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Dec. 10

Executive Presence – what makes an effective and inspirational leader?

Executive presence is a much-debated concept in a modern corporative communication. There’s a great difference between leading a team and just being in charge. BMI EMBA keeps on top of corporate trends and academic innovation and starts its teaching with practical session on managerial behaviour. 

Swiss-based communication coach Amy Carroll kick-starts the BMI executive Class with exploratory and dynamic Executive Presence course and shares her expertise. Two BMI EMBA participants, Monika Milė, Director Staff at “Circle K” and Mantas Dubauskas, Chief Communications Officer at JSC “Lithuanian Railways”, join the discussion sharing their practical case on exhibiting and encouraging leadership. 

What is Executive Presence? And what kind of behavior is "un-executive-like?"

Amy Carroll: Executive Presence is the ability to project the perception of “gravitas” which is a combination of confidence, competence and assertiveness under pressure or in unpredictable situations. Executive Presence is critical if you want to effectively lead, inspire, influence and convince others with the least amount of effort. You may appear "un-executive-like" if you are showing stress, fear, indecisiveness, anger or rage when under pressure or when taken by surprise. 

Monika Milė: Executive leader is someone who is a competent, stable, reliable and communicative person who is always at the center of events and without hesitation takes responsibility for all team and company decisions. 

Mantas Dubauskas: The flow of information is intensifying, technology is changing, and there is a constant pressure to respond more and more rapidly to changes that are taking place. In a period of change or transformation, the importance of leadership behavior is reinforced as it is directly related to employee empowerment and ensuring safety. Trust is one of the most important tools for building relationships. Leader must demonstrate and build trust and confidence.

What traits are most important for a skilled executive communicator?   

Amy Carroll: Internal mindset is accepting others as your equal, regardless of who they are. Make them look good, be good natured, gracious and generous when possible. Stay attentive to the stories you are making up about a person or situation. If the story or interpretation causes you to get upset or defensive, find another interpretation to help you have empathy for the other person. Show interest in others, accept others’ offers. External behaviors include: effective eye contact, a firm handshake, a solid stance, strong volume with vocal variation and downward inflection, a warm smile, seriously, don’t underestimate this one. It communicates friend not foe. Solid, crisp meaningful gestures and energy. Permanently removing the word “but” from your vocabulary will help reduce unintended conflict. Let yourself be interrupted and avoid interrupting others. Female and minority leaders have less leeway with these behaviors and may be judged more critically which makes it even more essential for mastery. 

Monika Milė: I would emphasize the ability to correctly assess the situation, to see as many likely scenarios for its development as possible, but to maintain restraint in communication and be able to strike a balance between excessive openness and the desire to keep quiet about certain things.

What’s the greatest communication challenge for an executive?

Amy Carroll: Ego and ignorance. Research shows that when we join an “in group”, in this case senior leadership, our level of empathy for the others the “out group” immediately drops. To be effective leaders (and decent human beings) we need to be vigilant and aware so that our many privileges don’t lead us towards feelings of entitlement. Otherwise, we will very likely misbehave and act like jerks. One of the ways to stay vigilant is to maintain a very regular feedback cycle where you are actively checking in with others asking: “what’s working and what can I do differently to be better?”

How can executives inspire their employees when they don’t have good news to share?

Amy CarrollAt the time of the announcement, state the news slowly and directly with care, concern and empathy. Give employees time to react. Then actively listen, avoid sounding defensive. If possible, show authentic vulnerability by sharing how it is impacting you.

Monika Milė: A couple of years ago our company re-branded from a very well-known and beloved brand "Statoil" into the unknown “Circle K”. It was a big challenge to first make the new brand known to employees so that they would love, trust and communicate it to their customers. Thoughtful, planned actions, joint activities, maximum involvement of employees in the communication of the new brand resulted in the fact that we met the change of the brand being well-prepared and firmly believing in it, and our clients felt it. It is not always easy to communicate "unpopular" decisions to an organization, but it is also possible to justify them with correct and clear arguments that are understandable to the whole organization while maintaining a high level of human involvement. 

Mantas Dubauskas: Openness and honesty are most valued when communicating bad news. In difficult situations, it is important to keep humanity in mind. A sincere and clear explanation is the best way to present unpleasant information. A few years ago, we had to announce about sensitive changes that affected working conditions and job position optimization. In this process, we witnessed middle managers to hold on to information and so created barriers to consistent communication. Such situations created distrust in the organization and opened ways for rumors. When difficult issues arise, there is often a desire to withhold, delay or bypass certain information. However, if expected response is not explicit enough, the conclusion is simple - something is hidden. As much as I am confronted with practice, it takes five times more effort to dispel rumors than to properly train leaders.

If communication is so critical to leadership and business, why isn’t there enough communication in business today?

Amy Carroll: I’m not convinced people realize how critical it is to the success of business results or that relationships need to be equally if not more important for long-term business success. I also suspect many leaders believe they are communicating effectively and therefore assume they have nothing to improve.

Mantas Dubauskas: Training leadership skills and behavior is on rising demand, beyond question. I notice this from the content of conferences and training offers we receive. After all, this is understood as an investment not only in one person but in the well-being of the whole organization and the proper dissemination of business information. I already see managers increasingly communicating in person, using social media channels and company intranets. In the future, more and more executives should become socially involved. It's a great way to showcase humanity.

In your company who’s responsible and how do you cultivate Executive Presence?

Monika Milė: As a multinational company, “Circle K” has the possibility to put to use many years of experience as a shareholder and utilize models, which includes training for middle management across the group. Meanwhile, we are conducting separate trainings and workshops for service station managers where they share useful experiences with each other. As for the gas station staff, we have a multi-step curriculum for a year, from training in technical knowledge to leadership competencies. Last year alone, about 25-30% of people in the program switched to filling station manager positions. There are truly many different people involved in the training, each of whom is putting into practice the expectation of our inner culture to help educate our colleagues.

Mantas Dubauskas: In the JSC “Lithuanian Railways”, the HR Department is responsible for the training and education of managers, while the Communication Department, which I am in charge of, is responsible for the communication of managers and their public speaking. 

How can executives measure the effectiveness of their communication?

Amy Carroll: Don’t just look at the business results or the bottom line. Find out what people are saying and look at what they are doing? Are people sticking around long term, are they going above and beyond their responsibilities? And most importantly, do people feel safe enough to tell you things you don’t want to hear?

Monika Milė: Many western-minded companies periodically check the inside "temperature". In addition to objective aspects, such as profit loss reporting, employee turnover and other indicators that are measured and recorded each year, anonymous questionnaires help to reveal employee attitudes about the company, its processes, managers and their characteristics, as well as themselves: whether they are fulfilling their team's expectations and what the areas for improvement are. 

Mantas Dubauskas: Employee survey is a good method, a bit subjective, though. The effectiveness of a manager’s communication is best reflected in his team's performance. The better the team understands its leader, the more likely it will hit collective results and demonstrate solid attitude.

How can someone demonstrate Executive Presence if he/she is not an Executive yet?

Amy Carroll: Awareness, awareness, awareness! This can be done by regularly seeking out feedback from professionals, peers, brave subordinates and the person you married! If they tell you something you don’t agree with, calmly thank them and let them know you will consider it. Then if you decide not to make the suggested change, be sure to let them know. Otherwise, they may not offer feedback again.

Monika Milė: The proactiveness and willingness to contribute to the goals of the company show that the employee is willing and ready to grow. “Circle K” aims to shape leaders from current employees, so anyone who has opened the door of our company today can become a manager in the future, and that's what staff members of every level are encouraged to do. We believe that if an employee fits into the culture of the company, he or she has a real chance of succeeding in this business, and a good understanding of specific aspects only adds value to him as a potential future manager. Being an open organization focused on leadership development, we provide such employees with the knowledge they need and the opportunity to challenge themselves in increasingly responsible positions. To paraphrase the popular French saying "Laisser faire", I could say "Aller faire" or "go for action" by yourself.

Mantas Dubauskas: Some of the main characteristics are communication related. Like being confident to express one's opinion. Giving and receiving feedback is very important. Time to time every employee wants to check if he’s doing the right thing. Not only a direct manager can provide such reaction, colleague response is no less important.