Leaders are expected to have "executive presence." But nobody quite knows what that is – and how to achieve it.
Suzanne Bates, a consultant in Wellesley, Mass., has cracked the code, identifying 15 elements that combine to form this abstract notion, such as authenticity, concern, restraint, composure, wisdom, intentionality and assertiveness. She even gave executive presence a crisp definition: The qualities of a leader that engage, inspire, align and move people to act. And the ingredients fall into three categories: character, substance and style.
Character consists of the fundamentals that build trust and goodwill. Substance includes the qualities that inspire others to go above and beyond. Style is the secret to getting others to get things done.
That's not how we normally think of style. It's usually seen as peripheral, perhaps even fluff – wardrobe and appearance. But she sees style as critical to executing on our goals. "It's not surface. It's very deep," she said in an interview. "Leaders who are strong on style will be better able to engage people. They will get the right people around the table. They will be respectful. They will get others to take action."
It has these components.
Appearance: Some people can shift the mood in a room as soon as they walk through the door. This flows from their sense of style but even more importantly from their energy.
"A leader that doesn't appear on top of his game and ready for the day will be less visible. This is one reason smart, thoughtful professionals get passed over on promotions and opportunities. Meanwhile, those who bring energy into a room tend to get noticed and evaluated as 'executive material,'" she writes in her book All the Leader You Can Be.
Energy is contagious. People are also more receptive to a leader comfortable in his own skin. And wardrobe can count, sending signals. She believes most leaders can step up the standards of their game, becoming choosier about quality of the fabrics and fit, so they send a more polished message. Better clothes can enhance confidence, another important facet of leadership.
Intentionality: This is about having a purposeful vision that directs your energies. But she stresses it's not to be confused with directive, authoritative leadership. Instead, it's about promoting dialogue. Leaders need to find the right communication channels and give appropriate time to this facet of leadership, rather than cutting back on chats with staff because they are too preoccupied with travel, e-mail and other executive demands.
She measures how accessible leaders are – can people reach them for a quick chat, do they respond to e-mails promptly, or are they locked away in meetings and unresponsive? If you are falling short, you can improve: "These are behaviours and behaviours can be changed. Small changes can have a lot of impact," she noted in the interview.
Inclusiveness: Effective executives actively involve others to generate a broad array of opinions and diverse points of view, building ownership in what the organization is doing. It starts by thinking about how to broaden the circle and getting all stakeholders involved in your activities. That may require learning to be more tolerant of others who hold challenging viewpoints or have different work styles. "The best leaders who are viewed as being inclusive, have a refreshing curiosity and a sense of humility," she adds.
Interactivity: Leaders strong in this quality employ a conversational style that puts others at ease and allows them to speak up. "They have an agenda but don't stifle dissent. It's discussed and everyone works together to get aligned. They aren't heavy-handed," she explains. Somebody who is very organized and directive, with a strong bias for action, won't get high scores for interactivity as they tend to shut others down. There's a strong social and emotional component to getting things done.
Assertiveness: Leaders must be direct and forthright but also capable of working through differences constructively. They should recognize when conflict is becoming destructive or chronic, and intervene. They make it clear people can speak their mind.
Where do we go wrong? She says most leaders don't realize they need to make themselves more accessible and responsive. Another common issue is that leaders are clear about direction but not good at getting followers aligned because they are unwilling to take time for a proper back-and-forth discussion.
"They need to slow down to speed up," she says.
Finally, energy: Too many leaders don't understand the need to rally their own energies to rally the energies of others.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter