“Executive Presence” is useless

Jonathan Mueller via flickr

photo by Jonathan Mueller via flickr

“Executive presence” sounds impressive. Every leader should covet it and be proud of their abilities if they’re praised for it, right? The issue is, for as many times the term is referenced in performance reviews and coaching mandates, there are an equal number of definitions of this elusive quality.

As a cheeky undergraduate student, I used to play Buzz Word Bingo with my business school friends whereby, unbeknownst to the prof, (oh, who am I kidding?) we would use hidden bingo boards full of fancy-sounding business words – like synergies or operationalize – to make dry class discussions into a hilarious competition as we worked to slip the words into our comments on the case study. If I were issuing a current version of the game board, I would surely put “executive presence” on it, as it’s a vague management competency one could easily toss into conversation.

Most people have a sense of what the term is getting at. Remarks on “executive presence” are intended to critique one’s aptitude in certain leadership skills; specifically those that fall into what I call the ‘getting the promotion’ category. The message is something like, “to be a higher-level leader in this organization, you should be more leader-like.” You can see how this would be a frustrating comment to receive.

Let me try to decode the remarks of this professional pep talk.

You hear:

“You should work on your executive presence.”

It means:

“You’ve got to convince people of stuff in a way that doesn’t tick them off.”

Or….“Work more on relating to big-wigs at the company. Try to be one of them.”

Or….“You need to act more confident so people trust that you know what you’re talking about.”

Or….“Find a way to keep cool under pressure and stay above the drama.”

Or….“You’ll get further if you turn up the charm. Be more likeable.”

Or….“Pay more attention to looking, dressing, shaking hands, sitting and moving around like an important person.”

Or…. “You’ve got to get better at thinking on your feet.”

Clearly, there are a lot of intended meanings. But if you don’t know which one is intended, the phrase is useless.

To figure out which critique is coming your way, ask: “How exactly do you define ‘executive presence’?” and “can you give me examples of what it looks like to you?” or, “Who around here does it really well?” You should also clarify the intention of the feedback, as in, “What effect do you think better executive presence would have on my work and my team?” It’ll allow you to get to the heart of the conversation more quickly so you can set specific goals around improving your leadership style in the way that’s been suggested, if you so choose. (Because – don’t forget – you always have a choice as to what to do with feedback.)

If you’re the feedback-giver, the one who wants someone on your team to be more executive-y, I hope the point’s been made that jargon only makes things harder. Respect your employee for the future executive they are by telling it like it is.

Now just so we’re clear, the concept of acting like a leader if you want to be a successful one is actually extremely important. “Executive presence” is a thing. But we mustn’t talk about it like a leader’s je ne sais quoi. Instead, identify exactly what’s missing and design actions accordingly.

There are thousands of possibilities, but I’ll set out some examples to illustrate the point.

If you want to work on:

Convincing people of stuff in a way that doesn’t tick them off…
Try: Validating questions and resistance instead of debating, ie: “I understand your hesitation, as this is a big change from what we’ve been doing. We’re considering that by….”

Relating to big-wigs at the company…
Try: Being where the senior folks are, be it key meetings or networking events. Everyone feels closer to people they are more familiar with.

Speaking more confidently…
Try: Closing your eyes and picturing the wise and wonderful person you will be in 20 years. (Yes, actually do that.) Before your meetings, take on the persona of your future self as you present your thoughts.

Keeping cool under pressure and staying above the drama…
Try: Committing to never, ever speaking about anyone in your organization behind their back, outside of official HR conversations.

Being more likeable…
Try: Expressing gratitude, asking questions and listening sincerely: “Thanks for your work on this report. How did you find the experience of putting it together?”

Looking, dressing, shaking hands, sitting and moving around like an important person…
Try: Asking a friend (preferably in a related industry) to give you the most honest feedback they can on your work look and impression. If their feedback doesn’t match the brand you’re going for, change something and try it out on the job.

Thinking on your feet…
Try: Putting yourself in situations more often where this will be demanded of you. It may go against your instinct, but no amount of role-playing can replace real life practice.

How do you define and practice “executive presence”? Let me know!



Why High Achievers Hate the First 90 Days

Stephen Pisano via Flickr

Stephen Pisano via Flickr

It’s common knowledge that the first 90 days in a role are crucial for establishing oneself. As a leader, it’s the time for learning about your new team and environment, making connections and taking the first actions that will contribute to your budding reputation in this new context.

Some are able to glide through this period from an emotional standpoint. They figure that “drinking from the fire hose”, as the over-used expression goes, is just part of the process and it’s a win if they don’t drown.

Then there are the high achievers (you know who you are) who expect to operate at outstanding levels, always. They can see what they want to make happen in the future and want to be a superstar from day one. But is this a fair expectation? Just as many sports have divisions – by gender, age, weight class – to ensure a fair game, you must be fair to yourself. You can’t match where you were just weeks earlier, where you played in the Expert division at your old role. Rather, you must join the Ramp Up division. You can still be outstanding, but the question to consider is: “what does outstanding ramp up look like?”

If you’re stressed out about demonstrating your awesomeness, know that by focusing on these 6 areas (in no particular order), you’re doing what’s needed for outstanding ramp up:

1) Seek clarity: Ask lots of questions about anything you don’t understand. Write down the things you don’t quite get and ask your boss, your mentor, your peers or your team. It will accelerate the rate at which you grasp the context in which you’re operating. Too often, people think they won’t look smart if they ask too many questions, but doing so
a) surfaces questions that others don’t know the answer to, and so highlights places to dig deeper, and
b) demonstrates the openness and humility that makes ‘the new guy/gal’ likeable and approachable.

2) Carve outflow time’: A client of mine uses the term ‘flow time’ to mean chunks of quiet, uninterrupted time to digest, process and produce thoughtful work. Ask about the necessity of attending meetings and/or ask to shorten meetings you’re invited to. Particularly at more senior levels, you’ll be asked to be in the room often. Negotiate tactfully to make sure you use your time wisely.

3) Communicate, communicate, communicate: Make sure the person you report to knows what you’re up to and that it’s valuable. Book consistent check-in meetings, and if it’s not possible to check in each week or two, send a summary of highlights and wins in place of the discussion. It doesn’t have to be mind-blowing material, but it shows you’re making progress. For example, your note may say something like, “Had an insightful conversation with Tim that emphasized the need to speak to the US team and ensure we’re working in tandem. Booked a meeting with the US for Tuesday”. Not huge, but clearly significant.
A critical note: when you get a compliment on something you think is a no-brainer, do not dismiss it! This is a common blunder among high-achievers.

4) Get exposure to the top people. Ensure the influencers in your organization know that you’re a sharp thinker and that you’re making things happen. Look out for appropriate opportunities to attend meetings where they’ll be present, deliver things directly, etc. Make sure key people know your name and your intentions.

5) Take action: Focus on a short-term project that is of interest to the aforementioned “top people”. Don’t worry just yet about the big innovative project/process/overhaul you’ve envisioned for the future. Be the hero in making something bite-size but important happen well and happen now.

6) Be happy: Remember what brings you joy and make sure you don’t lose touch with those things in your life during this busy time. Be extra conscious to read fiction on your commute, go to yoga, play your guitar, put your kids to bed, or whatever makes you smile and breathe a little more deeply for a few minutes each day.

None of this is about lowering the bar. It’s about being strategic and staying focused when you’re first starting. You’ll feel calmer, you’ll get noticed and you’ll make headway. Easier said than done? Yes. Doable? Totally.



Being your Best is a Matter of Time

image by GolfGT_Girl via Flickr

image by GolfGT_Girl via Flickr

Oh the things I could accomplish if I just had more time!

Time is our common enemy. It’s limited, and us ambitious folk don’t like to be told there are limits!

But here’s the truth. If I could teleport, outsource grocery shopping, and hire a personal assistant (2/3 of which I could choose to do, I suppose) I would still feel starved for time. Because I have a voice in my head that says I’m never getting enough done  – and that it’s Time’s fault. Which, at its core, is some pretty harsh self-judgement about my choices and abilities. While this mindset motivates me to a certain degree, to a larger extent it distracts me from being my best at work and otherwise.

If you, too, feel that resenting time is not working for you, join me in trying to make friends with it. I suggest we start creating this healthier relationship through appreciation, generosity, trust and respect.

Appreciate Time

Time gives us plenty and we still want more. We have time to work and play and learn and teach and choose, but seem not to appreciate it. Headspace, an organization that has created a successful meditation app, blogged recently about feeling “time rich” by seeking out moments of awe: a feeling of connection to something bigger.

Where can we find it?

At work we can look out the window at the clouds moving or look over the city from the office. Or just study those pictures of your kids on your desk. I mean, you made those kids! Literally awesome.

At play we can seek out nature. Don’t those days camping – canoeing, gathering wood, observing chipmunks, staring at the lake – seem soooo long?

It’s not time that moves too fast, it’s us.

Be Generous with Time

You know that children’s song that goes “Love is something; if you give it away, you end up having more.”?  I believe the concept applies to time, too. I’ve observed that busy people who give their time thoughtfully but willingly seem more at ease. It’s like time makes it easier on them. Perhaps happier, more grounded people are inherently more generous. Chicken and egg aside, let’s give it a shot.

How can we try?

At work we can choose to mentor someone who we’ve noticed is bursting with potential or add our name to the networking site 10,000 coffees.

At play we can teach our mother to text (again) or take the dog on an extra loop around the neighbourhood. We might even give away chunks of time to a big-impact cause by volunteering (I’m thinking “led-by-your-heart” volunteering, not “I’d-make-good-business-contacts” volunteering).

It takes a lot of energy to hoard time, all resentful or suspicious of anyone after the scarce resource. On the flip side, it feels quite a relief to choose the perspective that there’s more than enough for what’s important.

Trust Time

Since I usually connect with coaching clients every two weeks, I witness over and over the phenomenon of someone’s whole world changing in only 14 days. I’ve never had a client say “everything is exactly the same as last when we last spoke. Let’s take it from there.” Instead, Time has done its magic and they see something new in the issue, emotions have evolved, more information has surfaced to be considered. I self-identify as “action-oriented”, but realistically, forming an opinion, processing feelings and making choices all take time to be done well. Sometimes, we need to press pause and trust that challenge+time= clarity.

How can we apply this?

At work or play I suggest we put the good ol’ urgent/important matrix into action. We’re savvy enough to avoid unimportant things. But those longer-term important things that aren’t urgent? Don’t tackle it all right away. Let’s make some notes about how we might approach it and we feel about it. We can choose an appropriate future point to reassess – whether this afternoon or in a month – and until then, will suspend judgement and give Time the space to do its thing. I predict that re-examining it with fresh eyes will be insightful.

When I ask my clients “how does the situation look today?” I’m always fascinated by how much can change in a short period. Even more compelling is the question “what do you think this will feel like in 2 weeks/2 months/2 years from now?” It activates the wisest part of us that trusts Time.

Respect Time

Author Annie Dillard writes “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” In other words, we must respect that how we use time matters. Importantly, I think this can be done without the guilt factor that comes with thinking about all the things we “should” be doing or “should have done”.

What does this look like?

At work, we can take credit for what’s gone right, shining a positive light on what the contributions of all those late nights and uncomfortable career stretches have done for us. When I remember to do this during busiest moments, it shifts me from anxiety to gratitude for what I’m going through; even to excitement about what I can choose to build from here.

At play we can just play. We should all savour opportunities to laugh, create and explore. Generally, we can all lighten up and enjoy life more. I’ve personally decided to stop going along with our culture’s “getting older is awful” joke, as it’s horribly disrespectful of Time and steals from well-earned celebration.

So, Time, I’m going to let you out of a headlock and instead, shake your hand. I know you’ll make a great partner in my big plans for the years to come.

Sorry for any misunderstanding.


The Tale of the Superstar and the Lazy team

Rick Shaw via flickr

Rick Shaw via flickr

You may have heard this one before. You know – the one where there’s a leader who gives 110% and has a team that is just barely meeting expectations? If you’re that leader with the high bar who is asking themselves why their people don’t show full dedication, this is for you. I hear you, there’s no way to change people’s personality. But you can’t say you’ve taken full ownership of leading your people to greatness before trying out the following key tactics:

Demonstrate Trust and be Trustworthy

It’s said people feel they work for their manager more so than for their organization. Yes, your direct reports really work for the company or firm as a whole, but day-to-day, hour-to-hour, they work for you. Foster a trusting relationship, and that more personal connection can inspire manager-pleasing hard work. Conversely, lack of trust can actually keep your people from doing their best. As reported by HBR in the article Connect, then Lead, “Leaders who project strength before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear… Fear can undermine cognitive potential, creativity, and problem solving, and cause employees to get stuck and even disengage.” Trust can be fostered in every interaction, through your speech and your actions. Here’s how:

  • Ask coach-like questions instead of accusatory ones: “What would you suggest we do to get the timeline on track?” vs “Why are we behind on the timeline again?”
  • Share your thoughts, and aim for ‘human’ instead of ‘infallible’: “I’m a little disappointed. I would have hoped to have full buy-in coming out of that meeting. I should have lead with the data.”
  • Remind them you’re in it together: “Our group has a chance to really shine this month. My hope is that this project gets the attention of the CEO.”
  • Give them space to fly and to fail: “This one’s yours to run with. Let me know what resources I can provide to support you. When would you say it makes sense to check back in?””

Share your vision

No one likes to feel like a cog in the wheel, especially if they don’t even know the purpose of running the machine.Your whole team should be able to answer the following questions with certainty:

Under your leadership, what impact is your team having on the organization?
What’s your 3-year plan for the team?
Ultimately, what do you want this team to be known for?
Why is working hard toward these longer term goals important?

If your people don’t know the answers, they will guess. And then they will react to their best guess, or to the uncertainty of not knowing, or to the suspicious nature of you not sharing plans with them. Needless to say, this is distracting and hinders great work. Turn it all around by sharing plans you’re excited about and selling what’s in it for them.

Play to Strengths and Interests

Sometimes it’s easy to forget, especially when you’re frustrated, that those people you just want to “work harder” are unique individuals with varying strengths and interests. And before say, “I know where you’re going with this and I don’t have time” (especially if there are dozens on your team) hear me out. My suggestion is not that you customize the assignments of each and every person that works for you, but rather encourage them to ask for what they want so that you can support making work as satisfying as possible for them. Look into offering stretch projects, shadowing opportunities, leadership within the group or places where your subject matter experts can share their knowledge with others. Put it out there, mean it, make space for it and make an example of those who take advantage. Certainly, when discussing the positive pieces of a performance review, brainstorm how to expand upon what’s working well.

Be clear with your expectations.

If giving 110% is not a “nice to have”, but rather a “must have” in your eyes, then you must redefine your expectations; raise the bar.  Don’t just hope people will realize you expect more. What is in that 10% that’s really important? Be very clear about what’s expected in a given role and how it will be measured, even if it includes so-called soft skills like collaborating with colleagues more frequently, or things that people don’t want to hear, like working late once a week. Explain why these things are part of the job, and how it will help get the job done better.

Acknowledge a job well done

Some adore public recognition and others prefer a quiet compliment, but everyone likes being acknowledged. This is not about using the outdated “feedback sandwich” technique, where you sandwich a criticism in between two positives. Rather, this is about turning your radar to noticing, as a leader, when someone demonstrates behaviour that you appreciate, however small.  As in, “Phil explained that exceptionally well in the meeting. Thanks, Phil.”  It will support all the aforementioned actions and will benefit the relationship between you and your people by training yourself to see them through this positive lens. Different from rose-coloured glasses, these are “potential glasses”, whereby with each acknowledgement, you direct energy to elevating the team to a higher standard.

Leadership is about aligning your people with your vision for enhancing the organization and making a plan to get there. In support of this, you must create a parallel vision of the team you want and start working your plan to get there. It takes effort to cultivate a culture of exceptional standards, but if it’s something you deem necessary, it’s a piece worthy of your extra effort and attention.

Win support for your ideas in 30 minutes or less.

photo by tec_estromberg via flickr

photo by tec_estromberg via flickr

“If only someone would listen to me!” is something I hear a lot. We all know you don’t have to be the CEO to have brilliant ideas and a passion for what’s possible for your organization. In fact, it’s often those closer to the day-to-day action who can best identify improvements to business operations and new opportunities.

If you’re not at the senior leadership table, you likely don’t have the authority or the resources to create big-scale change with a declaration of “here’s the plan folks…..”  Rather, influencing those with the power to say “sounds great – let’s do it!” (or at least “Very interesting. What do you need to explore this direction further?”) is the key to advancing toward your vision.

It goes without saying that you’ll have to get yourself some face time with a more senior leader as a baseline requirement. When you do this – even if it’s just a one-on-one meeting with your Manager – you’ll want to use your time wisely. So here are the top 10 ways to make the most of the short time you have their ear:

1) Define a shared objective for the meeting. (What’s the point of this meeting? What is everyone hoping to walk away with?)

2) Describe the bigger purpose of what you’re bringing to their attention (This isn’t about you and your idea. It’s about what this idea makes possible.) 

3) Show what’s in it for them, specifically. (Why should the person / people in front of you care about this bigger purpose?)

4) Tell a well-rehearsed story, and back up your idea with whatever evidence you’ve got. (Make clear connections at every step.)

5) Make direct links to the organization’s overall mission. (This isn’t about your ideas, but rather supporting a shared vision. Refer to something a senior leader has said, if you can.)

6) Be completely open about the short-term impact of actioning your idea, even if it’s undesirable.  (If you say what they’re thinking, you earn credibility.)  

7) Keep the discussion alive and productive by asking open-ended questions – those that can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”.

8) Don’t be defensive. Instead, be curious. Generously acknowledge good insights and ask thoughtful questions about where others are coming from.

9) SLOW DOWN. You’re excited. But they’re trying to absorb.

10) And importantly…..Don’t oversell if they’re buying it!! If you sense they’re on board, shift the conversation to next steps.

Good luck! And please don’t make the mistake of linking the value of your idea to the way it is received. There are so many factors at play, including your relationship with the influencers and the appetite for innovation within your corporate culture, for example. Instead, use the checklist above to assess whether you gave it a great shot.