Does Coaching for Executive Presence Work Against Diversity and Inclusion?

Executive presence means different things to different people, but generally it refers to communicating in ways that create a high level of influence and impact. This can get into murky waters. Is “executive presence” just code for adopting a style that’s just like the most dominant group?

Consider these examples:

I’ve coached a number of Chinese leaders. Having lived and studied in China myself, I know that common discourse structure tends to be indirect in China. It would be expected for a smart, effective Chinese leader to take their time “getting to the point.” In fact, there are deeply embedded cultural reasons why being very direct might be a bad idea in Chinese social interaction.

If I’m hired to help a Chinese leader in the US become more direct, brief, and come right to the point, am I really helping them gain executive presence? Or am I part of an anti-diversity campaign to make everyone fit the same mold?

As another example, I have coached people in Silicon Valley with ADHD or who are “on the spectrum.” Some of these people have a communication style that seems to be disorganized and scattered, jumping from one idea to another. If I work with them to make their communications more organized, am I making them “better” or just helping them conform to the more “typical” brain?

You can extrapolate from these examples. Some elements of what’s considered “executive presence” may in fact represent real bias based on differences of gender, cultural background or other elements of diversity that companies are trying to promote.

So, what’s a coach—or leader—to do?

While this is a complicated dilemma, one way to approach it is to start from the basics of what makes for good communication. In communication, at its simplest level, there is the person talking and the person listening. I think the answer lies in leaders getting very good at both of these tasks and very adaptable in how they do them.

Talking, listening and diversity

What makes for effective talking usually requires some accommodation on the part of the talker. The best communicators work hard to talk in a way that “meets” their audience. They adapt their words, style and approach to be accessible for their audience. A good talker does a lot of the communication work for their audience by using words and a style that will resonate with listeners the best. A good talker adapts to become more like their listener, so that their listener can understand.

On the listening side, a similar truth applies. A good listener is not just listening for information and filtering it through the hardened framework of their brain. A really good listener does a lot of the work for the speaker by listening very deeply, by entering into the world of the speaker, by practicing empathy and by being willing to take in information regardless of which words or communication styles are used to present it. A good listener makes it easy for the talker to be understood.

In both talking and listening, it’s not only the level of skill but also the level of adaptability that makes communication work. And the greater the gap or difference between speaker and listener (in terms of their communication styles, cultural backgrounds, functional areas, etc.), the more they both need high levels of skill and adaptability for the communication to work.

If all leaders in an organization work to develop both skills to a high level, it can help balance the tension between executive presence and diversity. When talking, leaders will recognize the uniqueness of their audience, try to know and understand them, and communicate such that everyone can understand. When listening, leaders will work hard to make sure everyone is fully heard.

To me that’s a pretty good description of both executive presence and an inclusive culture. Perhaps it’s possible to have both.

Learn more about creating an inclusive culture in the recent Harvard Business Review Article, “Diversity Doesn’t Stick Without Inclusion.”

For more on other aspects of executive presence, see our posts on listening, authenticity, word choice, body language and voice.

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