Suzanne Bates on becoming “all the leader you can be”: Part 2 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: Now please shift your attention to All the Leader You Can Be. When and why did you decide to write it?

Bates: For years when we went into companies to discuss how we could help their leaders be most effective, we heard people say, “Our leaders need to develop executive presence.” When we asked if they could define that for their leaders, they’d often pause, and say, “I’m not sure, but I know it when I see it.” The trouble with that is it doesn’t give guidance to leaders about how they can become all they can be.

One day I attended a conference and the speaker’s topic was executive presence. Everyone flocked into the room, though typically you find people lingering at the coffee stand. However, most of what was discussed was based on a survey. And that’s how it had always been with executive presence – most people form their views of it based on observation, surveys and guesswork. I came back from that event and brought together a group to develop a research based model.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Bates: What happened was the research affirmed what our guts had told us for a long time – that executive presence has to do with the whole of the person. It’s much more than presentation skill, charisma or savvy. It shows up in three dimensions of the leader’s persona – character, substance and style. It’s now clear that for a leader to influence and make an impact, it is important for them to also develop qualities such as authenticity, integrity, resonance, practical wisdom, and vision.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ [begin italics] significantly [end italics] from what you originally envisioned?

Bates: I started out believing it would be a book on the research that would mostly interest those in the field of leadership development. As we started working with leaders, providing them with assessment feedback, noticing the impact it was having on them, and their teams, a real story unfolded, and the book became what it is now – a guide to leaders who want to understand their strengths, and also appreciate how to enhance their leadership.

Morris: You suggest that there is a “science of achieving extraordinary executive presence.” What are its core principles?

Bates: The core philosophy we share with leaders is that everyone can develop these qualities in themselves. We all have strengths, but where we have gaps, we can make small changes in our behavior that make a big difference in how others see us as leaders. As such, we depart with some popular assessments and leadership books that put leaders in a box, label their strengths and send the message that, “this is who you are.” One of my favorite quotes from Thomas Edison is, “If we all did the things we are capable of doing we would astound ourselves.” I believe leadership is a journey of learning and growing.

Many executives do indeed possess extraordinary executive presence but are, in fact, con artists. In your opinion, how best to detect the sometimes immense gap between appearances and reality?

Bates: By our definition of executive presence, a con artist as you put it would never be rated highly in presence. That’s because we measure others’ perceptions of qualities of character including integrity and authenticity. You really can’t fake these qualities. People believe what they see. When we ask peers, direct reports and others to respond to the Bates ExPI Survey, they are evaluating leaders in these qualities, through a set of questions that were developed from research and validated by an independent panel of Ph.D. experts. So we’re confident we measure the right things and that what the assessment yields is a true picture of how the leader is viewed.

Morris: Please explain “The Bates ExPI: Assessment, Reliability, and Validity.” When is it of greatest value?

Bates: The greatest value of the assessment is in its ability to provide an accurate reflect of that leader’s presence, which in turn gives him or her a view of what is working and not working. We’ve validated the questions, and conducted reliability tests to be sure that we have it right.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many people doubt, ignore, or deny the best of who they could become?

Bates: We become overly reliant on the strengths that got us where we are today. We also become isolated as we move up in the organization. Unless we have the benefit of assessment, and unless we invite feedback on our leadership, we continue to lean on strengths that can actually work against us, and fail to expand our leadership style in a way that makes us more effective.

For example, many leaders rely on confidence, the ability to make timely decisions, and hold themselves and others accountable. But some of these leaders have not yet developed resonance, the ability to read the room, understand and appreciate the thoughts and emotions of others. If they don’t “dial up” the resonance, they will miss important data or information that would help them make better decisions, and earn credibility that is essential to driving outcomes. They will not have people on board with their decisions, which sets up the proverbial scenario where a leader is making decisions, looking back and finding no one is behind him or her.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me in Part 1 (Chapters 1-4). What do you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these?

First, Building the EP [Executive Presence] Model (8-10)

Bates: We started with the idea that we must reflect a holistic view of the leader, in three dimensions, character, substance and style. Character consists of the qualities that win trust whereas substance consists of the qualities that earn us credibility; style is the dimension of execution – getting others to get things done.

Morris: Lessons from the Bates ExPI Pilot Study (17-18)

Bates: It was exciting to see how leaders embraced the model of presence – it was intuitive – they got it – and appreciated for the first time that they could obtain candid, constructive feedback on aspects of presence that are rarely addressed in performance reviews.

Morris: With regard to the fundamentals that build trust and good will, what do you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these?

First, Authenticity (23-25)

Bates: It’s the quality of being real, genuine, transparent and sincere in one’s relations and interactions with others.

Morris: Integrity (25-28)

Bates: the leader consistently acts according to a set of values and beliefs and lives up to high standards of morality and promise-keeping

Morris: Concern (28-31)

Bates: Demonstrating interest in others, encouraging their development, and expressing care for their concerns

Morris: Restraint (31-33)

Bates: a calm disposition, characterized by reasonableness. This leader avoids emotional extremes and impulsiveness.

Morris: Humility (33-38)

Bates: Sometimes misunderstood – it isn’t just knowing where you’ve come from, but making room for others’ ideas and being open to them. Very important in times of change and when driving innovation.

Morris: With regard to qualities that inspire others to go above and beyond, what do you view as the most important point or key take-away in each of these?

First, Practical Wisdom (40-42)

Bates: Highly honed qualities of insight and judgment that get to the heart of issues and help leaders guide teams to produce prudent decisions

Morris: Confidence (43-47)

Bates: Ability to guide teams to make decisions, accept risk and responsibility and take timely action

Morris: Composure (48-52)

Bates: Steady in a crisis, able to calm and focus other people and bring objectivity to decision making

Morris: Resonance (52-56)

Bates: Connecting with people, being attuned to what’s happening, understanding their thoughts and motivations, deepening alignment.

Morris: Vision (56-58)

Bates: This involves not only having an inspiring view of what could be, but also — even more important — helping others see it and engaging them in the strategy

Morris: For more than 30 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in All the Leader You Can Be, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

There have been and will be occasions when I will be speaking to CEOs of companies from $10 to $400 million. I see myself in them. I’m the CEO of a small growing company, and at each stage of our growth, it’s become apparent to me that I need to adapt my leadership style and learn new approaches. When I completed the assessment, asking my own team to provide feedback on the 15 qualities of presence, I learned a lot about the leader I have yet to become.

While it was heartening to get good feedback, it also clarified for me the impact I had on others when I was under stress. It inspired me to be more. I say this with a tremendous amount of humility. I have worked with leaders for 17 years. But I’m also a leader myself, and I can honestly say I feel deeply the privilege and responsibility that come with being a CEO. It is incumbent upon us to become all we can be, not only for ourselves, but for our companies.

The Japanese term kaizen means continuous improvement and that refers to people as well as to companies.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

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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