Executive Presence: The Devil is in the Details

We frequently coach leaders who are transitioning into roles where they have increasing exposure to more senior levels of leadership.  This can be a particularly challenging transition to manage and we often hear comments that the leaders involved need to develop “executive presence,” or “strategic perspective,” or some other vague term that is often confusing.

Our experience as coaches has helped us more clearly define these concepts for our clients and help them through their transitions to develop the skills and behaviors their senior leaders are looking for.  While every situation is different, finding the balance between short-term delivery and longer term perspective is a theme that consistently seems to challenge a lot of leaders.

Emerging and mid-level leaders typically have increasing levels of responsibility for the day-to-day activities in their organization.  They have often been promoted because they know how things work and can support their staff by problem solving on short term issues.  Senior level executives also rely on these leaders to “fill in the gaps” of their own knowledge by confirming the feasibility of plans and ideas for moving the organization forward.  This expertise requires these leaders to have deep knowledge of their areas of responsibility.

The challenge for these leaders is that as they have more and more exposure to senior executives, they must find ways to use this knowledge to make recommendations without getting hamstrung by the details.  Too many times I have witnessed talented leaders lose credibility with senior executives because they were too “caught up in the weeds” to effectively communicate to the senior level.  Often, these same leaders are frustrated because their senior executives seemingly don’t care how things work, but just want the answer. 

As the technical experts in their areas, mid-level leaders often feel considerable pressure to respond to questions on the spot.  This is important with their team members who are looking for a solution to an immediate problem, and often requires the leader to roll up their sleeves, deeply understand what’s going on, and help define a solution.  However, this same behavior in an exchange with executives can sometimes be cause for criticism.  Trying to flush out the details of a problem real time can sometimes be interpreted as being unable to engage at a more strategic level.  In these cases, leaders must learn to leverage their expertise to set direction without needing to have all the answers filled in.  Stepping back from the specifics and really focusing on the desired outcomes can often help.  Here are a few  things to consider that might help you develop this important skill:

  • Is senior leadership clear on the outcomes they are trying to achieve? Can you help further add clarity?
  • Does the overall direction make sense based on the general structures in place and capabilities of the team? If not, are there any major concerns?
  • What information do we need to set the general direction? What details can we address after the fact?
  • What decision needs to be made now? Are there elements of the solution that I should take back to my team for more thoughtful consideration?

Try this out in your next senior executive meeting and see if it helps you start to develop your skill at bridging the gap between your detailed knowledge and the need for senior level perspective and planning.

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