“The New Rules Of Executive Presence: Inclusivity As Leadership Skill”: Misty Gaither (Indeed) & Paria Rajai (ModelExpand) (Video + Transcript)

May 23, 2024

Inspired by new research from economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett that shows the criteria for leadership have shifted in the last decade, Misty Gaither (Indeed Vice President & Global Head of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belong) and Paria Rajai (ModelExpand CEO & Founder) speak about how while confidence and decisiveness continue to be important, recent studies highlight the significance of inclusiveness — showing respect for others, actively listening, and embodying authenticity — as top valued factor for executive presence.


In this ELEVATE session, Misty Gaither (Indeed Vice President & Global Head of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Belong) and Paria Rajai (ModelExpand CEO & Founder) speak about being inspired by new research from economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett that shows the criteria for leadership have shifted in the last decade.

While confidence and decisiveness continue to be important, recent studies highlight the significance of inclusiveness — showing respect for others, actively listening, and embodying authenticity — as top valued factor for executive presence.

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Misty Gaither ELEVATE evolution of leadership requires us to create spaces where people feel comfortable

Transcript of ELEVATE Session:

Paria Rajai:

Yes, thanks Angie. And hi, everybody. Happy International Women’s Day. We’re so excited to be here with all of you. What we’re going to discuss today, as Angie mentioned, is executive presence in the modern era, the rising importance of inclusivity as a leadership skill. It’s something we’ve definitely been seeing.

What we thought we’d do is we’d start off with introductions, and then share a little bit about really the impetus for this conversation and the study around it. And then really have a conversation with the hope that you’ll all lead with practical skills on how you can embed inclusive leadership into your leadership skills. If you’re a budding leader, how can you start to grow this skill a little bit more? W’re really excited to get started. We can kick it off with introductions. Misty, if you want to start off and to make things a little fun, as you introduce yourself, let us know what was your first or last concert.

Misty Gaither:

I will do that. Hi, everyone. My name is Misty Gaither. I’m so happy to be here. My pronouns are she/her, and I’ll give an accessibility disclosure. I’m a Black woman, my hair is to the back off of my face, I have on a bold lip, a black shirt with a tan sweater, and my background is white.

I’m currently the Vice President of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging at Indeed. We are the world’s leading job search engine and we are helping job seekers in a ton of countries. Over 350 million unique job seekers use our site every single day. My first concert was actually MC Hammer and I wore Hammer pants according to my mom. And just for fun, my last concert was the Tony! Toni! Toné! Reunion tour, Raphael Saadiq, revisits Tony! Toni! Toné! Back over to you Paria.

Paria Rajai:

Love it. That sounds so fun. My name is Paria Rajai and my pronouns are she/her and I’m the CEO of ModelExpand, which is a strategic workplace advisory firm. We work a lot, especially with tech companies around how do you update, how you hire, how you keep people given the modern workforce. We work a lot with lots with DEI teams, HR and people teams and talent acquisition teams as well. We’ve worked with companies like Udemy, Twitch, Lucasfilm, I mean so many tech companies.

I’m really excited to have this conversation and bring in our vantage point around having the front seat of seeing how leadership has evolved in a lot of these different organizations. And I’m also wearing a cream sweater, we did not coordinate. I have a white background, long black hair, smaller hoop earrings, but I think there’s definitely a lot of similarities in terms of our outfits today, but we didn’t plan that.

All right, so yes, please feel free to also chime in during the chat. We’ll take a look at everything you put in, try to answer questions and just would love to have you all engage in the conversation as well because I know there’s a lot of incredible leaders watching here today. And yeah, let us know your first and last concert. My first concert was Boyz II Men, Tevin Campbell and Babyface. I often say I peaked pretty early because I don’t know how you beat that. Although my last concert was also Usher, so I just have really good [inaudible] I know-

Misty Gaither:

That was a good one. That was a good one.

Paria Rajai:

All right. And we got Diana Ross, “[inaudible] Stevie Wonder when I was 10.” That is incredible. That is really fantastic. Okay, well let’s get started.

I’m really excited to talk about this because it’s based on a study that was published by Economist Sylvia Hewlett and what she looked at was what does executive presence mean today? What’s especially fascinating is she did the same study 10 years ago. What continues to be valued for executive presence and what’s new, what’s different? What are we valuing now that we didn’t before?

What she found was that confidence and decisiveness continued to be valued in terms of what motivates for executive presence. But what was new this year was inclusive leadership and that wasn’t even on the radar 10 years ago, and all of a sudden it’s one of the top factors that we think about when we think of executive presence.

It’s really fascinating the shift in just a decade. And obviously there’s so many different factors she mentioned. She included the impact of Gen Z coming into the workforce. Social movements like Black Lives Matter, [inaudible] pandemic. I mean there’s so many different factors that have really changed the landscape in terms of what motivates teams and what we want from our leaders.

ne quick note, the way she defined inclusive leadership was showing respect for your team and to each other, modeling authenticity and being real, and then listening to learn. All of this, especially for some older institutions is very different. It’s definitely a shift in how we’ve been thinking and honoring about executive presence. But I want to pause there. Misty, anything resonate when you think about the study and that work?

Misty Gaither:

Yeah, it definitely is resonating and it tracks with a lot of the research that we’ve seen and research and studies that we’ve also conducted at Indeed. The other piece is the connection to just wellbeing and employee engagement and having a leader that is actually displaying more empathy, authenticity. Listening to actually learn because everyone can always learn no matter what position you hold, what seat you occupy is very different than having more of a top-down style where everything is done in this office that’s like a secret.

It’s exciting to see what she’s outlined. And I think we talked about this when we connected, but things that were categorized as soft skills and more strengths that are connected to women and folks with underrepresented genders are now things that are critical in terms of what it means to have executive presence, what it means to be a leader in the current time that we’re in today. This is really exciting information.

Paria Rajai:

Yes. And I know you work with a lot of leaders. In the goal of making our conversation really practical, is there a leader that you’ve seen exemplify this and what do they do?

Misty Gaither:

Absolutely. I am really fortunate to work for a woman that is on Forbes, one of the most powerful women in leadership. My CEO is phenomenal and I see it every single day. If I take a step back and thinking about what executive presence used to look like, I spent the majority of my career working in consumer packaged goods. I worked for Big Tobacco and then I worked in banking for JP Morgan Chase, so executive presence used to look like khaki pants, a navy blazer with the gold buttons. It didn’t look like what it looks like today.

My direct leader is a Black queer woman, does not have a college degree and she shares that, so I’m comfortable sharing that with you all here because that also shows just the vulnerability and the authenticity. How she communicates with me, really listening to my perspective, how she checks in especially in a world that is so hard. Literally I tell my team, “The world is like a dumpster fire on a NASCAR racetrack and I don’t know that we’re getting off anytime soon.”

It’s been really helpful to have someone who can see the body language because we do so much through Zoom right now and will take a pause and just say, “Well, how are you? Or how well are you doing?” It’s not just my one-to-one interactions with her, it’s also how I see her do that across the board. Also modeling, taking time to rest, taking time away from work I think is also a part of this inclusive leadership, demonstrating wellness and wellbeing.

Then I’ll just move over really quickly to my CEO. My CEO, Chris Himes, phenomenal person to work with and work for, especially in this space. Our mission at Indeed is to help people get jobs. I couldn’t have landed at a better place to do diversity work because it’s integral to our mission. He is so sincere when he’s speaking to any and everyone, he is a regular guy, you will see him in the office buildings having lunch, having conversations.

One thing in particular that he does that is something that can be taken back to organizations as a recommendation is really look at the composition of the org and say, even if I do Q&As, whose voices are getting drowned out by the majority, who am I not hearing from? So we have a woman leaders I’m listening tour with him, so VPs and above, we meet with him on a monthly basis. If you are underrepresented racial ethnic minority, we meet with him on a monthly basis.

When we looked at experiences of women and underrepresented genders, we found that no matter what marginalized group, whether it’s veterans, parents and caregivers, people with disabilities, unfortunately Black women fare at the worst when we looked at the data. He does a listening tour with Black women at Indeed. I’m giving you all tangible examples because that’s been my experience and I’ve been at Indeed for almost five years of how I’ve experienced inclusive leadership, how I’ve seen it play out for others in addition to myself.

Paria Rajai:

I feel like something that comes out for me is just he’s so intentional and so mindful about what voices are coming into the conversation and just actively listening.

Misty Gaither:

Exactly. I wanted to ask you a question as well about your experience with this. What are some ways that leaders can actually incorporate inclusivity in their daily management?

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, I love this question. We work a lot with people managers and training and oftentimes we hear things like, “My team’s not engaged or how do I keep them motivated?” It’s really interesting because we have to teach them inclusive leadership skills because it’s not natural for… Your CEO sounds incredible and sounds like an incredible model. I guess when people bring in ModelExpand, they don’t have that kind of amazing ecosystem. It is definitely a learning curve. A few things, there’s leaders in this room.

One of the things you could do is assign someone else to conduct the meeting. If you’re having meetings, weekly meetings, project meetings, it can be really almost natural to want to just start leading the whole thing and feel the need to do that actually.

But how we’re shifting is taking some time to think about who else on the team could lead this part of the meeting? Maybe you can rotate leadership, someone leading every week. And that does two things. One is it actually models you stepping down and having someone else step up, so there’s a power dynamic that shifts that you’re welcoming.

Then secondly, it gives someone on your team an opportunity to show and build their leadership skills. It’s a small step, but it can be a powerful one that we’ve seen. And then secondly that we’ve seen is that modeling and querying before advocacy.

When someone on your team shares an idea, instead of immediately coming in with your position, take a minute, listen, sometimes we encourage leaders, hit the mute button so that there’s that physical step that’ll stop you from immediately jumping in.

But take some time to listen, to ask questions, especially if it’s a way that you wouldn’t normally go after a solution. You’ll see oftentimes when you show curiosity, you do learn from your team and it is probably a different way than you’ve been doing things for a very long time. And again, it models within the team that when people have differing opinions, we don’t immediately bring in our own, we actually take the time to hear others and learn it, learn what’s coming up for them.

Again, it sounds like Misty, there’s a lot of that naturally at Indeed, which is really fantastic. What we work on is how do you keep that with middle managers, especially with the stress that they have and the pressure that they have and convincing them that this is the way to get your team to be engaged and quite frankly not check out. Those are just a couple things, I don’t know if you want to add anything.

Misty Gaither:

I would just say I want to one, thank you for the compliment. Indeed does a lot of things well. We are far from perfect. We are on journey with everybody on this call. And two things that come up when we talk about just inclusivity, a quote that stands out from a manager at a previous organization is people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I have carried that with me and that has paid dividends by simply checking in.

And then also a leader’s willingness to just simply say, “I could be wrong and I don’t know.” Those are so powerful and I think it complements what you just laid out when you invite other people and when you pause, and when you are curious and not certain. So sometimes it’s simple things that we can do and I hear my CEO say that, he’s like, “I can be wrong.” He will also tell you he’s good at math. But he was like, “I can be wrong.” And I tell people it shows vulnerability. Leaders are not expected to have all the answers and I think it connects back to what does this modern executive presence look like, versus it being the old school way and having to know everything.

Paria Rajai:

I love that. I think it also models that growth mindset that I know we’ve heard a lot about, but it is a big shift of being able to say, “This is what I’m thinking, but I know there’s other options or I’m open to learning,” versus this even a decade ago in the study where it feels like you have to know everything. You have to show that you’re the best and not show any mistakes. That is a real shift, especially for some industries or just even for some managers who have been operating a certain way for so long and now all of a sudden 2024, we’re asking them to be vulnerable, to be inclusive. And it’s very counter to even the models they probably had growing into their career.

One thing I would add to is showing empathy. I think you’ve touched on that and that is also a buzzword, but some examples… I know Misty, you and I were talking about this. But we talking to a woman, she was in Europe, this is a perfect example. She was in Europe at the end of her vacation and her boss called her and said… And the company’s going through a hard time and she is an executive. And he said, “Look, Allie, I know that…” Oh no, he just said, “Allie, we have these numbers, we have to turn them in. I don’t trust them. Can you take a look at it? I want you to be in beast mode and get it done. Let’s go.”

That was the tone he had and he hung up the phone and she didn’t feel good. She got the task done. But full transparency, she cried a little bit and she just didn’t feel good and got it done. Whereas if he had just approached it with empathy with just a few lines of, “Hey Al, I know you’re in the middle of your vacation. It’s in the middle of the night. I’m sorry to ask this. Is there any way you could help with this?”

And, just showing compassion. Then we see that the answer and the result is so much more of a team player when someone’s being seen, like you said, for who they are and showing that you care, they’ll come back and give you that as well. Again, it’s a different approach, but it is effective. And showing that empathy and just holding that space is really powerful.

Misty Gaither:

I know we have a question that we have to move to, but the other thing, I don’t think we’ve said the word psychological safety and how that also connects and ties into one, the story that you just shared and then also this new executive presence that’s expected.

I think so many leaders that in just the intergenerational workforce that we have, they’re like, “Psychological safety, you’re here to do a job. We don’t really care about everything else.” And candidly, I was one of those leaders when I was in a different industry, it was like, “Check your problems at the door.”

The evolution of leadership requires us to create spaces where people feel comfortable expressing what’s not working well for them. And if we have more of that, what leaders are also finding and there’s more data and empirical evidence that shows when you actually don’t have psychological safety, you are impacting the part of the person’s brain that’s making you money

Leaders are now having to connect the empathy, the compassion, the conversation, the transparency with revenue and innovation and competitiveness. And that’s going to be a long journey because we are dismantling years of practices that are no longer serving the current workforce. You can tell we’re both passionate about this, so we’re probably need to move on before we run out of time. Sorry.

Paria Rajai:

No, that’s great. One, I think the other thing that’s important to talk about is for some people they don’t have that environment. Their leadership, we’re talking about egalitarian approach or more inclusive approach. What is your advice for folks who don’t have that valued within the leadership within their own company? It’s just on a dynamic that exists, any advice you have there?

Misty Gaither:

My advice, and I know budgets are constrained for many people, but there is a tool that actually we implemented a new vendor named Apperian and my entire team took the profile assessment so we can just learn the best ways to work with one another. Part of it is one, see if you can get that tool, at least do a demo of it so you can actually show some proof points as to how that can be transformative. If you needed to do something let’s say tomorrow, I would say demonstrate what you need in an environment that is still status-driven versus egalitarian. When we use the Apperian tool, egalitarian versus status was one of the focused areas along with interdependent versus independent, direct versus indirect, risk versus certainty. And if you’re seeking more context, which if you have an egalitarian style, you want to understand the why behind an approach.

Maybe you can say something to your status-driven leader or team lead, you can say, “Hey, fully understanding the issue or problem we’re trying to solve is actually really helpful for how I’m going to determine my approach.” Hopefully people will see that as an invitation to explain the why and provide more context if they were just telling you to go and do a task. It also, you can say, “I really want to determine what level of priority this is because it sounds like it might be competing.” Then that also is another way to help get some more context, if you have a person that doesn’t just do that naturally.

Another thing you can do is ask questions. An interactive style is one that is really enjoyed by folks that have egalitarian styles. Ask questions during presentations. Appropriate, not to be too disruptive, but just to understand more.

I would say use your one-on-ones. Hopefully you’re having them weekly. That is a driver of engagement and wellbeing as well. To have conversations to connect to try and understand how you might be able to influence from whatever seat you’re in and find folks who are also egalitarian at your company to understand what are some things that you all can do that might resonate with your leader and what makes sense for the culture that you’re currently in. I so appreciate that. Paria, did you have anything you wanted to add?

Paria Rajai:

No, I did see a question about the name of the tool, if you want to put that into the chat box.

Misty Gaither:

I can drop it in the chat. I guess if we want to continue talking about just inclusive leadership, I’m curious because you work with a ton of different companies with ModelExpand, how have you seen inclusive leadership be valued with companies? Do you have any strong examples or case studies?

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, so one of my favorite partners that we have, they’re a video game streaming, and their head of talent acquisition said, “Look, we’re about to double our hiring.” Essentially we have created a culture that is collaborative, that is inclusive, especially in terms of leadership style and we don’t want to lose that because we’re hiring so fast. You can lose that, all of a sudden your culture changes.

What we talked about with him is creating inclusion as a competency for leaders. We built a set of questions. We define the competency, set up questions, create a rubric on how do you measure the answers in an interview for a leader. And we did a pilot of this and it was really powerful.

The pilot showed 90% found it effective in measuring inclusive leadership and the candidates that they were interviewing. But a secondary win was that it actually helped interviewers better understand inclusive leadership even for themselves and how to model it. It was even more effective than training. It was constantly enforced every time they’re looking to hire.

It really sent a signal throughout the company that this is so important in terms of how we lead that as we bring people on, we want this to be part of their competency. That was a huge success and a big part of that was the head of talent acquisitions said, “I want to make this structurally part of how we do things so we proactively don’t lose this part of our culture.”

Misty Gaither:

Thank you. I think that’s a really good example of just like to your point, proactively creating an environment that is more conducive for those of us who are on the margins and don’t always see ourselves reflected. I think so much of how we approach anything related to inclusion is always reactive.

I think we can maybe move into just some broader discussions. And a reminder if you have questions you can throw them in the chat, we’ve appreciated seeing the emoji responses.

We’ve left a little time at the end to hear from all of you, but we can just have a bit of a conversation and let them in as if they’re eavesdropping on our discussion and we can share some best practices of how can this discussion have an overall positive implication for gender representation in leadership, this approach. You want to take a stab at that first and then I can follow up?

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, I think the huge positive here is that people do have different approaches for leadership and sometimes it’s a bit more collaborative and because of executive presence and what we value there is shifting, it’s creating a wider net in terms of what we honor and what motivates and it creates a value that I think wasn’t there 10 years ago.

For gender representation especially, it’s creating a space and showing data that people may have different styles and it’s probably different from how we’ve been doing things and it’s effective. I think it’s a lot of positive momentum. It’s going to help with positive momentum.

Misty Gaither:

Yeah, definitely. And I think that it’s an expectation. We need to actually just do things all together different, and we haven’t really dove down into the topic around parents and caregivers. I know you have a little one and how that actually changes your experience at work and the things that are required and how it just creates better outcomes when you have the perspectives of women that are involved and women who are not timid. And this is Girl Geek. So really specifically women in technology, in technical roles, there are enough of us in HR and in legal and marketing. Getting up into the ranks of senior leadership is really, really something that can change by having this conversation. We did get some questions in the Q&A, so I clicked the little tab- [inaudible]

Paria Rajai:


Misty Gaither:

A question – Reagan saying, “My current CEO is a older straight white man, but he seems open to DEAI initiatives, though he seems to mostly approach them as a thought experiment and not something that requires more immediate action and change. Any advice to spur change?”

In the four minutes that we have, and we have another question from Julie, I will drop my CEO’s name into the chat because I think he is a great example of someone who people can model themselves after. I would just try and approach it… It’s very uncomfortable because I don’t know that he’s ever had to do this before. I would say speak the language that your CEO speaks.

What I mean by that is we want people to care the way that we care because we have the experience. But if he is driven by revenue, by innovation, connect the dots that way for him. You can also make recommendations of books that you’re reading that might not be on his bookcase. That’s also something my CEO has done and he has published his book list, which you’ll see it and it runs a gamut of people from all different backgrounds. I’ll turn it over to you to see if you have anything you want to add, so we can get to Julie’s question.

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, I’m really aligned in terms of finding out what motivates them. For example, we do training with hiring managers. Yes, they care about inclusive hiring. They care a lot more about making great hiring decisions. We know that’s the same thing because if you reduce bias, you improve quality hiring decisions.

We reframe it with the education around DEI and how it benefits them and being able to build a really great team, so as much as you can tie in… I would say small wins are important. Sometimes when you have someone like that, try to create a small win to create trust with them and then go from there. It’s going to be hard to do a lot, but do a few small wins, show them the value of those and build that trust with that person would be some of my advice there.

Misty Gaither:

Awesome. You want to read the one from Julie before we close- [inaudible]

Paria Rajai:

Yes. Julie says, “Are there any books, podcasts or media that folks would recommend to read and pass along? I’ve been starting book clubs with some coworkers and would love to have one that we can create some conversations.” Gosh, there’s so many good things. Anything come up for you, Misty?

Misty Gaither:

Yeah, actually a couple. Podcasts that I listen to, Code Switch is one that I listen to and absolutely love. The My Taught You podcast, and I’ll drop them in the chat as quickly as I can, by Myleik Teele. And then a book is Professional Troublemaker by Luvvie Ajayi Jones, very applicable in the workplace on how you can get into good trouble and actually drive change from wherever you sit in the organization. Anything come up for you? Any favorites?

Paria Rajai:

Yeah, I’m a little biased, but we do send out a monthly newsletter and it’s got a lot of great studies and snippets and things that have been effective right now. I think if you sign up, it’s at the bottom of the website. You’ll get that every month. And it’s a lot of good talking points that you could have with your coworkers in terms of what’s coming up in the workplace in DEI. So that is one. And then… Okay, I think we’re at time. I want to take Jenny’s question, but…

Misty Gaither:

Let’s… I can stay on if we have one more.

Angie Chang:

We have to move to the next- [inaudible]

Misty Gaither:

Where is it… [inaudible]

Angie Chang:

I thank you so much for all of your expertise on this important topic and we’ll see you in the next session. Bye.

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