When discussing executive presence and the power of leading with intention, it’s easy to focus on the cautionary tales, possibly because there are so many: executives who say one thing but do another, people who allow their devices to get in the way of genuine face-to-face connections, leaders who aren’t aware of the impact they’re having. Today, however, I’d like to focus on a positive example and share the story of someone I had the great pleasure of watching in action recently.
I was working with a team on designing the future of their organization and ways to take it to new heights. The team had spent several weeks identifying possibilities, challenging each other’s thinking, and aligning on a set of recommendations to bring before the CEO and executive team. As the presentations drew near, anxiety began to mount. The team had a healthy respect for the responsibility they’d been given, understood the expectations, and were keen to make the most of their time and exposure.
The CEO had a few burning issues she was attending to at the time of the meeting. It would have been understandable if she had chosen a different method for hearing the recommendations, such as limiting time or taking the recommendations and deliberating with the executive team behind closed doors. She chose not to do that, however, and instead set a tone for the meeting that made the team feel valued. As a result, they wanted to engage even more fully in helping to grow and improve the organization. Here’s what you can learn from her approach:
- Extend first — When team members entered the room, they were greeted with a heartfelt, “Welcome. I’m glad you’re here. Thank you for joining us.” This immediately communicated that their presence wasn’t a distraction, but a valued part of the meeting. Positional power can be intimidating; by extending yourself first, you put others at ease so they can be at their best. And isn’t that what we all want from our team members?
- Empower others — The meeting room was arranged with a boardroom table in the center, with extra chairs around the perimeter. Those who weren’t on the executive team naturally gravitated toward the chairs along the wall, but when they did, she said “Come join us at the table; we’re all part of the team.” It’s natural for people to show deference to those in perceived positions of authority. If you want their involvement, you need to invite it.
- Engage, then challenge — Any question from the CEO will naturally carry some weight; if questions are all the team hears, they may assume things didn’t go well and have difficulty investing further. After each team’s presentation, this CEO offered specific praise before asking questions. The key here is that the praise be authentic, not cursory. When people feel believed in, amazing things can happen. They have to know you care before they care how much you know.
- Use questions to build — Often, leaders use questions to poke holes in ideas, or to show others why things won’t work. Whether intentionally or not, this approach stifles conversation. Instead, this leader used her questions to broaden the team’s thinking and open discussion. While the team’s presentations focused mainly on the financial impact of their recommendations, she encouraged them to take a broader view of the cost-benefit equation, with questions like: “How does this impact the relationship with our customers?”, “How will this improve the employee experience?” and “How will this enable our strategy?”
- Show humanity — When people look at leaders, they often see the position without consciously being aware that they are doing so. We don’t form lasting relationships with positions; we form them with humans. She also used humor and poked fun at herself, which allowed others to see the person behind the title. She laid a foundation of trust and openness which drew people to her, and which will have ripple effects far beyond her meeting with this team.
I have the opportunity to observe many executives in my line of work, and it’s rare for me to see someone so adeptly bundle personal impact with a deft ability to challenge and inspire. Rather than limiting their contributions, she was able to get them to invest more of themselves. She made others feel that they’d been seen and heard, and that their work was valued. And since that meeting, I can tell you that the impact of her behavior has been enormous. Whereas before the presentation there had been an undercurrent of fear and self-preservation, now the team is operating from a sense of possibility and looking forward to making larger contributions in the future. I wish that every team could experience a leader like this. All it takes is awareness and choice, but the dividends are lasting.
Make that choice. Be a leader who inspires. Your team and your organization are waiting.