from the respective studies, as well as other sources, and provide insights about how to project executive presence.
Reputation. Individuals with EP have had significant achievements in their career, which generates an aura and a mystic. I would highlight that a successful track record is the cornerstone on which EP is built. Past success provides a level of credibility that is foundational.
Confidence. Those projecting great confidence display a special calmness and composure.
Communication. These leaders articulate messages in succinct, clear, and convincing ways. They share a view of the future which inspires others. Their messages are thoughtfully tailored to their audience. They’ve learned how to make themselves heard, using voice modulation when appropriate.
Self-awareness. The leaders with EP have high EI/EQ. They are attuned to their impact on others and show concern and empathy.
Appearance. They bring a level of energy and are seen to be on top of their game. These leaders are eager to engage, friendly, and charming. They are mindful and considerate of culture, and dress and groom appropriate to the setting. Their use of nonverbal body language, such as eye contact, style of walk, and posture is deliberate.
Integrity. These leaders display high standards of morality, adhere to their espoused personal values, and are found to reliable and trustworthy over time.
There are other characteristics, and a few are admittedly innate. However, most of those DNA-based characteristics (like physical stature) have been found to be of less relative significance. The conclusion, executive presence can be developed.
You can start to develop your EP right away. While it is not advisable to try to be someone you are not, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek to represent yourself more favorably and increase your odds of career success and earning power.
A great first step is to get some objective data to determine where to focus. The Bates team took their work further and created a statistically validated assessment tool called the Bates ExPI. It is an anonymous, multi-rater assessment tool that provides insight into why people have, and what circumstances led them to have, the perception they do about your level of EP.
As you reflect and consider your own executive presence, there is one other significant point I want to add - EP is about balance. When one virtuous characteristic overpowers another, it can detract from how you are perceived. What is all too common is those leaders most passionate about climbing the corporate ladder discover (some don’t) that their bias for action that served them so well mid-career is now causing them to be overlooked for that coveted C-suite role. The feedback from the interviews is: “as an independent contributor he got things done, but he is too aggressive. I don’t think he’s learned how to get work done through others.” And, “he doesn’t have the interpersonal skills needed, nor the emotional intelligence to build commitment and sustain a team’s momentum.” It can be hard to self-diagnose and determine what has been holding you back. Often the candid feedback you need is not given, or perhaps not accepted. Find an astute, accomplished executive coach, and get to work on developing / refining your executive presence.
All great CEOs want a CFO who will help them drive results. They are looking for what I call an “operating” CFO, that is, someone who will get involved in the business and positively influence outcomes.
Some CFO mistakenly view their role too narrowly. They think their job is just to accurately report results. That is important, and a core part of the job, but insufficient. To become a more effective and valuable CFO you’ve got to broaden your focus.
When I conduct a CFO search for our clients, I am looking for someone who sees their role as being responsible (alongside the CEO) for delivering outperformance. I want to hear multiple, concrete examples in the interview of how the CFO candidate identified an issue or opportunity early, took action, and drove a superior outcome. I’m listening for what the CFO did specifically and probing to assess if he or she was just along for the ride or was actually in the forefront steering the initiative and persevered.
In particular, I’m looking for six things … and so are the CEOs and board members who will ultimately be speaking with those candidates that make it past my screening. If you’re not doing these things today, make a shift and take your game up a notch.
Keep in mind, all six are necessary, miss one and you’re missing the mark.
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Almost nothing is as exciting and invigorating as being part of a high growth company. People are upbeat, opportunities abound, and the financial rewards can be significant. However, a number of companies that start to grow find they can’t scale, and the growth and euphoria is short-lived.
Planning for Growth Before it Hits
Ideally you have anticipated and planned for exponential growth. You’ve thought through whether the growth will come from a few jumbo accounts or a large number of discrete customers. The right scaling solution varies greatly depending on the source of new business growth and the duration.
It’s also important to evaluate whether your business is prepared to handle more than a single wave of growth. Is your business robust, and can you manage sustained high growth?
Do You have the Cash Required?
If you’ve brought in investors who expect the business to scale to get the return required, make sure you’ve gained agreement upfront about the investment required (and the timing of those investments). Do your financial backers support investing ahead of the growth? Will cash be readily available when needed? There may be a delay between when revenue is earned and recognized on the books, and when it is turned into cash. A/R doesn’t pay bills, cash does. It is possible to grow too fast.
When High Growth Surprises You
One of the things that often happens when a business unexpectedly starts to grow extremely rapidly is issues emerge in one area of the organization and then move to another. The analogy of a rat being eaten by a snake is often used (and, while that may be a bit disgusting to think about, it provides a pretty good image of how problems move from one area of the organization to the next). What makes this so difficult for the management team that is unprepared is that just as they finish getting things back in shape in one part of the business, another, different set of issues pops up elsewhere. This can be exhausting and overwhelming.
Gaining Control & the Questions to Ask
One way to regain control if growth surprises you is to reset customer expectations. Quickly assess if there is a way to sequence installing sold business so customers needs are met, but you don’t compound your problems by turning on more than you can properly support.
Consider what happened. Was it sheer volume that caused a concern or issue, or did you accept too much non-standard business? Do you have appropriate approval processes in place for sales commitments, especially product or service exceptions (i.e., special requests)?
If you find you need to react immediately and scale there are a number of other considerations.
Staff & key person dependencies – is there just a single person or a limited number of people who are the only ones that know how to do certain critical functions or tasks? Do you have the ability to hire rapidly, or are there areas where you’ll need more people who are in tight supply or uniquely skilled? Do you have the physical space to house all the resources that are needed? Can you outsource, and what will be the impact on service and quality?
Training - can you ramp up new hires quickly enough? Are your core processes standardized (repeatable, trainable)? How long does training normally take, and where and how can instructions be communicated and delivered? Will those potentially large new groups of resources know how to get things done and who to consult if old processes break down?
Leadership - can you afford to appoint one of your executives full time to oversee the scaling effort if needed? Do you truly have someone who is capable of executing such an effort? Do you have the management team in place to operate a large, inevitability more complex organization?
Issues management - is there a streamlined process for handling issues? How will issues to resolve get divvied-up? Is there a predetermined way of prioritizing issues? And, if a lot of the issues will fall to the technology organization, for instance, will they know how to deal with the competing demands for their finite time? Is there a discipline in place to ensure the most forceful personalities in the organization don’t secure precious resources for less critical problems?
Processes - has authority and decision rights been delegated to the right places in the organization? Is it clear who should be consulted and simply informed versus who has the authority to make the decisions (based on the relative impact of the topic or item under consideration)?
Are your workflows optimized? Consider bottlenecks. Specifically, evaluate connection points between departments / processes. Are there places where things will get jammed-up, especially those that are hard to fix quickly.
Technology - arguably one of the most important areas to scaling a business is leveraging technology. There is so much involved and unique to this aspect of scaling that I’ll limit the points of consideration to three areas: 1) Do your systems have contention points, where they can’t handle certain volumes on an hourly, weekly … absolute basis?
Have you assessed every area across your technology infrastructure, not just some? 2) Have you already built up technical debt, and how will that impact your ability to scale? And, 3) Don’t short-change testing in your race to put new technical solutions in place.
One watch-out: be careful what you assume will be capitalizable, if that expense gets reclassified to operating expense under a year-end review / audit, it could severely impact EBITDA.
Finally, force the time to figure out what to do if your inability to scale becomes a crisis causing clients to leave. What damage control steps will you take? What will you sacrifice to mitigate the situation?