Perception is reality.
Ponder this statement for a moment. The implications are truly startling. While this statement may have been borne out of our polarized political discourse and seem stark and extreme, it is nonetheless meaningful and instructive for C-suite executives or anyone aspiring to be there!
Perhaps you are on a leadership track or are newly elevated to a top role. Perhaps you’ve been in your leadership role for some time now but feel a bit stagnant, frustrated that you cannot execute successfully on your ideas. You would not be alone. A recent McKinsey & Company survey found nearly half of new executives weren’t successful at aligning others around their initial objectives, and more than one-third admit that they have not successfully met their overall objectives for the role.
Is it lack of skill on the part of these new executives? No. By and large these are talented people with proven track records. But at the highest levels of an organization, stellar performance is not enough to guarantee success as a leader.
Performance will tee up opportunity, but it is your appearance, communication skills, and ability to cultivate trust that elevates a star player to the upper ranks. All of those attributes allow you to create a culture of internal sponsors who will support and advocate for your ideas — particularly when you are not in the room. (Remember that word, sponsor, we will talk about that more in the future.) Promotions can be lost, your ideas can be discounted, when you are not in the room. Why? You didn’t have someone in the room sponsoring you!
In your new role, you will not be judged by how hard you can work a spreadsheet, but you will be judged on how well you can convey the results of that spreadsheet, how well you convey confidence in your findings and in yourself, and ultimately how much trust you can generate, which helps gain the support of others.
Being in the C-suite means being under a constant spotlight. Maybe your organization isn’t large enough to attract the attention of an external, traditional media audience, but your staff (not to mention customers and clients!) is your internal audience, and they are always watching. They are reading you, looking for clues about the business, analyzing you, your trustworthiness, your accessibility, and gauging your internal support from colleagues and others in senior roles. Instilling confidence among this crucial audience is the key element of executive success.
Are you naturally an introvert, energized by plentiful head-down “think time?” Many of us are, but the truth is the corporate world is biased against that orientation, especially at top management levels. There are no hermits in the C-suite.
Thankfully nobody is fully on one end of the spectrum: we all have a little actor and a little hermit in us.
Executive coaching helps introverts develop and even lead to enjoy their extroverted tendencies. Likewise, it helps the naturally extroverted refine, shape, and channel their external energy into a force that instills confidence.
Just like the public evaluating a presidential, senate, or congressional candidate, an organization places much emphasis on the appearance of an executive, their “presence.” How you show up determines a lot about outcomes.
What’s being measured here? Things as seemingly simple as being well groomed. This doesn’t mean an endless parade of conservative suits, but it means knowing not just what to wear, but how to wear it. Look around and find someone who is seen as successful and try to figure out what works for them, but don’t just copy someone’s style…you have to wear it naturally.
(And ladies, sorry, but we are held to a higher standard when it comes to appearance. We’ve made progress but this is an inherent cultural bias. The key is to embrace these higher standards as a challenge and succeed in spite of them.)
“Presence” also reflects how you appear in front of audience. Early in my career, I was not a fan of speaking extemporaneously, welcoming the security of a scripted speech. I knew I had to better internalize my content and deliver it in a more engaging way. After receiving invaluable help from a coach, I’m now much more comfortable.
You don’t have to abandon your notes, but I can teach you the right way to glance appropriately at them, to keep your engaged throughout a presentation.
C-suite success doesn’t mean being a robot. It means embracing what makes you you and celebrating it in a way that brings comfort, security, and trust from other people.
Your presence has to be rooted in genuine ability — you cannot fake this. But with all the pieces in place, you can project leadership in the face of business risk and uncertainty. Ultimately, you are judged on your ability to earn trust in difficult moments. Make sure you truly OWN it!