When senior executives arrive for coaching, they often come with great motivation but guarded perspective. Either their life coach, their director of communication, an important client, or their spouse has given them some direct or implied feedback that their career or organization has hit a roadblock unless they develop more “executive presence” or overcome some other mysterious challenge.
In working with these executives for more than three decades, I’ve identified three common difficulties they share in communicating with those who report to them, their peers, and their strategic partners:
- One-directional communication style
- Inability to think on their feet under pressure
If these issues sound familiar, the following tips may help.
Talk With Them—Not AT Them
In conversation, some leaders do well. But give them a crowd, and they crumble. While they know what message they want their audience to walk away with, they have little sense of how to deliver that message in a way that connects, inspires, or motivates different individuals in a group.
But don’t confuse the “talk with” principle by mistakenly thinking this means to adopt a “laid back” communication style. The “laid-back” communicator typically comes across as unprepared, low energy, and lacking in presence. In a nutshell, what “talking with” rather than “talking at” means is:
- Interact with individuals in the group by making strong eye contact one on one
- Encourage questions by your phrasing, your tone, and your body language
- Let others summarize your key points rather than doing so yourself: “Joan, so what’s your takeaway from what I’ve said this morning?”
- Give ownership by asking others to implement your ideas by developing their own plans
- Cast others as the hero or heroine of your stories
- Ask for illustrations of your points from audience members
Summarize in a Sentence
Common confessions before I even ask about concerns they have: “I have a tendency to trail off and get down in the weeds.” Or: “I tend to tell people all I know about a situation.” Or: “I always want to be comprehensive. It’s hard to know what details people need to make a decision.”
The cure for this dilemma comes? Consider your attitude about listening to your voicemails. Do you want 3 minutes of “history” before a caller gets to the point? Or would you prefer that a caller give you a one-sentence summary of the point and action you need to take––and then elaborate on any necessary details? Enough said.
Handle Difficult Questions With Credibility
Nothing makes leaders look more capable than dealing with difficult questions with ease. But in our surveys through the years, this skills is what most professionals say they lack.
To overcome this challenge, prepare psychologically. That is, anticipate potential questions so that you ready responses for sensitive or negative issues that you know your group will raise.
Remember also that you can always buy thinking time: Pause and look reflective. Acknowledge the question. Make a universal statement with which everyone can agree before you launch into a more specific response (Example: “Of course, everyone wants the product to be successful when we launch it. The issues we need ….”) Change positions in the room. Ask the person to elaborate on the question “so you can make sure you fully understand.” Relay the question to a team member first for an opinion before you respond. Any of these responses allow you another 5-30 seconds to think of a best response rather than simply blurting the first thing that pops into your mind.
Your communication style serves to showcase character, substance, and style. Never let lack of executive presence crater your career or your organization.