The other day a senior leader contacted me to hire as his coach. His LinkedIn Profile was immaculate – multiple graduate degrees from top-notch schools, a strong track record of professional work in his relevant field. He was given feedback to improve his Executive Presence (EP). He didn’t know what that entitles. After further conversation, we found out that in meetings with senior leadership, his challenge was thinking on his feet and being clear and concise in his delivery.
Here is an example from another client, let us call him Joe. Joe was doing a presentation on the next direction of their product. Towards the middle, his VP comes in and asked him what the bottom line was. Joe got frustrated that the VP asked for the point without listening to his entire presentation. As he was telling me this, I asked, so what was your point? He paused and said, “I am not sure, I thought I would lay out all the information and the audience would make their own point”. Voila! Joe was inundated with the details of the issue, he did a good job bringing up the complexities, but he didn’t do his own homework – i.e. forming his own opinion about it. Why not? I asked. He said it was not an obvious decision. It depended on the priority and making hard choices.
I got curious, why the senior leaders are asking for a concise summary? Here is what came to me.
According to the book, Your Brain at Work by David Rock, our brain’s processing section (pre-frontal cortex or PFC) is a very energy-hungry, scarce resource. On top, the PFC is also very small compared to the rest of the brain. Given that the leader’s brain is usually dealing with a few other issues, his PFC is not readily available for complex processing. That’s why the audience in the meetings would be benefited if someone (the person who spent time in this area and/or a subject matter expert) can convey the message in short. While I am not saying we should just make mindless suggestions without considering the complexities, we can always give our ten thousand feet view with a side note of caution. It helps the audience to get our point easily and also allows them to use their analytical brains if they choose to.
While thinking on the feet and a clear, concise delivery is a major area for Executive Presence, it is not everything. I found two resources that cover the topic in more detail.
- Pat Kirkland – Kirkland came up with a model called Predator, Prey, and Partner. According to her, the traditional view of leadership, you are either a predator or prey in the jungle. A predator has the competency but lacks the approachability. Whereas a prey lacks the competency but is approachable. A balance of the two is a partner who is both competent and approachable. Her advice is, how you dress up, stand up and speak, matters. Leaders take space and time, speak using bullet points using meaningful hand gestures. Her website has sample videos showing her coaching.
- The book Executive Presence – The Missing Link between Merit and Success by Sylvia Ann Hewlett – Hewlett used a wealth of hard data – including a new nationwide survey and dozens of focus groups to describe EP to be a dynamic mix of three things.
- How you act (gravitas) – Do you show up as a lion or a chipmunk?
- How you speak (communication)- Good listening, concise, to the point delivery, understanding own and other people’s emotions and motivation (Emotional Intelligence).
- How you look (appearance) – Attire, grooming, professional appearance, everything matters.
It might seem overwhelming to improve all these while doing your regular work. Here is the good news. You don’t need to change overnight to improve your Executive Presence. Here are some ideas that worked for me and for my clients.
- Some of the techniques by Pat Kirkland are easy to practice in a low stake situation to build a habit. Read her blogs here and here. I discussed some of the meeting/communication techniques in this article, Having A Hard Time Getting Your Voice Heard In Meetings?
- For thinking on the feet, one of my clients found that when he is present (not busy typing the notes) he follows the conversation better and can respond accordingly. These days he uses pen and paper for jotting down important points. He also came up with an idea of “project managing” his time so that he is intentional about what meetings/topics he would focus on so that he can stay on top of those and feel confident to share his opinions. Here is some more advice.
- For being concise in delivering a complex topic, one technique works for me. I take a second to gather my thoughts before I speak up. To build the practice, when I read an article, I write a short summary of it. Sometimes I even challenge myself further by posting it on social media. “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”- attributed to Einstein,
- Last but not least, in recent years, I became more aware of my attire and grooming. During my early career, I didn’t have much awareness in this area. I realize I could have used some fashion advice to help improve my executive presence.
Executive presence is a way of being, it is not a “presentation skill”. Pick one thing you want to get better, design practice around it, do it regularly for a month in everyday situations. You will be surprised by how natural you become!