Executive Presence Expands Opportunities

Jim Sterling, Exec-Comm Partner, answers the question “Who in your life embodies executive presence?” Hear his response.

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Three Steps To Developing An Innovative Instinct — And The Questions To Ask Yourself To Get There

Innovation requires an openness to trying something new. But what if you grow up in a world where you are educated to get the best exam score rather than to think broadly about a problem and debate possible solutions? And what if, in addition, your culture teaches you to learn by listening and accepting, rather than by asking questions? How do you learn to innovate if you are risk averse, and you can’t get the input you need to know how you are really doing?

Ami Dror faced that problem when he moved from Israel to Shanghai to launch an educational start-up, LeapLearner. I had a chance to meet with Dror on a recent trip to Asia. His experience has lessons for anyone who cares about developing the next generation of innovative thinkers.

“What if we could unleash the potential of everyone to innovate?” he asks. Rather than just dream that dream, he’s doing something about it.

LeapLearner, started in Shanghai in 2015 by Dror, Leo Zhao and Aaron Tian, challenges children to create a video game; at least, creating a game is the stated purpose. What Dror and the team really accomplish is to teach kids how to innovate by teaching them how to write computer code.

Says Dror, “When you write a string of code, you test it by hitting “execute.” If it works, you achieved the goal. If it doesn’t, which is more often the case, you must go back through your lines of code to figure out where the problem lies. That means every time you hit “execute,” you are asking for and receiving feedback on how well you have accomplished your task.”

According to Dror, the Chinese educational system follows a thousand-years-old tradition where the student’s main goal is to have the highest score on a test. The traditional learning process was not designed to encourage innovative thinking. This is clearly changing in the last few years as China becomes one of the most innovative cultures in the world.

“China historically mastered the ‘improvement innovation’ by taking what is already good, and making it fantastic,” Dror says. “The view of ‘Made in China’ implying substandard goods is very dated. Like anywhere, in China there are lots of second-rate products, but the ones that are good, are as good as it gets and we see more and more international companies following the Chinese lead on innovation.”

In some cultures, including Dror’s native Israel, “pride of authorship” encourages individuals to find their own paths to a solution, but not always in an organized fashion. “In Israel, kids don’t analyze. Instead, they usually follow the “trial and error” method, taking guesses and pursuing success diligently, but haphazardly.”

But in Israel, he says, “People are very comfortable taking ‘reputational risk,’ being willing to try something new.” The challenge in Israel is, he says, “They don’t have enough people to execute on innovative ideas.” That is definitely not the problem in China. “China has a huge advantage – lots of people who can execute.” But China’s population, by and large, is not taught to innovate. “In schools here, most kids do not ask questions. They do what they are told. They aren’t encouraged to be inquisitive, to ask, “Why?” Dror see a huge potential in China, assuming the innovative potential can be tapped. He thinks he’s found a fun and engaging way to help unleash the innovation in everyone.

The first step is to free people from the fear of failure. Coding is the perfect tool for doing that. “The feedback loop in coding is so fast that you get accustomed to asking for and receiving feedback very quickly. When your goal as a kid is to build your own computer video game, you’re fully engaged. You know you need the feedback and the guidance to fix your problems, so you’re not afraid to ask for direction.” Coding helps with critical thinking and problem-solving skills, all while teaching kids to innovate.

The second step is to make sure you’re creating a culture where innovation is rewarded.  In LeapLearner classes, the reward for the kids is intrinsic in the process, since the kids are creating videos games. But Dror encourages innovation as an employer as well. He rewards employees who take risks by promoting them to management roles, and he makes sure other employees are conscious of what led to someone else’s promotion. He defines “taking risks” as “doing something I didn’t tell you to do,” certainly a modest step, but you have to start somewhere.

The third step is to make that risk-taking a more consistent behavior. Dror feels there is still a lot of work to do in China to make that happen, but he sees hope. “The government knows it’s an issue and is starting to incorporate innovation skills into the school curriculum. They recently mandated that coding be taught in all schools. This is an amazing step toward getting people comfortable with feedback, and rewarding the behavior of being innovative.”

How does all of this apply to you?

If you manage others, you can create a culture of innovation by applying the steps achieved by LeapLearner.

  1. Speak openly about times you tried something new that didn’t work, and what you learned from the process. That will let others on your team know not to fear failure.
  2. Celebrate the small changes people make to the way they work that lead to better performance. The public “pat on the back” at a meeting or through email to acknowledge someone’s new idea or revised process helps everyone know that you value people thinking more broadly.
  3. Incorporate discussions of new ideas and approaches into meetings as often as possible. Your team needs to hear that encouragement more frequently than at an annual meeting. Frequent, and consistent communication is more likely to lead to a change in culture.

Regardless of whether you are in management, what can you do to develop your own innovative behaviors? Take a step back from what you do, and reflect on how you do it. Analyze the tasks and the roles you perform. Ask yourself a few questions.

  • Has the organization implemented any changes recently that I didn’t understand or that seemed arbitrary? If so, who can I ask about the “Why” for the change? There may be something I can learn from someone’s else’s innovative idea.
  • Which processes have never made sense to me, and I know could be done better? How cumbersome would it be to implement that change?
  • Is there a committee at work dedicated to improving the organization’s efficiency or effectiveness that I can join?

Once you have found a likely avenue for critical thinking, evaluate the level of risk you and your organization find comfortable for trying something new. Make that effort at change public to whose around you. People are more likely to notice the change if you make it evident. Then, seek feedback on how you are doing. Is the change – the innovation – working? If not, that’s not failure; that’s encouragement to innovate further until you find new and better ways.

“My core innovation principles are very simple no matter if I share it with my students, my employees, or my kids,” added Dror. “Have more dreams than achievements. Chase your dreams as fast as you can and fail fast if needed, but always, always ask ‘WHY?’.”

For Dror’s students at Leap Learner, that leads to a new computer game. For us in the workplace, it leads to broader thinking and greater business success. Not a bad payoff.

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3 Key Attributes for Executive Presence

Consultant, Robert Chen shares three key attributes of someone with executive presence. First, be comfortable in your own skin and know your strengths and weaknesses. Second, be concise. Third, be emotionally intelligent and focus on others.

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Executive Presence Disregards Age

When Facilitator Komal Pandya-Singh was in college, she encountered a young girl crossing a busy street in Astoria, Queens. This young girl embodied a strong executive presence at the early age of 11 or 12. Hear her story below.

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A Tale of Two Trips – Communication Can Be the Difference

My family and I took a marvelous seven-day cruise recently, from New York to Florida and the Bahamas. A week later, out of curiosity, I was following the progress of our same ship with the same itinerary. Different weather.

On January 4th, a “bomb cyclone” hit the eastern seaboard. The week before, it was smooth sailing. The week after, the ship steamed right through the storm. The good news: the ship arrived safely to port with no reported injuries. The bad news: the perilous trip made the evening news, along with video footage from incensed passengers. The biggest complaint? No communication from the bridge for two days of very tough cruising, except for cryptic announcements about how they were experiencing “rough seas.” One passenger’s response: “No crap!! I could see that!”

Monday morning quarterbacking is easy. Why didn’t they wait the storm out in the Bahamas? Why didn’t they cut the trip short? But the biggest question is: why didn’t the captain talk to the passengers about his plan for arriving safely and relatively on time in NYC?

Communication is critical in leadership. As a leader, if you don’t communicate your strategy or plan, doubts creep in and misery can ensue. People might assume that no communication equals no plan or no good outcome. Many passengers expressed grave concern about their overall safety to the news media. A shame really, since the captain, in an onboard promo video said what made him happy was, “Getting the ship, crew and passengers home safely.”

With 5,000 souls on board, the captain’s first job is to do just that – get everyone home safely. The captain’s second job, some might argue, is to communicate the plan to get everyone home safely to inspire confidence and ease doubts. This doesn’t mean total transparency. Leaders need to judge what information is helpful to their team. Job number one is critical. Job number two is critical for good business: it keeps everyone coming back for more.

Part of me wished that I was on that second trip for the sheer adventure. High seas, flooding cabins, breaking glass. The dramatic tension of not knowing if you’ll get through the storm alive. The rest of me thanks the heavens that my family and I experienced the first trip. Home safe and sound and on time – just like the second trip.

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Master First Impressions Through Your Physical Manner

In “The Power of Pretty”. Exec-Comm consultant Rachel Lamb discusses how appearance leads people to judge us as professionals. But appearance goes beyond what we look like and what we’re wearing – our physical manner is just as important.

According to Albert Mehrabian’s studies on nonverbal communication, others judge you only 7 percent of the time based on your words, 38 percent based on your tone of voice, and a whopping 55 percent based on your body language.

Want to improve your body language at your next meeting? Give these three tips a try.

Communicate Openness

Focus your eyes on the person who is speaking to show that you are involved, friendly and trustworthy. Stay present in the conversation by listening and responding as appropriate; occasionally nod to show you are engaged.

Project an Involved Posture

When seated, place both feet on the floor and sit with your spine straight. Sit on the front 2/3 of your chair and place your hands and forearms apart above the table. Use gestures to show size, movement and feelings. Avoid leaning back, slouching and crossing your arms or legs – all of these send a disengaged message.

Be Responsive and Supportive

Speak clearly and without hesitation in a conversational tone. Project interest and empathy through your facial expressions and match your expression to your words.

Give these three tips a try the next time you meet someone or are holding a meeting and let us know in the comments below how it goes!

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Podcast: How to Be Listener Directed

Jay Sullivan, author of Simply Said: Communicating Better at Work and Beyond, spoke with Bill Ringle from My Quest for the Best about what it means to be an effective communicator. Jay and Bill addressed diffusing tense situations, communicating in a way that will engage your listeners, and how to connect better with your audience.

Play  Listen Now

To read more of Jay’s tips, take a look at his column on Forbes.com.

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Storytelling Builds Relationships

In business, it’s important to build relationships beyond the next deal or project. Professionals with strong executive presence connect on a deeper level and build trust through storytelling. Consultant, Tony Capone shares how easily stories can help you relate to one another on a more personal level.

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Three Easy Ways to Avoid Being a Jerk At Work (and Beyond)

This post is mostly just for men.

We have all stuck our foot in our mouth at some point, saying the wrong thing, or saying the right thing with the wrong tone or at the wrong time. We may mean well, but our comment misses the mark, or we come across as tone deaf to the situation in front of us, whether the result of “conscious bias,” or “unconscious bias.”

As a coach for senior executives, I’m often asked to work with very successful people who only need work on the subtlety of their communication. The briefing from the HR person usually starts with, “He’s a really nice guy, once you get to know him.” Or, “People just accept that that’s the way Scott is, but he still needs to work on it.” And occasionally, “Down deep, he’s nice and thoughtful and caring. But on the surface, geez!”

Here are some tips on how to avoid being perceived as “that guy” at work.

Stop tossing in witty side comments at meetings.

If you’ve got a knack for the quick pun, the sarcastic retort, the funny but irrelevant analogy, keep it to yourself. No one will forget how witty you are. Let it come through in more casual settings, not business meetings. One comment per meeting is sufficient. It can help lighten the mood and provide some mental breathing room from a tough conversation. But more than that is annoying and diminishes your overall presence. I used to be the guy who would throw in the funny comments at meetings. Years ago, I tried an experiment. At one long meeting, every time I wanted to throw out a comment to be funny, instead I put a tick mark at the top of my pad and kept my mouth shut. At the end of the meeting, I was appalled to see 12 marks on the pad. I would have interrupted the meeting 12 times, adding zero value, and making myself look bad. Here’s how to think about it.

If you’re the funny guy at 25, people grin and say, “Oh, that’s Jay. He’s a jokester.”

At 35, they roll their eyes and say, “Oh, that’s Jay. He’s a jerk.”

At 45, they grimace and say, “Yeah. That’s Jay. He’s a jackass.”

Don’t be a jackass, or at 55, you’ll be wondering why you’re not invited to meetings anymore.

Don’t make negative comments about anyone – especially your spouse.

I’ve only known three people my whole life from whom I never heard a bad word about anyone. They stand out as people of great dignity. Most of us will make the occasional snide remark about another person, which reflects far more on us than on the person we’re talking about. I’m not talking about people who are malicious; that’s a different issue. Rather, I’m referring to those of us who, out of awkwardness or lack of awareness, don’t understand the tone we are conveying, or what we are saying about our relationships.

This is especially important if you have a stay-at-home spouse who takes care of the kids and manages the household. My wife and I had four kids in five years. For more than a decade our house was chaos, but the good kind of chaos. Mary juggled competing priorities and schedules all day. When we would talk on the phone and she would recount her day, I would often comment, “So, just another day of popping bon-bons and watching soap operas, huh.” Of course, I would jokingly say that to her in acknowledgment of how tough her day was. If I ever said something like that in front of my co-workers, my female co-workers in particular, would have bitten my head off, and rightly so. If you have a stay at home wife or partner who manages your house, family, and life, don’t ever suggest at the office that you’re not sure what she does all day. Remember, the reason you are able to get so much done at work is because you have someone at home taking care of everything else. If you in any way knock that advantage, you are kidding yourself about your own accomplishments, and insulting people at the office who handle both jobs.

There are plenty of dads holding down the fort at home while their wives earn the income. I’ve never heard any working woman speak in a derogatory way about her stay-at-home husband. The respect for their role seems to be implicitly understood and appreciated.

Comment on colleagues’ accomplishments, not just their appearance.

We’re all so on edge about what we can and can’t say at work. However, our work lives are about relationships. We often like the people we work with. We view them as friends, not just colleagues. It’s perfectly natural to compliment someone’s new look or haircut at work. But don’t limit your comments to her appearance only. If you notice a female colleague wearing something new, it’s perfectly fine to say, “Nice scarf,” or “That’s a nice bright dress for spring.” But it would be much more thoughtful to start with a comment about her contributions at work. “Sarah, I really appreciated your comment at the meeting yesterday. I thought you raised a great point. By the way, nice scarf.” Start with the substantive comment. The compliment on appearance is secondary. And make the comment about the haircut or item of clothing, not about how it makes her look. “Nice dress. Is that new?” is fine. “You look great in that outfit,” is inappropriate.

Obviously, all of this assumes you are being genuine. Don’t blow smoke. People see right through that.

Disclaimer – at no point is it appropriate to comment on your female colleague’s shape or age. Those are non-starters. If you’re not sure where the line is, don’t make any comment at all about appearance, but don’t let that keep you from commenting on someone’s substance. That’s always appreciated.

There are many more ways to not be a jerk at work. This is just a starter list. Let me know if more would be helpful.

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How to Strike up a Conversation at a Conference

Many of us attend conferences for professional development.  We’d like to expand our job knowledge and bring the outside in.  But, it’s also a great time to step outside of your comfort zone and meet new people. Here are a few tips on how to be ready to strike up a conversation at your next event:

Study the headlines.

Before heading to the conference, scan the headlines or consider what is new and interesting in your industry and note a few potential topics to discuss.

Maintain eye contact.

When introducing yourself, smile and look into the person’s eyes as you speak your name and they say theirs. As the conversation continues, keep your focus on the person you are talking with. Don’t scan the room looking for friends or others to meet.

Gesture openly.

Avoid crossing your arms or clutching your drink with both hands as you talk. Instead, try and keep your hands apart and your arms relaxed. Gesturing makes you appear natural and approachable.

Ask a few questions.

Sometimes you’ll need to jump start their side of the conversation. Try asking an open-ended question like “What were you hoping to learn while you’re here?” If their answer is short, build on the information they’ve just shared.

Find a connection.

As they’re answering your questions, find an element to pick up on. You’re listening for something to keep the conversation going. Find common ground and the conversation will continue without effort.

Speak slowly and pause.

Keep the dialogue moving at a casual pace. If you talk too quickly, the listener will strain to keep up or may interpret your speedy delivery as a sign of nervousness.

Disengage politely.

After a few minutes, it’s perfectly fine to close the conversation. Exchange contact information, if you’d like. Ask them to join you on a trip to the buffet. Or, simply smile, tell them you enjoyed chatting and move on.

We hope you meet lots of interesting people at HRWest. Just start with “hello” and go from there.

Have other tips you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.

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