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Suzanne Bates on becoming “all the leader you can be”: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Bates (Head)Before launching Bates Communications and becoming a recognized thought leader in communicative leadership, Suzanne Bates had a successful career in television news, as an anchor and reporter in major markets. “20 years in broadcasting taught her how to be prepared… to show up ready for the game. This helped her to launch her business and prepare her initial clients for the spotlight.

“As our firm grew, we expanded our work to consulting with senior leaders and teams to drive strategic outcomes, by communicating in a powerful way with their important audiences. We delved into the world of executive presence, and developed the first science-based model, now used around the world. I’m fortunate to have top talent who today advise senior executives in some of the top global companies. And as CEO of a growing firm, I’ve had a wonderful journey to becoming a leader of a growing organization.

“I grew up in the Midwest, went to the University of Illinois, and lived around the country during my first career. I now live in the Boston area with my husband, and our daughter has graduated from college and has successfully launched her career in marketing.”

Bates Communications offers strategic communications consulting, executive coaching, workshops, executive presence seminars and boot camps. Clients are a who’s who of the Fortune 1000. Her book, All the Leader You Can Be: The Science of Achieving Extraordinary Executive Presence, was published by McGraw-Hill Education (March 2016).

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Morris: Before discussing All the Leader You Can Be, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

My father was an attorney, entrepreneur and leader in the community, who very much shaped my view of myself and encouraged me to believe I could do anything I set out to do. My first career dream was to become a judge, and I’ll never forget his telling me, “You can do anything you want to do.” When I decided after college to pursue a career in television, there were few women in the field. I was the first woman to work in the first newsroom I joined, and the first woman to anchor the news in the next two cities where I worked. But because my father never saw barriers for women, I didn’t see them myself.

My father was an avid reader who was intellectually curious, a quality I admired and wanted to emulate. This has always been an advantage – being curious about the world and interested in learning served me well as a reporter, and serves me as a leader. What drives me is learning, innovating, creating and making things happen.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

After 20 years I decided to leave television because I wanted to grow as a person and a professional. Although I didn’t have a grand plan, I did have a desire to chart my own destiny. I’d seen my father grow his practice, I’d seen him invest in businesses, some that succeeded and some that failed. I wasn’t afraid, just ready for a new chapter. I look back on that decision as a turning point. Had I not decided to leave a comfortable salary, and a profession I knew, I would never have learned what I learned about myself. I wouldn’t have known that I had what it takes to succeed in business. It was life changing to challenge myself this way. I have talked with many people who are considering a career transition, and what I tell them is feel the fear, and do it anyway.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Bates: My formal education was a B.S. in Television Journalism, although I had an excellent liberal arts education prior to choosing my major. While what I learned in school certainly helped me get a start in my first career, like most people, what I learned on the job was so much more. For example, as a reporter, I learned the art of asking great questions, listening, and telling a story. I didn’t realize how valuable these skills would be when I started my business, began coaching, writing and speaking. I look at education as a lifelong journey.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you went to work full-time for the first time? Why?

I often tell people that when I completed my first year in business, I sat down with my accountant, who complimented me for getting the firm off the ground and generating revenue that first year. Then he said, “I’d like to talk with you today about accounts receivable,” to which I replied, “Great…….what are accounts receivable?” I didn’t know what I didn’t know. A business degree might have been handy, but like most entrepreneurs, I’ve learned on the job. Today I tell people I have an on the job Ph.D. in accounts receivable!

Morris: Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.

Bates: I’m not sure it’s about business principles, but one of the greatest movies of all time is based on one of the greatest books, To Kill a Mockingbird. The film, like the book, is filled with warmth and humor, but it explores issues of intolerance. The hero, Atticus Finch, has the courage to stand up for principles. Principled leadership is the highest and best form of leadership – and I’m always inspired by leaders with character. As a matter of fact, a core part of our work in executive presence is how character plays a role in leadership. We developed a breakthrough, science-based assessment that measures a leader’s presence, and one third of the qualities we measure are in the category of character.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-tse’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Bates: Obviously, leaders can’t do all the work the work of the organization. What they must do, therefore, is engage, inspire, align, and energize people to be productive. Our work aligns very much with the Tao philosophy of the leader’s role in getting work done. It is a philosophy of empowerment.

Morris: From Michael Porter: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

Bates: After 17 years of working with top leaders, my view is this is one of the primary reasons they rise to the top. We are all consumed and often overwhelmed by the number of meetings on our calendars, emails in our inboxes, and items on our to do lists. Great leaders are able to discern what is urgent and important and always put that on the top of the pile. This is a discipline that everyone who aspires to great leadership must cultivate.

Morris: From Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.”

At the heart of our work at Bates is the desire to help leaders bridge from plan to execution. This is where most strategies fail. We’ve researched the qualities that enable leaders to execute – in our model of executive presence, these are qualities such as inclusiveness, interactivity and intentionality. We know from decades of research in the field of leadership and management, social action theory, and communication theory, that these are qualities that enable leaders to inspire others to get things done.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.”

Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Bates: Change is difficult for most people. It’s often said that leaders need to communicate in such a way that people understand and embrace the “why” of change. We also believe leaders need to create a safe, healthy, productive environment where people feel free to speak up, raise issues, find shared purpose and work themselves to overcome barriers.

Qualities such as assertiveness (making healthy conflict possible), composure (steadiness in times of change and challenge), inclusiveness (inviting many people to contribute), and resonance (paying attention to people’s thoughts and feelings) are essential to driving change.

In addition, qualities such as humility (respecting others views), practical wisdom (getting to the heart of the matter) and vision (painting an exciting picture of what could be) contribute to overcoming resistance and driving real change.

Morris: Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Bates: I’ve seen futurists talk about how the speed of business (and life) will keep accelerating. I can say that even in the last two to three years, I’ve noticed a quickening of the pace of communication in society. For example, the news cycle used to be 24 hours, it’s now closer to 8. A breaking story in the morning is old news by afternoon.

Another trend that I think is with us for the longer term is volatility. We used to look at it as an aberration. Today it is a given. The two phenomena, speed and volatility, are closely related. Whether you’re the CEO of an entrepreneurial start-up or a global 1,000 company, this is going to be your reality. CEOs will need to become more sophisticated and adept at communicating, engaging, inspiring, and aligning their organizations. They’ll need to embrace that high-impact communication is job one.

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Suzanne cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

To learn more about the Bates ExPI assessment, and how we work with CEOs and executives, please click here and you’ll also find a vast library of articles, videos and executive briefings that will be of interest to senior leaders.

To take a pre-assessment survey that will guide you to understanding qualities of presence that might be relevant to you, please click here.

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