August 8, 2017

Executive Presence and Duke Basketball's "Next Play!"

Talk of Executive Presence, Power Posturing and the like is everywhere. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on Body Language and Power has been viewed an astonishing 28M times. A recent study by Sei Jin Ko, Melody Sadler and Adam Galinsky, The Sound of Power: Conveying and Detecting Hierarchical Rank Through Voice, highlighted a person’s voice changes as their power increases and how those voice changes can be detected by others even through very minor manipulations of relative power. Finally, there are classes out there on posture, voice inflection, presenting, eye contact, handshake grip to help people develop that je ne sais quoi vibe.

I am not knocking the utility of training in this area. I have personally witnessed the before and after power of training people to be more aware of these issues.

Moreover, make no mistake: people form impressions and they form them quickly. At the very minimum, many of these adjustments can be “jacks or better” to help keep you in the game until your knowledge and experience have a chance to form more deeper, lasting impressions.

There is an aphorism that the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. Similarly, the opposite of Presence is not super boring or being unnoticeable or unremarkable. The opposite of Executive Presence is Executive Not Presence. And when are we not present? When we are preoccupied with something else or in reaction mode because in both cases you are responding unconsciously and that is decidedly not present.

In reaction mode, you are not aware of your posture and voice, not attending to your own inner feelings, not attending to the dynamics in the room, not thoughtful and reflective. You are out of sorts, often saying and doing things you probably will wish you hadn’t, making decisions you would like to have taken more time with.

So while working on your posture and voice and rhythm of speaking, a simple strategy for increasing your executive presence is to change your response to the things that cause you to go into reaction mode. Addition by subtraction.

Here is something to try for a week. Make a list of the key people you interact with throughout the day, boss, key employees, functional peers, significant other, etc. For each one, keep a list of the triggers…things they do or say that throw you off your game. By that I mean, you react behaviorally in a way you wish you didn’t or you have an inner “argument” with them for way too long afterwards. An argument that usually goes something like, “I know I am right about this. And here are all the reasons why. If I asked 5 other people they would all agree with me. How can this person be so stupid?”

What we want to do with this list of triggers is try to develop better, less reactive, responses.  By this, I am not suggesting to avoid dealing with a significant interaction that you feel is or was not right. Far too often, we react badly or withdraw when the correct response is to invite the person aside and ask if they are willing to talk about what happened.

What we want to eliminate is getting caught up in the moment and reacting vs. being present, thoughtful and reflective. So once you have this list, pick each trigger and mentally rehearse a different response. When your boss makes another of his off-handed comments, what would be a way to write that off so you can avoid a 20 minute dialogue in your head about him or coalition building with others after the meeting on what a boor he is? When a direct report brings you news of more delays and you find yourself raising your voice, what would be a better response that would keep both of you in the moment working towards solutions?

Keep rehearsing the responses until you can actually do them in the moment. See what effect that has on your ability to be present and project that sense of power and presence. Because we all know we perform better when we are focused, aware of ourselves, and aware of the dynamics around us.

This is such an important attribute, not just for executives, but for all of us in all situations.  In fact it is actually a pillar of one of the most successful college basketball programs of all time. Year after year for decades the Duke Basketball Mens team has been one of the top teams in the nation, with multiple National Championships under their belts.

One of their key rituals is to declare “Next Play” after every single play, good or bad.  No matter what just happened…turnover, three pointer, blown coverage, terrible call by the officials, or a monster dunk…it’s time to focus on the task at hand…the next play.  Because they know when players allow their minds to linger on what just happened, they lose their intensity and performance plummets. 

What is your “Next Play” reminder that helps you be more present with the task at hand no matter how uplifting or maddening what just happened was? 

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