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17 Mar. 2014 | Comments (0)

When it comes to executive presence, we often hear leaders say, “I know it when I see it.”
But when you get people talking about the topic, it seems that there is real difficulty describing exactly what “it” is, and most often people focus more on the surface elements, such as attire and speech. 

The overt “style” elements of presence, as we call them, are certainly important, but our sense was that they only represent the tip of the iceberg.  So, our company began an effort to reflect on our 13 years of practice with hundreds of executive leaders in Fortune 500 and Global 2000 companies to identify facets that seemed to separate the leaders who had “it” from those who didn’t. 

We identified several facets that began to emerge as unique and necessary to become a leader with “command-the-room” presence.  Then, we began to comb through the research in management, leadership, psychology, and social action theory to get further clarity. Unlike the fuzzy definitions to date, and the “home-grown” theories up until now, this research revealed a clear, 15-facet core that has become our model of executive presence.  It captures the three critical dimensions – character, substance, and style – and allows us to operationalize executive presence. The 90-item, multi-rater assessment tool is the first of its kind, providing leaders with insight into both their strengths and gap areas in order to help them improve their influence, align and engage those they lead, and drive results.

In a pilot study, we had 100 leaders go through the assessment process, which entailed completing self-assessment ratings, as well as having their supervisor, along with a sampling of their peers and direct reports, rate them on those 90 items. Here are three key takeaways that have emerged so far:

1. The facets of executive presence are not binary in nature.

If you think of an assessment like the Myers-Briggs, the facets are basically binary: You’re an extrovert or an introvert, a thinker or a feeler.  In contrast, the facets of executive presence, as we’ve defined them, are nuanced and actionable. In the pilot, we’ve already seen numerous examples of leaders who are rated highly in some aspects of a facet while simultaneously receiving some of their lowest ratings in another aspect of that facet.

For example, consider the facet of “Vision.” A leader may be “a strong thinker with an appreciation of what it takes to realize a strategy,” as one of the items reads. Yet, there are other aspects about Vision that are more emotional than rational in nature. Can the leader make a daunting goal seem realistic, exciting, and attainable?  

We’ve found that it’s possible to pinpoint these nuances of executive presence with the assessment, which is a first step toward making improvement actionable through coaching or action learning groups.

2. Lower ratings often reflect “process loss,” not “weaknesses.”

As we’ve reviewed the pilot results, inevitably we find that leaders have some facets that are rated higher than others.  Although we take time to focus on a leader’s strengths and how they can be leveraged, most leaders want to focus on the lower ratings that represent developmental themes.

In the feedback sessions, leaders often share some anxiety or disappointment about the lower-rated facets—especially if their self-ratings on those facets are significantly higher. “Integrity is one of my pillars,” one leader told us. “Why am I getting such low ratings?” 

The leader didn’t lack integrity. In our feedback session, however, we had to explain that something was happening that was keeping others from perceiving that integrity.  Some psychologists refer to this as “process loss.” We asked, could he think of a situation where circumstances might have kept his integrity from coming through clearly? With some reflection, he was able to realize that he often lectured his team about being responsive to requests. Meanwhile, the huge load on his plate meant that he himself was failing to follow through on requests. This seemed to provide insight as to why he was receiving low scores on the Integrity item, which is defined as having one’s words be consistent with one’s actions.

We have seen this trend repeatedly with leaders.  Typically, it’s not that leaders are unable or unwilling to display key facets of executive presence, including Practical Wisdom and Intentionality.  More often, it’s just that their struggle to manage their time, tasks, and energy is affecting how people perceive key facets. 

3. Executive presence is a dynamic, learnable attribute for leaders.

When we conduct the assessment, it’s basically a snapshot in time, providing us with a sense of how a group of stakeholders perceives a given leader on a given day. As business imperatives change and a leader hones his or her style in response to circumstances, as well as through reflection, effective coaching, and sound mentoring, these perceptions can and will shift over time. 

The good news — and bad news — is that none of us is born with executive presence. Through this pilot, we’ve seen that just about every leader has very significant strengths that can be leveraged to improve their presence. Even small improvements in key facet gap areas correlate to increased impact for these leaders. With a laser focus on developing facets that will clearly result in increased influence and presence, leaders lower their defenses and become engaged in the improvement process.  

The key is getting beyond “I know it when I see it,” and being able to pinpoint what’s working and build on it, enhancing your ability to align, engage, and drive results.


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  • About the Author: David Casullo

    David  Casullo

    David Casullo is president at Bates Communications, a national consulting firm specializing in leadership communication skills and strategy. His passion is developing leaders who have the courage and …

    Full Bio | More from David Casullo


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