Moving Beyond the Leadership Plateau

Published: Apr 23, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Meghan McGrath aand David Casullo

This type of feedback can be perplexing and frustrating for high-performing leaders. After all, there’s never been a clear, shared language that describes executive presence. It’s an acknowledged X-factor in leadership, yet more often than not people say, “I know it when I see it.” That is hardly a roadmap for leaders who want to develop the qualities that will get them noticed for the next role.

In Nick’s case, this view developed after he presented to the executive team. It wasn’t his presentation skill; Nick delivered a well-organized, thoughtful presentation on how to cut the company’s healthcare costs. He appeared confident and composed in front of the senior team; however, he didn’t present his solution with the “big picture” strategy in mind. What he failed to do was demonstrate his appreciation for another strategic issue. The CEO and executive team believed that if they cut plan amenities, it risked driving away key employees who couldn’t afford to take care of their sick loved ones without these benefits.

Nick’s number crunching was impeccable; his confidence in his solution was undeniable; however, he didn’t demonstrate an enterprise-wide view. He needed to show an appreciation for the complexity of the challenge and develop a better solution. During his next performance review, Nick was given feedback that he was “too much in the weeds” and that he needed to “work on executive presence.”

Stuck in the “Leadership Plateau”
It’s not uncommon to see leaders at this level with superb technical skills, business acumen, and work ethic. These qualities are important, but they don’t predict success as a senior leader. The multitude of qualities required in a senior leadership role have as much to do with personal, cultivated attributes of leadership as with the skills that high-potential leaders develop in middle management roles.

A leader aspiring to move from middle manager to director or from SVP or EVP into the C-suite can get stuck at a leadership plateau. This is the point at which many become disillusioned; they’re doing great work, admired by their teams, valued by their bosses, but not able to move ahead.

Our research into executive presence has affirmed there are certain qualities of leadership that differentiate top leaders, and while these qualities may be difficult to articulate, they are critical to success. Whether the plateau describes you or people you lead, it’s important to understand why some leaders move forward, why others don’t, and what can be done about it.

The Science of Executive Presence
Prior to now there has been no real, science-based definition of executive presence. We took a research-based approach to developing a model and advising leaders about how to develop it. What we’ve learned through our research is that these so-called “soft” aspects of leadership are the ones related to inspiring above and beyond effort, mobilizing and aligning teams, and lifting organizational performance. These are the qualities that enable leaders to move out of plateaus and be ready for the next level of complexity and challenge.

The Bates Model of EP is based on extensive review of decades of research in management, psychology, leadership, communication, philosophy, and social action theory. It describes executive presence as much more than “commanding a room” or “gravitas.” The model has three dimensions:

  • Character represents those qualities we develop early in life. It has five facets—Authenticity, Integrity, Concern, Restraint, and Humility—which are key to establishing credibility and building trust.
  • Substance represents qualities we develop along the way as we mature as leaders. The facets include Practical Wisdom, Confidence, Composure, Resonance, and Vision—a variety of related capabilities that touch on pragmatic and prudent decision making and the social-emotional savvy necessary to respond and react to various people and situations.
  • Style refers to how we actively approach execution, especially through others. It includes Appearance, Intentionality, Interactivity, Inclusiveness, and Assertiveness; all related to how a leader sets the tone, engages others, sustains focus, checks alignment, and addresses difficult situations without delay.

We used this model to create the first-ever scientific assessment of executive presence, the Bates Executive Presence Index or ExPI™ --a multi-rater assessment. Leaders rate themselves and compare their own perceptions to those of a supervisor, peers, direct reports, and other stakeholders. Through an interview process that establishes the leader’s business imperatives and leadership challenges, the leader gets a view of his or her strengths and developmental themes which motivate and inspire them by demonstrating the relevance to real-time situations.

The goal of the ExPI is not to get perfect scores in each of the 15 leadership facets, but rather to make leaders aware of their strengths and areas that might be keeping them on that plateau. Once leaders have that invaluable feedback about how others perceive them, they can begin to address the issues in a meaningful way.

Applying the ExPI
Let’s see how the ExPI can give us real insight into where leaders are strong as well as where they might need some expert assistance. With Nick, we could see that he had strengths in substance areas such as Confidence and Composure. He also rated highly on character qualities such as Authenticity and Integrity.

However, Nick was also perceived by senior leaders as lacking the Practical Wisdom, or highly-honed qualities of insight and judgment that get to the heart of issues and produce prudent decision. He also appeared to lack Resonance with the senior leadership; he was not attuned to the complexity of their business objectives.

The Case of Maureen
Applying the model to another leader is a good way to demonstrate the flexibility of the EP model – every leader is different, and the strengths that leader brings to the work can determine whether he or she is the “right fit” for the job.
Maureen was also a rising leader advised to work on executive presence; however, her challenges were different. Her team saw her as a caring, people-oriented leader, good at listening, and always giving others credit where it was due. She was known for taking on any project, chipping in, and helping out. ExPI showed real strengths in the facets of Concern, Humility, and Inclusiveness.

However, Maureen received low ratings on Vision. Her good nature was working against her as her inclination to “just say yes” to any number of meetings, committees, and tasks prevented her from managing her time. She didn’t have the energy or focus to develop an exciting future vision. As she became aware of how she was perceived, she was motivated and energized to take time to develop the state of the future and communicate it to her team.
Through that example, it should become clear that an assessment should not put a leader in a box, but rather enable the leader to appreciate the qualities they have and can develop. Most of these relate to the ability to motivate, inspire, engage, align, and, ultimately, drive results.

Developing Executive Presence

As a rising leader, it is imperative to understand what qualities others recognize as strengths and where your gaps may get in the way of advancing. To move beyond the leadership plateau, you need to understand the impact you have on others, and develop a plan to address gap areas and amplify these qualities. When people begin to notice these qualities, it will take you to the next level.

Here are three important steps you can take:

  1. Get feedback from people you trust
    Ask for feedback and listen to peers, direct reports, and supervisors when they give you advice. The best way to do this is through a formal 360 assessment tool. This can guide you to understand your blind spots—as well as strengths you can leverage to show up as the leader you want to be. Make sure you have a qualified partner
  2. Don’t underestimate so-called “soft” facets
    What differentiates great leaders from others are not so much the business and technical skills, it’s this X-factor: The personal qualities that inspire trust and goodwill. Creating followership and galvanizing people to act are qualities measured by the ExPI model, which we know are tied both to leadership excellence and organizational performance.
  3. Make time to develop executive presence
    To become the leader you want to be, you need to devote time and energy to your own development. Meeting the demands of a leadership role in any organization can easily catch up to you; your schedule will always fill up. If you aren’t aware of the importance of investing in yourself, you can become stressed and overwhelmed, and this in turn guarantees you will not show up as the leader you want to be.
    It’s important to take care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally, to bring the energy each day to your work as a leader. It’s also important to enroll in leadership courses, read books, and--if you can--hire a coach. To show up as a Resonant leader, to be Composed in a crisis, to promote Interactivity, and to be Intentional in the way you lead takes time and energy. Self-care and time for learning is a key part of sustaining your leadership path and achieving your dreams.

Final Thoughts
You probably have some inkling about what your strengths and developmental needs are. In our experience in coaching high potentials, we’ve found that most leaders are rarely blindsided by formal assessment feedback. However, they often are stung by the magnitude or scope of the issue. A tool like the ExPI in combination with other assessments—such as the Hogan or 360 interviews—can be invaluable for leaders wanting a laser focus on what they need to do to maximize their executive presence and influence.
A multi-rater assessment provides meaningful objective feedback for identifying and utilizing your specific strengths and gap areas. Solving for your own “X-factor” takes time, but it’s invaluable to your career track. Many organizations now recognize that executive presence is essential to driving change, promoting innovation, creating flexibility, and promoting agility. You’ll stand out as a leader who gets things done by winning hearts and minds.

About the Author(s)

Meghan McGrath and David Casullo are with Bates. Casullo is  president of Bates ( and author of Leading the High-Energy Culture (McGraw Hill). He leads a team of seasoned consultants and coaches that help executives drive business results through communicative leadership and executive presence. Casullo’s experience as a senior executive and corporate HR leader drives his passion for leadership development and strategy.Meghan McGrath is a marketing and public relations associate for Bates. She joined the firm in 2012 after graduating from Fairfield University with a BA in Journalism. McGrath helps execute strategic marketing and public relations initiatives, including the firm's web strategy, content marketing, event marketing, speaking engagements, social media, and branding.