Our nonprofit and association clients often say they are looking for a certain presence in candidates for leadership positions. They want someone who inspires confidence in their organization, who can lead their teams to deliver results, and who their community can trust. They are looking for someone with executive presence. While it is hard to define broadly in measurable terms, understanding what executive presence means in your organization’s context is essential to finding a candidate who embodies it. Here’s a framework to help you think about it.

What Executive Presence Isn’t

Historically, executive presence has been associated with a boisterous personality: someone who is unapologetically confident, takes charge, and dominates every room they walk into. That stereotype is outdated and deeply biased.

Executive presence isn’t posturing, being charismatic, or even looking the part. A person who shows these attributes is no more likely to help your organization thrive than anyone else. Overconfidence can actually be detrimental, leading to poor decision-making and a disconnect from the team.

A Better Definition of Executive Presence

Countless articles, books, and blog posts describe executive presence in one way or another. Some refer to vague, innate qualities, “you’ll know it when you see it.” But that swings the door wide open to bias, intentional or not.

In the International Journal of Leadership in Public Service, Stephen Long sums it up as a successful track record, establishing trust through high performance, self-management, and relationship management skills. A study from Cornell University by Sebastian Heppner and Tung-Ling Wang simplifies it to character, substance, and style.

Our favorite definition comes from Maria R. Shirey in the Journal of Nursing Administration, “Executive presence is the influence and engagement needed to drive change in organizations and broader society.” That explanation allows you to define executive presence based on the impact unique to your organization, making the intangible measurable.

What Are You Looking For?

Attributes and soft skills commonly associated with executive presence are communication, composure and adaptability, authenticity, emotional intelligence, and confidence. They are vitally important to successful leadership.

The problem with evaluating candidates for these qualities is that they are rarely defined; most everyone involved in the hiring process will have an opinion, and those opinions often stem from previous personal and professional experiences. They are unrelated to what your organization needs now.

The Staffing Advisors team recommends treating desired attributes or soft skills like any job competency: define them with context specific to your organization and develop a consistent way to look for them in interviews with candidates. (Read about the core elements and advantages of using a competency-driven approach to hiring here.)

We’ll dig into two examples: communication and adaptability.

What Communication Do Your Stakeholders Need?

The ability to communicate persuasively is essential for any executive. But what that looks like in your organization depends on the audience.

Who will this leader be speaking to, and in what capacity? Does one group of stakeholders require someone who can respond quickly and take action without consultation? Does another require group decision-making?

Consider all the audiences and stakeholders your new hire will work with, write down the relevant communication skills, and develop a consistent method to assess them in interviews.

Some general prompts to guide your thinking about candidates’ communication abilities:

  • How do they articulate their thoughts? How do they present information? How would they communicate the same information to audiences with different purposes?
  • How do they listen? Do they actively engage? Do they ask follow-up questions or reference earlier points from the conversation?
  • How do they respond to questions? How do they react when they don’t know the answer? Do they ask for more information when needed?

What Adaptability Does Your Organization Require?

Any leader needs to be flexible and pivot. How quickly and often do scenarios change in your organization? Are you responding to unexpected shifts outside your organization, like new legislation or healthcare policy? Or are changes more likely to come from within, perhaps a team struggling with turnover as you restructure?

Once you identify the kind of adaptability your organization needs, hypothetical interview questions can be particularly effective in evaluating how a candidate might react in similar situations.

Present the candidate with a scenario that reflects the adaptability needed for your business context. Listen to their answer, observe their thinking, and ask them to pivot. How flexible are they in their thinking? Does their approach meet your organization’s needs?

A work sample test is the perfect medium to present this type of scenario and allows you to evaluate the candidate’s key functional skills, soft skills, and attributes simultaneously. You’ll see how they do the work, think about the work, talk about the work, and adapt. Learn how to create a work sample assignment here.

We All Have Biases, and We All Need to Check Them

Individuals perceive others based on their own experiences and their roles in an organization—these are our biases. Finance people are going to look at candidates one way; program staff will look at them another. Your definition of confidence in leadership may look like quick decision-making; mine may look like deep contemplation before acting.

If you’ve had successful leaders who came from Ivy League schools, your team may associate an Ivy League education with executive presence and be inclined to overlook candidates without that same experience. That’s what you need to identify. If you are aware of what you give preference to, you can get ahead of it. Encourage anyone interviewing candidates to think about their personal and professional biases ahead of time so they don’t unfairly inform the hiring decision.

Defining what you are looking for in clear terms also helps to avoid making judgments based on superficial aspects, such as appearance, gender, ethnicity, or age. Read more about common biases that get in the way of hiring here.

Specificity Is Measurable, Vague Attributes Are Not

Hiring managers have the opportunity to shape the future leadership of their organizations. Focusing on objective, context-specific traits and continually checking biases can lay the groundwork for leadership that truly embodies your organization’s values and can drive real impact.

The more specific you can be about what your organization needs, the better you’ll be able to identify it in interviews with candidates. This framework is effective for evaluating any soft skill or trait that is harder to define. Instead of relying on “you’ll know it when you see it,” you’ll know it when the candidate has met your specified criteria.

We’d Love to Help You Hire Better

Helping clients identify, define, and measure key job competencies, soft skills, and working styles throughout the interview process is what we love to do best. If you’d like to learn more, check out the resources in our Employer Guide to Interviewing (no sign-up or email required). Or better yet, contact us and let’s talk. We take pride in being thought partners to those in the Washington, DC, association and nonprofit communities, whether they become clients or not.

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