The phrase “I know it when I see it” is a colloquial expression by which a speaker attempts to categorize an observable fact or event, although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters. The phrase was famously used in this sense by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to describe his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964). Obscenity is not protected speech under the Miller test, and can therefore be censored.
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that. [Emphasis added.]
—Justice Potter Stewart,
concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio 378 U.S. 184 (1964),
regarding possible obscenity in The Lovers.
The US Supreme Court helped make the phrase “I know it when I see it” legitimate, as described in the wikipedia entry (above), but that doesn’t mean it’s as useful as we might like. The speaker may know “it,” but the listener is left feeling dumb — when it’s the speaker’s inability to communicate that is the subtext of the exchange.
So when I hear people explain the (for them) unexplainable in this way, I cringe. Unless I know the speaker well, and know their track record of judgments, I always suspect they really don’t know “it” (whatever “it” is) when they see it — and that the phrase is just a way to cover that up, and perhaps cover up a prejudice or otherwise non-sensical justification.
I was reminded of this recently when I heard someone describe Executive Presence as undefinable, but “we know it when we see it”. I cringed. I could never look a client in the eyes and say “I can’t tell you what it is, but I know it when I see it” and not feel like an idiot. If I cannot describe what something is, I don’t believe I have the right to pass judgment. (Never mind that, in this case, I actually believed the person who said it really does know what executive presence is.)
So I decided to make a quick list of some attributes of what Executive Presence consists of. This is based on coaching exchanges and discussions and endless calibrations on particular topics. Such a list is important since it helps remove the inconsistent criteria used in large companies for deciding who, what, and when to hire in or promote into their “executive ranks.”
To be sure, even possessing this “presence” is insufficient, and conversely sometimes unnecessary, to succeed — but I’d really like to see a “lack of executive presence” banished from our vocabulary. Let’s get at more specific examples, that we have a better chance of understanding, and take the obfuscation out of the equation. Not only will it appear less capricious, but we will actually be able to look for and coach about the particular features that matter most in a particular context. We may also remove the prejudices and biases that lurk in unexamined, generalized statements about “presence” which have been used in indefensible manners to pass over women (for example) for leadership positions for decades.
In my list, I have deliberately left out superficial class distinctions like poise, diction, personal grooming and clothes, but these are, unfortunately, foundational in some businesses and roles, so don’t overlook them if you have to play in that space. But remember, there is a gray area where these class distinction bleed over into race, gender, national original, and cultural distinctions, so I strongly recommend against going there.
That said, here are some key factors which can constitute “executive presence” in almost all environments. This list is not exhaustive. Rather, it’s a starting point for getting more precise about what we are talking about.
Intelligent risk taking; action without waiting for complete data; willingness to fail quickly and course correct.
Thinking and acting outside the box (question rules, with good intent) and Being Flexible; Agile; having the courage to ask for forgiveness vs. permission when it’s right for the company
Strong relationships with cross functional peers, regardless of level
Addresses conflict directly and demonstrates a willingness to have courageous, crucial conversations — Someone who speaks up yet speaks with empathy
Seen as a ‘go to’ person by other executives
Ability to up level the discussion, see the bigger picture, and cut-to-the-chase