The article was originally posted on Forbes Coaches Council.
She doesn’t exude executive presence.
She doesn’t command the room when she is with a difficult client.
She doesn’t make and own her hard decisions.
A rising leader in her professional services firm, Catherine (not her real name) stood at a crossroads in her career and leadership journey. Why wasn’t a talented, highly educated and ambitious leader like herself getting where she wanted to be in her career? Why wasn’t Catherine demonstrating the poise and presence her firm needed?
In short, no one had ever told her she wasn’t embodying executive presence. And if they did, they did so without clarity and/or Catherine didn’t understand what was truly being said. Unfortunately, this is the reality many rising leaders in organizations experience. No one has taken the time to communicate what type of leader they’re supposed to be. Either the feedback is never offered or, if it is shared, the delivery of these leadership expectations is so convoluted the message is lost. A clear picture of what is expected is not explicitly communicated. Be honest; if you have found yourself doing this, stop!
Senior partners can offer a tremendous gift by giving feedback. More specifically, the chance to communicate how to show up as a rising leader can create a significant competitive advantage. Among Gen-Z employees, 66% (registration required) want regular feedback every few weeks; many feel it’s crucial for their career development. The professional services firms that understand how to leverage feedback for nurturing rising leaders will be better positioned to win the next war for talent.
The question is how to communicate those expectations. How do you use feedback to foster greater executive presence in rising leaders? Different conversations with top partners at three law firms this past week reminded me again that giving feedback is foreign to many firm leaders. “Julie, I don’t know how to give feedback. What do I say? I don’t want to have this hard conversation. I don’t know what I want to see instead. Can’t you have this conversation with Catherine?
If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone in that sentiment. What’s holding you back from having an honest conversation with your junior partners or associates about executive presence? You may be concerned your honest feedback will drive away a high-performing, albeit underdeveloped, aspiring leader. You may be concerned with potentially alienating an ally, and in a highly competitive industry, that may spell trouble.
Whatever the reason, it’s natural to have a heightened sense of risk. That’s not the challenge—that’s the opportunity. For the right rising leader in your firm, they may only see their schedule this week or this month. You, on the other hand, are able to see their future.
How do you communicate when a colleague isn’t demonstrating executive presence?
The Titanium Rule refocuses us to “Speak to others in the way they want and need to be spoken to.” How would the other person want you to communicate a tough truth? Not the way you would want to communicate—how would they want you to share what they need to hear?
It takes little talent or expertise to point out a hole or flaw. You can position yourself as part of the solution instead of merely pointing out the problem. “You don’t show executive presence when [give an example of a specific, recent situation here], but here’s what you can do instead…” The real value is sharing, from your expertise, what you’ve found that works best for you that may work for them. Encourage them to find their unique style of presence.
You can tap into their strengths and how they can translate them to other areas of their work. Feedback is best given when a relationship of trust is in place. It allows you to create space and unearth what may be holding back their executive presence. If you have a good relationship in place, you may be free to ask more disruptive questions, such as:
• “What story are you telling yourself at this moment?”
• “What do you know to be true about this type of situation? What’s the lie?”
• “Are you showing up with a fixed mindset in this type of conversation? What does a more growth-oriented mindset sound or look like in this situation? How might that mindset impact the conversation?”
Know when and how to develop an executive presence in real time.
As a long-time Red Sox fan, I know the value of getting good at-bats. There are “at-bat” opportunities inside your firm that can give leaders a chance to grow with your support. These may be important meetings, key conversations or even decision-making moments that need more discussion.
What made Terry Francona one of the best managers in modern MLB history is his ability to give feedback at the right time after an at-bat. For professional services firm leaders, the best time is often not right after the meeting. I recommend using the 24-hour rule: If feedback is needed, especially if the situation was not a good experience, give clear, constructive feedback within 24 hours of the event. It allows the memory to still be fresh without potentially stealing the moment. And yet, it also allows the individual to first process the experience for themself.
As with many leadership disciplines, giving feedback and building executive presence are two forms of art. To quote the great soccer genius Ted Lasso (who was himself quoting Simon Sinek), “Leadership isn’t about being in charge; it’s about taking care of those in your charge.” It takes practice, skill and the willingness to learn or even unlearn. The reward, though, is a well-developed, strong leadership ethos that can lead your firm far into the future.