Is “executive presence” code for adopting a style that’s just like the dominant group?
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 however. Consider these examples:
I’ve coached a number of Chinese leaders. Having lived and studied in China myself, I know that Chinese discourse tends to be indirect. It would be expected for a smart, effective Chinese leader to take their time “getting to the point.” In fact, there are cultural reasons why being direct might be a bad idea in a Chinese context.
If I’m hired to help a Chinese leader in the US to be more brief and come right to the point, am I helping them gain executive presence? Or am I part of an anti-diversity campaign to make everyone fit a western mold?
As another example, I’ve coached executives in Silicon Valley who are “on the spectrum.” Some of them have a natural communication style that’s scattered, jumping from one idea to another. If I help make their communications more organized, am I making them “better” or just conforming them 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 complex 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
Effective talking requires flexibility on the part of the talker. The best communicators work hard to talk in a way that “meets” their audience by adapting their words, style and approach to make their message accessible. A good talker makes it easy for the listener to understand.
On the listening side, the same truth applies. A good listener is not just listening for information and filtering it through the hardened framework of their brain. A truly effective listener does a lot of the work for the speaker by entering into the world of the speaker, practicing deep empathy and taking in information regardless of which words or style are used to present it. A good listener makes it easy for the talker to be heard.
In both talking and listening, it’s not only the level of skill but also the level of adaptability that makes communication successful. And the greater the 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.
When leaders develop both skills to a high level, it can help balance the tension between executive presence and inclusion. When talking, they recognize the uniqueness of their audience and communicate such that their listeners can understand. When listening, they 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 Harvard Business Review Article, “Diversity Doesn’t Stick Without Inclusion.”