Executive presence:

more important than ever


Published on: July 2021

Written by: Andrew Atkins

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

These are the words that eight years ago launched the ExPITM, what was then and still is, the only research-based, validated, scientific way to measure Executive Presence.

Why measure executive presence?

At the time, the leaders we were working with were struggling with the concept. Executive Presence was important and sought after, but ill-defined. When we asked leaders what they meant by executive presence, even those with expertise in executive talent development would offer vague descriptors such as “gravitas,” “inspiring,” and “great communicator.” While these executives would tell us they wanted more executive presence in their leaders, they could not say exactly what they were looking for from them. How do you develop more of something when you can’t describe the specific behaviors you are looking for? “I know it when I see it” is not helpful to guide leaders on what to do differently.

As a result, we set out to find the specific behaviors behind what people mean by executive presence. We conducted the first, science-based research into executive presence, ultimately creating the Executive Presence Index, the ExPITM, which defines the behaviors of successful leaders who are able to engage, align, inspire and motivate people to act. The survey that constitutes the basis of the model includes 90 questions about leaders’ behaviors across the 15 facets and three dimensions of Character, Substance and Style.

Changing the way we lead

In the intervening eight years, this leadership model has been instrumental in changing the way leaders at some of the world’s largest companies lead and create impact in their organizations. Along the way, we have partnered with our clients to help them create and deliver the kind of leadership they need to take their companies forward.

Starting a few years ago, some of these companies began to ask for clarification on some of the survey questions, trying to understand how to interpret words like “Appearance,” which was one of the 15 facets that describe high performing leaders, or words like “tolerate” within some of the individual questions. We found ourselves having to explain and reposition some of the descriptions, which told us there was a lack of clarity in intent with some of the content. We started to ask ourselves whether we needed to reexamine the way we were thinking about the items in the model.

Then came 2020, and the George Floyd incident, the #METOO movement, and the rapid rise in awareness of the need to focus on Diversity and Inclusion across the business, arts, and broader community. This galvanized our efforts to systematically think about what we needed to do when we were assessing leaders with an inclusive lens, and how inclusiveness is reflected in the behaviors of today’s leaders.

Shifting and strengthening our lens on inclusive leadership

We started by reexamining every question we ask in the ExPITM assessment and asking ourselves the question – how might this be interpreted? How might this make someone feel included or excluded? What are the hidden messages, however unintended, that someone might infer in some of those questions? We realized that in the eight years since we launched the ExPITM, our own perspective had shifted, not dramatically, but in important ways that we realized are also important to our clients. As we reexamined the questions, we applied an inclusive lens that included racial and gender perspectives, differing abilities, as well as cultural and international perspectives. Exploring the wording of our survey questions highlighted for us the ambiguity of the English language and how that can be interpreted not only by English speakers but by English as a Second Language speakers. It was important for us to ensure that as was our original intent, this is an assessment that works globally.

This exploration yielded encouraging and inspiring results, in terms of providing insight and guidance to today’s leaders globally.

  • The large majority – 80 of the 90 survey items or leadership behaviors – stood up to the scrutiny and analysis, retaining their relevance and insight for a more inclusive view of leadership
  • The remaining 10 items were revised, vetted, and updated with language intended to clarify and simplify the behaviors to remove ambiguity and reduce the chance for misinterpretation. The changes involved updates such as replacing words and phrases that suggest exclusion, such as “tolerance” or “tolerate,” and with “supporting” and “promoting.”
  • We also renamed one of the 15 facets, Appearance in the Style dimension, to Demeanor to align it with the intent of the facet which was not about how someone looks per se, which is what appearance means to many people, but rather how they carry themselves, do they energize a room, do they get people excited about getting on board.

The result of this effort is a refreshed perspective on the same powerful leadership model that details what behaviors enable leaders to engage, inspire, align and motivate people to act.

A rigorous and thoughtful process

The process we used was thoughtful and thorough. We sought input from some of the biggest companies in the world, who are our clients, and we asked them to share with us what questions they found ambiguous and why. We went out to our own global sphere of influencers and asked them to help us think through what might need to change. We assembled a panel of assessment experts, as well as experts in diversity and inclusion, to analyze and vet the questions and options for changes. We then tested and validated the new questions to ensure that we are able to preserve the validity of the assessment and continue to rely on the data we have been collecting for 7 years as a powerful research base in the continuing work we are doing to understand what really matters for leaders.

Measuring and tapping into the power of executive presence more important than ever

The world is moving faster than ever, and leaders are facing bigger challenges, as they steer their companies beyond the pandemic, into a high growth, and more diverse and inclusive mode. The biggest challenge CEOS are facing right now is the challenge of talent and leadership. Leaders need to be able to perform at their best and pivot and flex in unprecedented ways. They need actionable data to be able to address the areas with the most impact for their own situation.

A 360 assessment like the ExPITM is a critical tool to make this happen. ExPITM measures perceptions of a leader’s behaviors, behaviors that sometimes don’t land the way they are intended. Many 360s focus on skills and activities, not on behaviors. While personality assessments like the Hogan or other assessments provide insight, the ability to get hard data to understand how peers, managers, direct reports and key stakeholders perceive a leader is an unparalleled way to uncover blind spots, identify strengths and move the needle rapidly. Now is the time to arm leaders with all the available tools to accelerate their performance and lead their organizations along with them.

In a nutshell

  • The ExPITM0 is not a “PC” exercise, but rather it is a strategic revisit and refresh to make sure the survey content aligns with the intent.
  • This is an important opportunity to ensure that as a leadership model it reflects an inclusive and representative view of what leaders need now to engage, align, inspire and motivate others to act.
  • The ExPITM is still the same powerful leadership model, backed by a deep database of leadership data and insights that can be mined to advance the impact of individual leaders and the leadership bench.
  • Executive presence – the behaviors that enable a leader to inspire, align and motivate people to act – is not only more relevant than ever, but the path forward for leaders in this new, challenging and changing world.

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