In some ways, it seems so obvious; stating your opinion in a meeting is a direct way to have impact and show executive presence, a key sign of potential. Sharing an informed PoV shows you’ve done the homework and/or thinking needed. Stating your PoV at the right time and in the right way, can move the room, no matter how junior or divergent from the norm you might be. Coming prepared with a PoV on the topic of the moment, in a one-on-one, team or governance forum makes perfect sense for the aspiring leader or colleague. Yet in my coaching work with leaders and leadership teams, I find a variety of reasons why high-potential people struggle to establish their executive presence, often by missing the opportunity in sharing their PoV that needed to be heard, sharing a narrow PoV that misses the big picture or specific topic, or sharing it a way that is perceived as off-putting or even hostile by others. While there are many obstacles that can get in the way of sharing your PoV and demonstrating your executive presence, they deserve to be tested with small experiments that can lead to a greater willingness to contribute your PoV and build your executive presence.
Before we tackle the obstacles, we need to step back and define executive presence, as often senior leaders will state executive presence as wanting in a younger leader, but really struggle to make it behavioral so that young leader can understand, really picture, and start working on it. If you will pardon the analogy, executive presence is too often spoken of as Supreme Court Justice Powell did about pornography: I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it. As senior leaders, if we keep executive presence undefined or implicit, we may be leading our people to associate it with the established bias of an executive, which tends to be traits seen in white men since historically they dominate that space. This narrows our talent development focus and leaves deserving talent out.
I see Executive Presence is a complex combination of things you can do and capabilities you can behaviorally demonstrate. It does not lend itself to a simple pneumonic, though many have tried. (See the 7C’s in 7 Traits Of Executive Presence) Delivering with executive presence happens in a repeatable cycle that is accessible to leaders at any level, as show in the model just below. I’ve divided the model into three segments – strategy, tactics and your way of working in organizational life. The model and the related leadership behaviors that follow are both a roadmap for building executive presence, and a definition that any of us can use to get feedback or describe what we want to see that shows executive presence.
The Repeatable Cycle for Building Executive Presence
- Strategy. It begins by being strategic and setting strategy for your team or group or business. This involves doing the analysis and making clear choices as to what we will do and what we won’t and being able to articulate the assumptions underlying the strategy. A key aspect of executive presence is rising above the tactics of the day at the right time, showing you can see the big picture and turn it into action. Strategic choice enables the leader to prioritize and help others prioritize, creating clarity and focus on what we are doing and how we need to do it.
- Tactics. Preparation for 1:1 and team interactions is key to being in the moment. You probably know how much preparation you need to be able to formulate and be ready to articulate a PoV on the topic at hand. Some love to be in the moment, the extraverted thinkers, who will put out a host of thoughts hoping some will stick. If that fits you, know that forcing others to pick and choose amongst many ideas for the gold is not great executive presence. You may need more preparation than you realize. More introverted thinkers know they do their best when they have thought it through, and they offer a single golden contribution. Introverted thinkers may need to seek out information as to the topic and key questions to enable their thinking, and remember that their thinking is deserving of airtime, and be willing to elbow in to get that airtime. Point 4 is about using your hard-won airtime wisely. Unfortunately, adults typically give you about 20 seconds at most to grab their attention and make the point, so being short and to-the-point, using headlining (think newspaper headline and first paragraph) gets attention and likely engagement. This is especially true when you physically lean in, project your voice and assert your PoV with confidence. A short story that enables others to connect and feel the relevance will help.
- Way of Working. Executive presence, or being executive-like, has to include how you navigate the organization and relationships to get things done. Keeping your head down and hyper-focused on your own situation, may help you get your work done, but will reveal a need for enterprise perspective. Rather, the opportunity is to be seen and become known for effectively raising and resolving important conflicts in relationship building ways, seeking out collaborations on what is critical and really needing collaboration, and establishing yourself as a real partner, who helps others as you achieve your goals. Point 6 should be a constant focus for building executive presence in that gaining alignment enables momentum, focus and effort aimed at the right thing. Going alone often appear easier and more in control, but can’t be your go-to if you are trying to show executive presence, as strong executives bring others along with them.
Now that we have defined executive presence, let’s think about how crafting a PoV can help execute. All 6 aspects in this executive presence model benefit from the application of the four Herrmann Brain thinking preferences – what, why, who and how – as shown below to developing and sharing your PoV. Be prepared with a PoV that can appeal to as many of these thinking preferences as possible. Consider who you are presenting your PoV to and what they most like, and adapt how you state your PoV to the needs of their likely dominate thinking preference or preferences. For example, the leader who is all about execution is going to need Green / ‘How’ thinking to show we can get it done, whereas the big picture ‘Why’ leader is going to respond best when you lead with an appeal to yellow connections and strategic insight. When in doubt, touch them all.
In addition to living into the executive presence cycle above, there are at least 11 leadership capabilities to develop and use, all of which demonstrate executive presence. You don’t need all of these all the time, but the more you demonstrate them and use them in sharing your PoV, the more you will leave others with that sense of your executive presence. To help others see your executive presence, demonstrate:
- Being visionary about the business and its purpose. Develop a PoV as to where the business could be going, or how we can better connect to customers, or win over Regulators, etc.
- Thinking big picture so you can see and identify connections across the business and with customers and stakeholders, both today, and in the future. Have a PoV as to who we should be collaborating with, internally or externally, to move the business forward.
- Belief in being influential, wanting to move the room, and being strategic in your approach to moving others. Being influential also means being open to influence.
- Having and demonstrating the courage to take on what is bigger than you and what you are responsible for. You shop executive presence when you are willing to tackle tough problems that cut across teams.
- Stay positive and generally optimistic in the face of challenges and setbacks. Few executives endear themselves by being overly negative.
- Being a strong listener seeking to find the productive collaboration.
- Asking powerful questions that cause colleagues and more senior leaders to rethink a problem or opportunity.
- A strong focus on execution, bringing tough projects to successful completion.
- Making tough decisions, and working in difficult circumstances.
- Showing emotional intelligence, including self-awareness and self-management in the context of political and organizational savvy, staying calm and unflappable when things get dicey.
- Being fully engaged in the moment, reading the room, and delivering that PoV in an articulate and pithy way.
So, about those obstacles. I see them in two categories: self-imposed and what others do (or don’t do). The personal leverage is in seeing these obstacles as potential obstacles, or things to be tested, so you can decide your strategy, tactics and way of working. In a recent episode of the NPR program Hidden Brain, the host, Shankar Vedantam was speaking with Vanessa Bohns of Cornell’s ILR School about her insight on personal influence. In experiments where people had to go up to strangers and ask them to do something, fill out a survey or give up their seat, an action many found very hard to do, they often under-estimated their influence of others, expecting a much higher rate of rejection before trying it, than actually happened. Vedantam describes the insight. “If lots of people said yes, that meant that Vanessa’s fears about rejection were misplaced. Her perception of the influence she actually had on other people was wrong. Like most of us, Vanessa had long felt that others had a big effect on her. As she gazed at the data, she realized that she had a big effect on other people. If she was blind to this power, what consequences could it have on her behavior?” The insight is one each of us can take in and challenge what holds us back from sharing our PoV and demonstrating executive presence.
Focusing on self-imposed obstacles, here are a two examples with specific ideas of how to test if the obstacle is real and how to potentially overcome it.
- Feeling vulnerable. Intellectually, we know you can’t impact the issue if you don’t take some risk. Speaking up with a PoV can make you feel vulnerable to being disagreed with or criticized or even seen as hogging the spotlight. When you feel vulnerable, consider actual examples where others have taken a risk to speak up. If you see the situation as risky, e.g., your PoV directly contradicts a senior person who has already committed, you can change your PoV statement into a question.
- Self-censoring. We do this for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is because we were thinking deeply, and we missed the moment. Good preparation surely helps minimize this and if you missed the moment, you are often better off not raising your PoV late, but look for other ways, perhaps offline or in a follow-up to share your insight. Other times we self-censor by not believing what we are thinking would be relevant to a more senior person or group. If we are self-censoring, we may well be under-estimating our influence. Gather feedback from others you trust to gain a better sense of your influence. In the moment, ask yourself, why am I here in this conversation? Remember, you earn that seat at the table by taking some risk and sharing what you are thinking.
Let’s switch to things that are missing or done to seemingly or actually discourage your PoV. Leaders need to create psychological safety for their people. Amy Edmondson is a leading researcher and advocate and in her Spring 2019 Leader to Leader article, The Role of Psychological Safety (subscription required), she has a concise table on page 15 that describes what leaders can and need to do to create that safety for all colleagues, safety that enables contribution and makes it just a bit easier to be vulnerable and take a risk and share a PoV. In an article well worth reading, she focuses in on the leader’s role in setting the stage with clarity on purpose and expectations, inviting participation with situational humility, good questions, and intense listening, and on responding productively, including expressing appreciation, destigmatizing failure, and sanctioning clear violations. It really is a terrific experience to work with a leader with competence in this area, and not all know about the value of psychological safety or how to create it.
Here are a few ways you can push through with your PoV when leaders aren’t oriented to creating the psychological safety that encourages active participation.
- Not being asked. In meetings, especially virtual meetings, the facilitation can be wanting and there may not be anyone looking to draw out others. Not being asked is often about poor facilitation and not a lack of interest in your PoV. You can test that by figuratively raising your hand or slipping a note in the chat, to indicate you have something to say. It may be loaded, but yes, lean in.
- Leaders not actively encouraging differences of opinions nor creating the right conditions for speaking up. When this happens, you are rarely the only one experiencing it. Collaborate with others so that one person offers the challenging PoV and others back that person up with their viewpoint as well. Consider sharing Edmondson’s article referenced above. Another way is to use secondary influence, that is, ask for some coaching from another leader as to how to approach the challenge and also see if the other leader would be willing to share the article or otherwise raise the topic.
As leaders with ambition, we need to unlock and establish our potential in the eyes of more senior leaders. Doing the work to have an informed PoV, and taking risks to share it at the right time and in the right way, is a powerful way to show executive presence, and one of the best ways of establishing your high potential as a leader, and advancing your career
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© Performance Leaders, LLC 2021