How to Project Executive Presence while Working from Home
I am grateful to my friend Tom Kennedy, EVP at JR Bechtle International Executive Recruiting, for providing key pointers on this topic. With close to 25 years in international search, Tom has been assessing people across industries and cultures via video long before the COVID economy and ubiquitous WFH came along.
As executives from virtually any industry have settled into the new “EFH” reality (working, meeting, managing, selling, negotiating, broadcasting, and almost everything else from home) many are asking what they can do to be most effective. In particular, how do key principles of executive presence apply when interacting with people virtually rather than in person? The truth is that in any team and leadership context executive presence is as important as it is difficult to define. There is also good news, however: despite the absence of clearly defining parameters, executive presence is highly observable. In fact, there are few concepts that lend themselves more perfectly to what was so aptly expressed by United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in the 1964 landmark case of Jacobellis v Ohio on the definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
Far from just being a witty quip, Justice Stewart’s insight is indeed surprisingly useful for understanding executive presence. It is something that leaders with the ambition to progress further (especially towards the C-suite) must not only possess but they must also be seen possessing it. Executive presence is about allowing others to observe that one has the required leadership qualities – like subject matter competence, leadership confidence, and character. It is a question of the right display of these characteristics.
I believe that “presence” increases executive effectiveness in many settings: corporate management, sales, professional consulting, to name just a few; but in any setting it is critically important when making first or early impressions with new business partners. A first or second job interview is an actual circumstance where you will likely not “get a second chance to make a good first impression” – you simply will not be invited for the next round and you will often be left wondering why not. This goes for virtually any high-profile meeting – especially with people outside of close working relationships - ranging from important sales calls, to deal negotiations, and internal strategy or budget review meetings – now all held virtually. You will often be left wondering why others were able to garner more recognition in the meeting than you did.
So here are some things to look for:
- Talk about what you know.
The Los Angeles Times reports, with great respect, that when NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci stands in front of microphones to provide COVID briefings to the American public he only talks about the things he knows. “Not what he wants, wishes, thinks or feels. What he knows.” In that sense, Dr. Fauci is the antithesis to the very questionable advice to “fake it until you make it.” The first thing we can learn from Dr. Fauci is that eventually we can only display competence when we actually have it. In Influencing Powerful People we talked at length about the need for competence and dedicated an entire “rule” to it – we called it “know what you are doing”- and it equally applies to knowing what you are talking about. A good start is to create an inventory of your skills, experiences, and interests – an inventory of what you know, what you have experienced, and who you are; this is your solid operating ground. If we talk about such things, we do not have to fake it, but we can speak with confidence and authority, and we engage in debate if we must. Firsthand knowledge, observations, and experiences cannot be easily argued away – they may not apply fully to the situation at hand (situations are always different) but they are solid anchors for meaningful contributions. Qualifying such a contribution is also helpful: For example, if we have observed that a specific digital marketing strategy works well in a B2B context we can suggest that it may also work – with some modifications -in a B2C context. This qualification will not make our contribution less effective. On the contrary, we are getting ahead of someone pointing out the potential limitations of our insights and we remain open to changing our opinion if the difference in situation and context is overwhelming. Being open to persuasion makes us more persuasive ourselves. In a job interview situation, Tom counsels that you must “know” the answer to three questions: (1) What is the job?, (2) Can I do the job?, and (3) Do I want to do the job? Speculation or faking it won’t cut it.
- Ask great questions
Asking questions is an effective approach for several reasons: (1) It helps you to know more. Great questions (sometimes aptly referred to as power questions) enable you to learn what is important to others, what problems they wrestle with, how they think about their problems, and what they already know about possible solutions. In other words, questions expand “what you know” and later can talk about competently. (2) Asking questions displays your attitude of wanting to be helpful and contribute to solving problems rather than operate based on assumptions. It shows that you are willing to learn, value others’ experience, and are interested in them. (3) Finally, it can be a subtle way of showing off your intellect. While people rarely appreciate a know-it-all (unless he or she really is a high-level expert) they do want to assess whether their counterpart is smart. And that is why – while there may be no outright stupid questions - not all questions are equal. Some questions reveal a good grasp of the issue, provoke others to think deeper, and move the discussion forward. I know this firsthand from teaching in the Directors Education Program. There are some participants who are looking for every opportunity to show off how smart they are and there are others who are looking to help move the discussion forward based on real insight – the latter ask *great questions and are the ones who earn the respect of the group. As Tom explains, great candidates come into interviews prepared with highly relevant questions – they want to enter their prospective employers ‘world, they want to understand what drives them, and they want to genuinely confirm that they are the right person to help and that the opportunity and the employer are a good fit for them.
- Help manage the discussion
As the participant number increases it is easy for a meeting – in person or virtual – to go off course. Especially on topics where “everyone is an expert” (sometimes aptly referred to as bike shed effect) we should withstand the temptation to add our trivial 2 cents. But never saying anything is executive “absence” and not a great option either. So, what to do? A power move is to summarize the discussion (it shows that you have listened!) and then propose to take it offline – a smaller team may be more suitable to come back with recommendations. Of course this intervention can be phrased as a question: It look like we have some good ideas and I am wondering whether we should assign this issue to the people closest to the matter to came back with a proposal. This idea of process leadership is a form of executive presence. Even if you are the decision maker in the room you are you can still show process leadership by summarizing the discussion, acknowledging the various perspectives, capturing the essence of the matter and only then making a decision. You can also make it a point to thank those who offered dissenting views, as debate is key to fully understanding a matter. This approach shows leadership and it shows respect for the team. It is executive presence at its best.
- Be organized
Nothing is worse than a poorly prepared meeting. Having read and considered the pre-meeting brief (assuming of course there was one) allows us to offer up more than just off the cuff impressions. It also allows the team to get into the key questions quicker rather than sitting through a lengthy presentation. But being organized does not just apply to preparation ahead of the meeting it even applies to contributions in the meeting. Insightful contributions are more effective when they are being presented in an organized and confident way. I have often seen that someone may have a good thought but then looses themselves and “fizzles out” in the end. So, what to do? I call it mini prep. If you find yourself in a meeting with higher ups and you want to be sure your contribution counts jot down a few notes: what’s the issue, what are your two or three key points and what do you recommend to happen next. The crucial element of you mini-prep is to have your last sentence (the “so what”) clear in your mind a written out – you can now slowly and clearly make your point and finish strong with a key question or a statement – the opposite of rambling on or losing your point. Make mini prep a *habit in meetings where you will get only one or two occasions to speak so that your contribution is both compelling and memorable.
- Be assertive when the situation calls for it.
Being an executive requires confidence. Of course, the display of confidence will depend on the situation and your role. A sales executive must have the confidence to drive the conversation back to their product and “ask for the order;” and for all of us there will eventually come a time when we must assert ourselves vis-à-vis people who are looking to run rough shot over us. In my experience, assertiveness becomes more effective when you have the “moral high ground.” I remember a negotiation with a large multi-national corporation used to getting their way. Their negotiators were confident and aggressive, and we wanted their business. And so, I tried to put into practice what I am talking about here: We came well prepared with the right subject matter expertise, we asked good questions, and we worked hard to move the discussion forward. But there was a sticking point and we received a quite well-prepared lecture as to why their position was the only one allowed by a long-standing corporate policy. When we finally were given the floor to respond and I started to lay out our position my counterpart interrupted me – he wanted to point out, one more time, why our position was at odds with his company’s policies. Truth be told, this interruption was something I had been waiting for. Of course, I knew we were offside their policies, but I had dutifully listened to his explanation and even asked some clarifying questions. But now the time had come to lay out our thinking. So, when he interrupted, I firmly said: “Could you please let me finish.” This “procedural” request was completely reasonable, and it sent a signal to my counterpart, his team, and our team that we would not be pushed over. We had been willing to listen up to that point but now it was our turn. The reason why I know this is so effective is that on other occasions I was the one to interrupt and be put in my place with the firm request to “please let me finish.”
- Project properly
In his insightful article Deconstructing Executive Presence, management consultant John Beeson talks about a manager called Frank who “always looked a little rumpled and his posture a bit hunched.” I purposely left the idea of “looking the part” for the end. Some people think that executive presence is mainly about that when in fact it is not. Substance matters more than form. But Beeson is right that it is – or at least can be - of critical importance. This applies equally if not more so to a WFH situation. Based on his extensive video interview experience, Tom Kennedy has a whole list of dos and don’ts for online interviews which are good advice for online customer meetings, and really any meeting with some profile. Here are the highlights: (1) dress properly and appropriately – including suit and tie if called for and even if you work in tech avoid looking “rumpled;” (2) look into the camera and make sure you are centered – an iPad camera is often not ideal as it causes us to appear as looking to the side – check out your camera image before the meeting (HD is a must by the way); (3) choose a non-descript, neutral background, have proper lighting and stay away from gimmicky background software; (4) avoid unprofessional set ups – according to Tom this includes unfinished basements with bare lightbulbs and hanging wires, religious or political messages, and distractions (including people and pets) that may be out of place. Especially in an international context a certain home décor can strike our counterpart as culturally inappropriate. I you are concerned about this consider using background blurring; this feature may be part of your videoconferencing software or available as an add-in. Leaving the best for last, Tom counsels against conducting job interviews from the car, citing a case where a candidate was being pulled over by the police mid-interview. All of this is fantastic advice – at least when talking to anyone but close associates. In one of my past negotiations, legal counsel was calling in from the car while looking for a parking spot in the downtown area of Amsterdam – narrow roads to navigate at the best of times and hard to concentrate on a complex deal. I didn’t mind, however, since he was representing the other side.
So where do we go from here?
John Beeson asks the great question whether executive presence can be learned. Before we answer john's question, we should reflect on whether we even want a career that requires it. Constantly being required to do things we do not like makes us miserable and is ultimately not a good career choice. I know plenty of professionals who are highly competent but are not looking to impress anyone and operate on a “what you see is what you get basis.” They are also highly valued. But the more our jobs entail interacting with and leading people, occupying any form of C-level position (there seems to be a rapidly expanding wave of chief officer for everything), or navigating the realities of multi-national corporations we should embrace the concept and see its potential to make us more effective and valued. I also believe that almost anyone can get better at it - if we want to. As learning expert Professor Thad Polk points out in his lecture on the learning brain, the biggest predictor of effective learning is motivation. We must decide that we want to get better. We then need to know what to look for (hence this blog) and get some feedback on how we are doing – ideally unvarnished feedback from people who want to help us and have out best interest at heart. We should ask them questions: Is there something on our presentation that doesn’t project quite right? Are there things that are OK at the current level but wouldn’t be OK at the next level? The final, most important step is practice – remembering the saying that “knowledge without application gets us the same as ignorance.” In that sense, consider every meeting as a practice run and opportunity to develop your skill: Am I projecting well? Have I asked some good questions? Have I helped move the discussion forward? Was my contribution concise?
We know that there is opportunity in crisis. Why not make the COVID crisis the reason to polish our work from home “executive presence” and take it as a lasting improvement into the post COVID world?
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