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What CEOs Can Do To Improve Their ‘Executive Presence’

There is an untapped resource that CEOs and business leaders should be using to improve their executive presence – their colleagues.

executive presence

Lately, almost all my executive coaching clients want to work on their “executive presence.” I’m not sure why this is a hot topic lately.  Maybe the popularity of TED Talks has upped the expectation to engage, entertain, and inspire our audiences, even in business meetings. Maybe our attention spans have dwindled in direct proportion to the uptick in our Twitter usage. Maybe we care more about authenticity and purpose than ever before.  Maybe we are just tired of being Powerpointed to death.

Whatever the reason, the need is real. Leaders are being asked more than ever to:

  • Connect with their audiences viscerally and emotionally
  • Engage others to inspire action or change
  • Speak with conviction and passion
  • Adjust their style and approach to meet the needs of a global and diverse audience
  • Balance confidence and speaking up with listening and gaining buy in
  • Tighten up their message for executive-level consumption
  • Understand politics, nonverbals, and “read the room”

And, there are more articles, books, and resources on the topic than ever. (My personal favorite is “Presence,” by Amy Cuddy.) But I believe there is an untapped resource that leaders should be using to improve their executive presence – their colleagues.

Every day it’s your peers who see you in meetings. They listen to your presentations.  They observe how you show up. They see how others respond to you and your ideas. But, when is the last time your peers have given you feedback on your presence? Probably never.  Why?  Because it’s not their job.  But it should be!

“When your peers are committed to your success, they will help you work on your development.”

In our practice, we have studied thousands of teams in dozens of industries across the globe.  We’ve seen it all:

  • The absolute worst teams rife with active sabotage and undermining
  • The teams who are teams in name only without shared goals or real interactions
  • The pretty good teams, who help each other when asked but don’t want to rock the boat
  • And finally, we have seen the best of the best – the superstar teams

These teams, which we call Loyalist Teams, outperform their competition. They are the rare teams that create extraordinary value for their organizations and the highest level of engagement, satisfaction, and joy for team members. On these teams, teammates are loyal to each other, the team, and their organization. And it’s clear that on all Loyalist Teams, there is one trait they have in common; on top teams, teammates care about each other’s success the way they do their own. In fact, Loyalist team members are 35 times more likely to demonstrate a commitment to their teammates’ success than on low performing teams. It is a key differentiating factor for strong team performance.

When your peers are committed to your success, they will help you work on your development. They will support you and give you the feedback you need to hear.

Let me share a quick example of why teammates are best suited to help you build your executive presence. One of my coaching clients, let’s call him Gary, was stalled in his career because the company executives saw him as “too brash, too aggressive, often tone-deaf, and always needing to win.” In our coaching sessions, we were working on improving his listening, his empathy, and his body language. Yet I felt I was working in the dark. Gary rarely acted aggressively with me in our one-on-one sessions. He was typically attentive, curious, and open. I wasn’t a threat to him and he wasn’t trying to defend his turf or ego with me.  I wanted to understand more about how his behavior showed up. So I asked him to get some input from his teammates. What did they see? What did they experience? They were in meetings with him all the time.

So he went to them and asked for their feedback. He learned what it felt like to be on the receiving end of his tirades. He heard firsthand about how he can shut down conversations. It was a humbling and transformative experience for Gary. But his learning didn’t end there. He decided to engage his peers in his development.  He asked them for ongoing coaching. They helped him prepare for tough meetings. They gave him signals during meetings when he needed to tone it down. And through this experience, they built strong relationships with each other. They developed trust. They built a Loyalist Team. Here are four quick tips to get you started:

  1. Let your peers know what you plan to focus on. Having the conversation will help you zero in on your goals, and sharing it with others creates a measure of accountability.
  2. Ask them for feedback. Listen attentively when the feedback is offered. If you are defensive or seem to explain the feedback away, it will be the last time they choose to offer you feedback.
  3. Ask for ongoing feedback and support. Be specific on what you are trying to do and the type of feedback you want. “I’m working on my executive summary skills. I often get too far in the weeds. Will you give me feedback on how I do during this meeting?”
  4. Along the way, keep asking your colleagues how you might better support them. We’re all trying to improve. Be a good partner through offering feedback and support to them as well.

You may have thought that working on an individual skill, like developing executive presence, was something you had to tackle on your own. You don’t. And more importantly, you can’t. It’s almost impossible to change behavior without ongoing input, support, and feedback. Your teammates can be the best “coach” you have ever had. And often, all you have to do is ask.


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