Leadership communication primer

My first term as a student at Cambridge University was rough. I grew up in the coal mining valleys of South Wales and spoke English with a ...

My first term as a student at Cambridge University was rough. I grew up in the coal mining valleys of South Wales and spoke English with a thick Welsh accent, whereas the vast majority of my classmates at Cambridge had attended elite public schools (Eton, Harrow, Cheltenham Ladies) and spoke impeccable “Queen’s” English. In class-conscious England, my South Wales accent indicated I was from the lower echelons of society. I dropped my aitches, talked about “our mam,” and said “ta” instead of “thank you.” Back in the 1970s these colloquialisms were not regarded as charming or cute. Indeed, my first week at Cambridge I overheard my tutor describe me to a colleague as “uncouth”—a memory that still makes me wince.

At bottom my accent signaled that I was uneducated or “ill-bred” (to use a particularly demeaning English term). And in a sense I was. I had very little knowledge of the world. My father occasionally brought home a local tabloid called the Western Mail but didn’t see the point in buying a national newspaper, so I knew next to nothing about current affairs. Our household boasted a motley collection of nineteenth-century novels, courtesy of my mother, who loved the Brontë sisters, but outside of that I was not well-read. At eighteen I’d never been to the theater, shopped at a high-end store, or traveled abroad. We spent family vacations in a trailer park in West Wales. As a result I had no small talk or cocktail patter. It wasn’t a personality thing—I was friendly and outgoing. I was tongue-tied because I didn’t have anything to talk about that suited my new milieu. I had no way of joining in conversations about, for instance, the Tory leadership traits struggle, the skiing season in Austria, or the latest in bell-bottom jeans.

My fellow students weren’t openly rude or hostile—after all, they were “wellbred” young people—but they kept their distance. I wasn’t on the invitation lists for sought-after freshman parties, and I found it impossible to penetrate the cozy circles that dominated the interesting clubs. I remember being the awkward, ignored outsider at the Cambridge Union (the university-wide debating society).

I soon realized that to survive and thrive I needed to strip myself of my accent and lose the most obvious of the class markers that set me apart from my peers. By January of that first year I was on the case and set about a transformation. I started with voice and speech—which were, after all, how I “betrayed” myself. I couldn’t afford elocution lessons or a voice coach, so I bought a tape recorder and spent long hours listening to, and then attempting to copy, the plummy voices on BBC Radio. I sought out the newscasters on the BBC World Service since they spoke a particularly clear and neutral form of Queen’s English. It took months, but I nailed it.

Concurrently I set about elevating my conversation so that it reflected the caliber of my thinking rather than my class background. I subscribed to the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement, bought cheap tickets to the Arts Cinema, and plunged into the literature on African liberation movements. I was about to spend the summer in Ghana participating in a professor’s research project, so why not develop some wellinformed opinions about this intriguing continent? Africa was very “in.” By June I was trying out my newfound cultural and political fluency on my slowly expanding circle of sophisticated friends.

My makeover well under way, it was simply a matter of time before these improvements took and I could carry on conversations about a variety of topics without giving away my origins. This is not to say my struggle was over: For my family, my new accent was a different kind of betrayal, one that raised questions of authenticity. Yet the success I started to enjoy at Cambridge as a result of my transformation underscored for me two profound lessons. First, leadership communication is not so much what you say but rather how you say it. And this you can condition and control. The tone and timbre of your voice; your choice and use of words; your inflection, articulation, and delivery; and even your body language determine what and how much your listeners take in—and what overall impression of you they will form and retain as a result. Other people’s perceptions of you are very much yours to shape.

Leadership Communication: ALWAYS ON

Most of us tend to think of communication skills in terms of formal presentation skills. But when are you not onstage? When are you not being judged? No matter what your job title or how junior or senior you are, you are always presenting. Whether it’s a quick email to your boss, a casual comment you make to colleagues in the hallway, or a pitch you prepare for clients, you’re conveying who you are and what authority is your due. In the real world and very much in the virtual one, every verbal encounter is a vital opportunity to create and nurture a positive impression. Your communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, are what ultimately win you the attention and mindshare of colleagues, clients, and friends.Most of us tend to think of communication skills in terms of formal presentation skills. But when are you not onstage? When are you not being judged? No matter what your job title or how junior or senior you are, you are always presenting. Whether it’s a quick email to your boss, a casual comment you make to colleagues in the hallway, or a pitch you prepare for clients, you’re conveying who you are and what authority is your due. In the real world and very much in the virtual one, every verbal encounter is a vital opportunity to create and nurture a positive impression. Your communication skills, both verbal and nonverbal, are what ultimately win you the attention and mindshare of colleagues, clients, and friends.

leadership communication
In the arsenal of communication traits that confer executive presence from how you stand to how you deliver your message—superior speaking skills above all mark you as a leader. Assertiveness and an ability to command a room emerge as critical tools as well. But less obvious things—such as your ability to read the room or banter with colleagues, even the way you hold yourself—contribute to your effectiveness as a communicator. These six behaviors boil down to one thing, really: How powerfully do you connect with your audience? How quickly can you engage your listeners, and how long can you keep their attention? Effective communication is all about engagement. And new research shows that, among the tools you bring to this task, content is the least important aspect. A 2012 analysis of 120 financial spokespersons found that what makes a speaker persuasive are elements such as passion (27 percent), voice quality (23 percent), and presence (15 percent). Content matters a measly 15 percent.

Effective communication turns out to be about the medium and not the message. Your topic may be of intrinsic interest, but unless you minimize distractions for your audience—no easy feat in this age of the omnipresent smartphones—you’ll never manage to convey that interest. Look at the phenomenal popularity of TED talks, which spotlight some pretty arcane subjects. What makes a talk TED-worthy is not merely the topic but also the speaker’s ability to engage the audience, in person and online, for eighteen minutes without the benefit of notes, PowerPoint, music, or lectern. It’s no coincidence that what makes a great TED talk is a speaker who happens to employ masterfully all six of the core communication behaviors. To be heard above the din, to be seen despite the glitz, to be accorded authority and credibility, and to be remembered and heeded, you will need to master at least three of them.

Leadership Communication: SUPERIOR SPEAKING SKILLS

Fundamentally, communication is about speech—a point made rather poignantly by Tom Hooper’s Oscar-winning 2010 film, The King’s Speech , which dramatizes the real-life transformation of Bertie (Albert), the stammering son of King George V, into King George VI after his older brother Edward abdicates the throne in 1936. Wife Elizabeth, keenly conscious of how her husband’s speech disability undermines England’s confidence in him as a leader, arranges for Bertie to work with a speech therapist whose tactics are decidedly unconventional. It’s an agonizing and humiliating process, but one that ends in triumph: Bertie overcomes his stammer to deliver the radio address that crystallizes the nation’s resolve to take on Hitler.

Most of us, thankfully, don’t have to contend with a crippling stammer. But most of us do suffer from verbal shortcomings that turn out to be just as damaging to our executive presence. Executives I interviewed cited inarticulateness, poor grammar, and an off-putting tone or accent as examples of verbal tics that undermine EP. Other executives objected to “uptalk,” the tendency of younger women (and some men) to end declarative statements on a high note, as if they were asking a question versus stating a point. Still others complained of people who punctuated every third word with “uh” or “you know.” Everybody, it seems, recalled an annoying voice, one that was too high-pitched or too mousy, too breathy or too raspy. In particular, those we interviewed mentioned “shrill” women: women who, whenever they get emotional or defensive, raise the timbre of their voice, turning off coworkers and clients, and losing out on leadership development programs opportunities.

These are verbal cues that can be adjusted. The painful part is that you’ll probably need to be told you’ve got a problem before you can begin to address it.

Leadership Communication: ACCENT

Top attorney Kent Gardiner, chair of law firm Crowell & Moring, recalls how, when he left his native Long Island, New York, to work for the federal prosecutor in Texas, his mentor took him aside to share some difficult advice. “You have to fundamentally change how you speak,” he told Gardiner. “You have to flatten your accent. You have to work on it; you have to videotape yourself. You have to change, or you cannot survive in this state.” Gardiner didn’t seek outside help: “Nobody had any money, and the government didn’t have a program for rehabilitating New York accents.” But he did work on modulating his Long Island accent, and in doing so he developed the habit of listening to his own voice as he spoke. “Every time I speak to my partners, I think about it before I get up,” he explains. “And as soon as I sit down, I re-listen to how the talk went. I just replay it mentally. It’s very conscious. I work at it constantly, because nothing is more important in this profession than oral communication skills.”

Sounding provincial can “destabilize your authority,” says Gardiner. A British accent, on the other hand, does wonders for your gravitas, according to our focus groups, perhaps because speaking the King’s English automatically sets you apart in global commerce, as a group of Standard Chartered managers told us in Singapore. “Maybe it’s the weight of history or the depth of ancestry, but a British accent adds to the impression of heft,” concurs Dr. Jane Shaw, former chairman of the board for Intel and former CEO of pharmaceutical giant Aerogen Inc. Before you rush out to acquire one, however, let me reference my own experience to point out that a British accent is complicated. There are good ones and bad ones, and even the good ones can get you into trouble, making you seem snobbish or even out of touch.

Leadership Communication: GRAMMAR

Sounding uneducated likewise undermines your gravitas and marks you as an outsider to the inner circle, as I discovered. Indeed, 55 percent of our respondents identified it as a top communication blunder. And yet it’s the rare person who will risk correcting your word usage, as such correction calls attention to chasms of socioeconomic class, education, and ethnicity. Katherine Phillips, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership qualities and Ethics at Columbia Business School, describes how thankful she was to have found a sponsor who, early in her academic career, stepped in to correct her improper English. “You’re saying the word wrong, Kathy,” her sponsor, who was her thesis advisor, told her. “It’s ‘ask.’ Not ‘aks.’ ” Reflects Phillips, who is African-American: “A lot of white people would be concerned they’d sound racist if they pointed these things out to an African-American colleague, but she realized the deleterious impact of how I spoke on other people—and on my career.”

Leadership Communication: TIMBRE AND PITCH

The research is overwhelming. Not only does the sound of your voice matter twice as much as what you’re talking about, as the 2012 Quantified Impressions study of financial spokespersons found,32 but a voice in the lower-frequency range will encourage others to see you as successful, sociable, and smart, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Voice.33 Our research confirms that a high-pitched voice, particularly for women, is a career-stunting attribute. Indeed, to hear our interviewees and focus group participants tell it, nothing is more destructive of a woman’s EP than shrillness. Crowell & Moring’s chairman Kent Gardiner told me of his travails with a female litigator whose tone was so strident and shrill that the client demanded she be taken off his case. Lynn Utter of Knoll described the “fingernails on a chalkboard” effect of a senior female leader who was well-spoken and effective until emotion got the better of her, causing her voice to rise to a shriek—“and then everybody tuned her out.” And here’s why: “Shrill voices have that hint of hysteria that drives men into a panic,” says Suzi Digby, a British choral conductor and music educator. “Women with a high-pitched tone will be perceived as not only unleaderlike but out of control.”

Margaret Thatcher was fortunate to grasp and act upon this insight early in her political career. As a new appointee to Edward Heath’s cabinet in 1970, she was pilloried for having, as one journalist put it, the “hectoring tones of the housewife.” When the BBC dropped her from a political spot because her voice was too harsh, Thatcher recognized her career might depend on fixing that voice. So she turned to Hollywood voice coach Kate Fleming, who’d given Laurence Olivier the lowerregister tones that established his gravitas in Othello. From 1972 until 1976, Fleming worked with her, transforming what biographer Charles Moore called “her annoying shrieking” into the voice that won her Heath’s seat as prime minister in 1979 and helped establish her as Britain’s Iron Lady, a woman renowned for “a smoothness that seldom cracked.”

Modulating a shrill voice is not a matter of learning to sound more like a man, but rather of achieving what scientists at Duke University have discovered to be an optimally pleasing sound frequency of around 125 Hz. Human beings are apparently wired to tune into lower frequencies; and of course, we tend to pay attention longer to voices we don’t find irritating. Consider whom you’d rather hear speak at your son or daughter’s commencement: James Earl Jones (85 Hz) or Roseanne Barr (377 Hz)?

And if that doesn’t incentivize you to bring down your pitch, this should: Optimally pleasing voices win the biggest leadership roles and earn the biggest salaries. Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and the University of California, San Diego’s Rady School of Management analyzed recordings of 792 U.S. chief executives at public companies as they made investor presentations or earnings calls. They also gathered data on their salaries, length of tenure, and company size. After controlling for experience, education, and other influential factors, the scientists found that a drop of 22 Hz in voice frequency correlated with a $187,000 bump in compensation and a larger company size ($440 million larger, in fact). The implication? The lower your voice, the greater your leadership presence, which correlates to an increased likelihood of running a large company and making a substantial salary.

You may think your voice isn’t very mutable. But as Thatcher’s experience demonstrates, with the right help you can modify it so that, at the very least, you don’t turn colleagues off or drive people from the room. Speech training and coaching can make a difference, often because they provide what your colleagues or superiors just won’t dare: feedback on how you sound. You may think you know how you sound, but you’re not the best person to judge, as a recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out, because you hear your voice only after it’s traveled through the bones of your head.

You may also imagine there’s nothing wrong with your voice because no one’s told you there is. But as we’ll explore in chapter 6, unvarnished feedback is hard to give and hard to receive. Indeed, new consulting companies are springing up in response to client demand for feedback on just these sorts of matters; confronting a coworker or subordinate about speech issues is so fraught that few actually dare do it or manage to be constructive in their criticism.

So ask for feedback. A sponsor or mentor should be able to give you a good sense of what you need to work on. Then get to work—because a lot is at stake.

Leadership Communication: COMMAND A ROOM

Say what you will about Arianna Huffington’s politics, but she knows how to command attention—whether her audience is a room full of left-leaning movie moguls or a voting bloc of religious conservatives. With the Huffington Post, she commands a readership of some 5.7 million devotees per day. Powerful people as well as the hoi polloi hang on her every word. What exactly is it about Arianna that makes her such a commanding presence?

Erik Hedegaard, who profiled Huffington for Rolling Stone in 2006, suggests it’s her “capacity for intimacy.” Other profilers have stressed her seductive charm, a Bill Clinton–like capacity for making the listener feel as though he or she is the most interesting person in the room. And then there’s her voice and accent—that mesmerizing overlay of erudition, honed during her student days at Cambridge, commingled with Greek sensuality.

But it comes down to this: Arianna is never boring. And if you aspire to lead, you, too, must mesmerize your audience—or, to use the language of our survey research, “command a room,” whether that room be a TV studio, a concert hall, or the team hang-out space. Nearly half of our respondents said it enhances a woman’s executive presence, and more than half said it enhances a man’s.

So: How do you grab and keep an audience?

Leadership Communication: ESTABLISH CONNECTION

Ironically, this can prove difficult for women, who find it easy to be forthcoming in private but are often self-consciously withheld in public settings, Digby points out. But getting an audience to like you, to root for you, while at the same time giving the impression that you don’t need to be liked—this is the wire you want to walk.

I can speak to the power of this. At a large conference in Los Angeles sponsored by GE’s Hispanic leaders, I delivered a keynote that presented CTI’s cutting-edge findings about the challenges confronting Latinas in the U.S. labor market. While I was confident the research could withstand scrutiny, I was conscious that I might not: Here I was, an elite-sounding English speaker appearing before them as an authority on Hispanic issues. So I didn’t launch right into the research when I took the stage.

Instead I shared my own story: how I struggled to overcome my accent and the issues I faced as someone born a girl child on the wrong side of the tracks. The effect this had was quite magical. In minutes I felt a palpable dissolution of tension as my audience put aside any reservations they may have had to join me in better understanding the research I wanted to bring to their attention.


Phrasing, inflection, and pace are what distinguish you as a person worth listening to, says Suzi Digby. As in music, it’s important to deliver your words conscious of your narrative arc, lifting and dropping your cadence to emphasize key passages or points, paying particular attention to how you end a phrase—what musicians call “phrasing off”—so that your listener senses closure and consequently hangs on to the last word and retains it before making room for the next. The uplift that younger speakers impose on the ends of their sentences, she observes, “undermines their whole message” by denying this closure.

The speed with which you deliver words impacts, in turn, the effectiveness of your phrasing. Digby, who in addition to leading the Queens’ College choir coaches those selected to read passages from the Bible, says she’s always amazed at how often eminent leaders rush their delivery. “Ninety-eight percent of the time even a good speaker will go way too fast trying to cram things in,” she says. She coaches them to slow down, but also to surround the text with pauses and silences to heighten their power—again, a tactic composers employ to heighten drama and emphasize preludes and codas. “A musician’s impact lies in the rests,” she explains. “It’s the moment where you establish the tension and the seduction. Don’t be afraid of silence.”

I’ve seen this advice put to powerful effect by Sallie Krawcheck, who has learned to command the room by not speaking. “There is nothing so powerful as silence to make people sit up in their seats,” Krawcheck told me. “It’s loud. It’s unexpected. It’s dramatic. And it’s confident.” Then to demonstrate the effect, she paused a full second before adding, “Very confident.” Deliberate silence is a trick she learned sitting at boardroom tables with titans like Sanford “Sandy” Weill, Vikram Pandit, Dick Parsons, and Robert Rubin, where men, she says, were accustomed to getting heard by being the loudest, most expletive-inflected voice in the room. To stand out as a woman, and to give heft to her thoughts, she started to punctuate her weightiest words with silence. “Those spaces give gravity to your most important pieces of advice, your most important insights, your most important messages,” she explains. “It heightens drama because people are literally hanging on your words.”

Leadership Communication: USE NARRATIVE

Stories, not bullet points, are what grab and hold an audience. Ronald Reagan, an actor by training, earned the sobriquet “the Great Communicator” because he was a colorful storyteller and natural entertainer, not because he wielded facts like a policy wonk. Unfortunately, most newcomers to the stage attempt to establish their gravitas by aping the policy wonk rather than the actor. It’s a common mistake among both men and women, particularly young professionals, to assume that an exhaustive and factladen presentation will bolster their gravitas, when in fact it does just the opposite: Going by the book underscores a lack of self-confidence and highlights an absence of individual spark. Remember, it’s the TED talk, and not an MIT nuclear physics seminar, that you’re trying to replicate.

Leadership Communication: DON’T SNOW PEOPLE WITH DATA

Though she holds a Ph.D. in Asian studies, Rohini Anand, Sodexo’s global chief diversity officer, has learned to be highly selective with how she delivers her messages, especially the positioning of facts and figures when presenting to different audiences. In some parts of the world, including her native India, she says, “you build up to your conclusion with data,” whereas in the United States, “people just want your conclusion, the bottom line.” So rather than build to the point, she gets to it quickly and limits herself to just a few data points that support what she’s saying. Getting to the Q&A quicker, she finds, boosts interaction and ultimately provides her the platform to share her data.

Coming from academia myself, I experienced a learning curve similar to Anand’s. My communication style after years of teaching at Barnard College and Columbia University was to present lengthy, nuanced arguments supported by a ton of compelling facts in fifty-minute chunks of time. Unfortunately, that style, which had won me a Teacher of the Year award at Barnard, went over like a lead balloon in corporate America. Business executives, I belatedly understood, have short attention spans: It’s imperative you cut to the chase, be highly selective with your data, and whenever possible share an illustrative story.

Leadership Communication: GET RID OF PROPS

Last year, less than a month after my friend Elaine was passed over for a C-suite promotion, I moderated a panel of executives that included the firm’s chief financial officer. He knew that Elaine and I had worked together, so I asked him why she hadn’t made the cut. After all, she’d been with the company twenty-five years and had an incredibly impressive track record.

He nodded, not in the least surprised by my inquiry. “She was one of the top three contenders for the job; indeed, in some ways, she was the most qualified,” he affirmed.

Emboldened, I persisted. “So why didn’t she get it?”

He sighed. “You’re not going to believe the real sticking point, Sylvia, but you and I have known each other a long time and I’ll come clean—the poor woman just makes too many lists.”

I was bewildered—what was he talking about? Seeing the puzzled expression on my face, he tried to explain:

“Picture this,” he said. “At our monthly executive committee briefing Elaine would always whip out a long list and meticulously consult it. Instead of looking you in the eye and talking compellingly about her team’s wins and losses, she’d have her head in lists, notes, or some dreary PowerPoint. It’s as though she didn’t command the material—or trust herself to remember the thrust of her presentation. Now, you and I know she’s as sharp as a razor and knows her stuff cold, but she doesn’t present that way. She comes across as some kind of glorified executive assistant.”

My eyes must have widened, because he added, “We can’t put her in front of the board. We can’t trust her with our important clients. Don’t you see? It’s about her ability to impress as well as perform.” eighty-seven PowerPoint slides, shuffling papers or flip charts, and putting on your glasses the better to see what you’re reading are all actions that detract from your gravitas because they focus attention on your lack of confidence. If you cannot command your subject, you certainly won’t be able to command the room. Know your material cold so that you needn’t rely on notes, and needn’t rely on your glasses to read notes. This will free you up to establish eye contact with the audience. And nothing is more important than eye contact, says Credit Suisse CEO Brady Dougan, because it telegraphs to your audience that you’re utterly in the moment. “There are such multiple tugs on people’s attention that distraction is the norm,” he observes.

“Eye contact shows I have your complete attention, which I deeply appreciate because it’s so very rare. In an important meeting, nothing boosts your leadership presence more than signaling that you’re totally present.”

Leadership Communication: BE SUCCINCT

“Executive presence is not necessarily about being formal or abundant in your communication, but rather straightforward and brief,” says Kerrie Peraino, head of international HR for American Express. “The more you keep speaking, or explaining yourself, the more you cloud or dilute your core message.” Women seem especially prone to this blunder, she observes, perhaps because they’re less sure of how they’re perceived and seek to prove their expertise by overselling their case. According to Moody’s Linda Huber, women also feel compelled to validate what they have to say by invoking all the people they consulted. “They go through five conditional clauses before they get to the point,” she observes. “It’s okay to say, ‘I have a different point of view,’ and then back it up with two or three reasons you can support with data. Don’t start with, ‘I’ve spent hours staying awake thinking about this and talked to thirty-seven people.’ Get to the point, and then people will give you their attention.”

Leadership Communication: ASSERTIVENESS

When Barbara Adachi was promoted to regional head of Human Capital Consulting at Deloitte—the first woman to win such a position at the accounting/consultancy firm she asked a partner we’ll call Doug if she could sit on the firm’s management committee with the other business leaders of audit and tax. He told her the seat was occupied by the regional director she’d reported to, who wasn’t about to give it up. “We can’t have two people from Human Capital at the table,” he added. Adachi persisted. “But I’m a partner and now leading this region,” she said. The other partner shook his head. “But people just don’t see you as a leader, Barbara.”

It was like a punch to the gut, Adachi recalls. A million responses came to mind, she says, including just storming out of the room. Instead, she managed to retort, “That’s because I’m not on the management committee!” Doug laughed, and conceded she had a point. “That broke the ice with him,” she relates. “But I could see his point, too: I wasn’t viewed as someone who was well connected with other leaders in my region and office. I didn’t have a powerful circle of sponsors, either. I may have been a partner, but nobody perceived me as one because I did not project executive presence.”

So Adachi, a Japanese-American woman who was raised to listen, not talk, made a decision that would change her life. She went back to Doug and delivered an ultimatum. “If the regional director won’t step down from the management committee, then I don’t want to be the leader in Northern California, because I’d have all the responsibility and none of the authority. To do this job well, I need to be respected as a leader. And if I can’t be on the committee, then I won’t be viewed as a peer by the other leaders.”

Ultimately Doug put her on the committee.

Being forceful and assertive is a core executive trait, for both men and women (as 48 percent of our survey respondents agree). But for women, it’s a decidedly more difficult trait to embody, as assertiveness in a woman often makes her unlikable (the B-word is rolled out and she’s seen as overly aggressive). We’ll explore this tightrope walk in depth in the blog; here let’s review some of the strategies that apply to both men and women in terms of being effectively forceful.

Adachi feels in that moment of confrontation she proved herself a leader by arriving at a bold decision and showing she was ready to act on it. “I wasn’t making an idle threat,” she explains. “I was willing to walk away from the leadership role because having the responsibility without the authority would be comparable to being asked to hit a home run without a bat. And he saw and heard my resolve.”

But she may also have prevailed because she framed her demand in the context of the good it would do the company, observes Rosalind Hudnell, vice president of human resources at Intel. “Push back,” she counsels, “but try and avoid the I-word. Come from a position that’s not about you, but about what’s best for the company. Don’t yell, and be careful about your tone. Because when you’re working for a company, you’re responsible to that company.” The challenge is to keep that in mind while finding your authentic personal voice.

The executives I interviewed uniformly suggest you resist the urge to charge in and make known your demands. “You’re not going to get anything done by asserting, ‘This is what I want and I want it now,’ ” cautions a former Lehman Brothers executive who had worked with the company’s CFO. “[The CFO] was never one to lack voice: She was brilliant on so many topics, and she enjoyed letting others know it,” he recalls. “But in her new role, which she knew others begrudged her because she wasn’t an investment banker, she overplayed her hand. Maybe she wanted to prove she could be as tough as the boys, but she showed no respect, and given that these guys had built the firm, that was more than a little unseemly. I told her, ‘If you want to be heard, you’ve got to be a little more deferential to those sitting around the table with you.’ ”

Sensitivity can spell the difference between sounding like a leader and actually succeeding as one, as one female executive discovered when confronted with a labor crisis that threatened to go nuclear. Some four hundred of her employees didn’t get their correct biweekly salary because of a payroll glitch. With her firm in the midst of union negotiations, she knew that this vendor mishap could trigger an employee action or work stoppage or devolve into a PR nightmare. So she got on the phone with the business leader, his team, and the local HR leader, and listened as they laid out the scope of the problem. Then she crafted a one-two punch. She laid out a nonnegotiable goal and assured the team she would support them in reaching it. “I am committed to seeing this through with you,” she told the team on the phone. But after the call, in a one-on-one conversation with her colleague in charge of the vendor relationship, she made clear that his job was on the line, as his and her reputations were at stake. “I knew that demolishing this guy in front of everybody would not get me the cooperation I needed to resolve the crisis quickly,” she observed. “So I allowed him to save face with his team, and then, behind the scenes, let him know that he was totally accountable.” Her approach succeeded. The employee pay issue was resolved.

The best strategy for women may be what Linda Huber of Moody’s describes as “leading from behind.” In a room full of men, women often feel impelled to assert themselves by launching the first salvo. But far more effective, says Huber, an army officer who at age twenty-one had forty-five soldiers in her command, is holding off until others have fired off their best shot. “I learned a lot about military tactics from my father, who was a two-star general,” she explains. “Even so, when it came time to do sand-table exercises of moving units around and practicing tactics, I was careful to wait, step back, and let others go first before offering up my solution.” Having watched “a lot of cocky West Point types blow up,” she adds, she realizes that “sometimes it’s best to sit back and listen, first.”

Just make sure, when all eyes are upon you, that you do, in fact, offer a solution. A health-care leader described to me how, early in her tenure, she tried to get a team of scientists and engineers to agree on a way forward by eliciting everyone’s opinion. Instead of reaching consensus, the room devolved into chaos. “Now I step up and say, ‘Okay, we’re not going to talk about this anymore,’ ” she explained. “ ‘Here’s the decision I’ve come to, and here’s why we’re going with it.’ It could be the wrong decision—I’ve made those, every leader does. But at least you’re making it.” And that, she adds, is what marks you as someone others will follow.

Leadership Communication: ABILITY TO READ A ROOM

In early 2013 I was invited by Tulane University’s Newcomb College Institute to be its annual Alberto-Culver Speaker, an endowed lecture series that invites high-profile women leaders to campus to talk about cutting-edge issues facing women in business. Given the publicity and branding around this event, I went to New Orleans expecting to address a sizable crowd. And in fact the venue was an auditorium at Newcomb College that easily held four hundred. But minutes before I took the stage I looked out and realized, to my dismay, that given the paltry trickle of students entering the lecture hall I’d be lucky to have fifty attendees.

In fact, there were thirty-eight—I counted them.

For any public speaker—politician or executive, professor or celebrity author—this is a sickening challenge. It’s hard to exude executive presence and engage a crowd when, having prepared a speech for the National Mall in Washington, D.C., you arrive on the Capitol steps to find that one earnest busload has shown up. Here I was, armed with a thirty-slide deck and a speech rehearsed for hundreds. What to do? I had minutes to decide.

My host, oblivious to the size of the turnout, hastened to the podium, donned her glasses, and read a lengthy introduction of me from a script she’d prepared. Some of those in the back of the auditorium got up and headed for the doors. Realizing that the rest of the audience might well slip away, I walked resolutely to the front of the stage and asked that everyone gather themselves into the first few rows. I asked for a chair, and sat myself down directly in front of them. Abandoning my PowerPoint, I addressed myself to them directly, communicating the essence of my data but relying mostly on narrative to pass the hour. I told many more stories than I’d intended, and at each natural break, I invited the students to ask questions—which they did, with eager energy. By the time we concluded the session, I felt a powerful connection. They felt it, too, because the evaluations they turned in were uniformly hyperbolic with praise. To this day I recall that event at Tulane as one of my most effective presentations, not despite my extemporizing, but because of it.

To command a room, you’ve first got to read it. Sensing the mood, absorbing the cultural cues, and adjusting your language, content, and presentation style accordingly are vital to your success as a communicator, and succeeding as a communicator is vital to your executive presence. Deploying your emotional intelligence and then acting on what it tells you absolutely boosts your EP—especially if you’re a woman. Indeed, 39 percent of respondents told us this emotional-intelligence skill mattered for women, whereas 33 percent said it mattered for men.

Being oblivious to the needs of your audience will undermine perceptions of your authority. Here’s why: First, it intimates you’re a closed circuit, someone who can’t or won’t take in new information (the woman who introduced me at Newcomb College being a prime example). Second, it implies you don’t care about your audience, destroying any chance of connection, which is after all the foundation of any communication. Finally, and most damning, it implies you’re simply not nimble enough to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. Agility in a leader is increasingly prized in a global economy characterized by relentless change and persistent volatility.

What does it take to effectively read a room? You’ve got to tune yourself out in order to tune in to the needs and wants of others, and then course-correct on the spot to establish connection. Demonstrating that willingness impresses people: It shows you have absolute command of your subject matter, and it signals to your audience that you’re so invested in the importance of your message that you’ll scuttle your carefully prepared speech to make sure they grasp it. That’s a recipe for engagement.

Sodexo’s Rohini Anand recalls a particularly high-pressure meeting when she had one shot to convince the firm’s top leaders to let outside experts advise the company on an extremely sensitive workforce issue. She entered the boardroom prepared to share the evidence she’d amassed, but in the end she elected to make her pitch with a short summary of the benefits, as she sensed the room wasn’t interested in how she’d arrived at her insight. It was the right instinct: She made a convincing case, and within months Sodexo announced a new board of external advisors. “The tipping point in my career at this firm was when I figured out how to put myself in my audience’s shoes and to paint a narrative balancing facts and stories depending on the audience,” says this seasoned executive.

Joel Tealer, an African-American senior vice president of human resources in the Strategic Business Units at Chubb Group of Insurance Companies, says that in order to maintain his EP, he adapts his speech to the culture of his listener and takes care to neutralize his political views, lest his mostly Republican colleagues take offense. “What you have to always do, as a multicultural manager, is make sure that you use the appropriate language for the appropriate situation,” he says. “And during tough discussions, you have to be a bit more balanced because your audience can become less comfortable if you are viewed by them as a little bit left of balance, or overly animated.”

That’s not to say you compromise your views to pander to your audience, Tealer clarifies. “It’s about making them comfortable,” he says. “Reading your audience is all about winning their confidence so that when you speak, they really hear what you have to say.”

Leadership Communication: HUMOR AND BANTER

When Sallie Krawcheck offers up her analysis of what ails Wall Street, she pulls no punches. Whether it’s the lack of oversight on money-market funds, the exorbitant executive compensation, or the absence of women in boardrooms, she serves up criticism heedless of blowback.

Yet precisely because she is dead serious, Krawcheck takes special care to leaven her critiques with humor. If women are stalled in their careers and need a leg up, for instance, it’s because they’re worn-out—exhausted by all the demands, professional and personal, placed upon them. “Do the math,” Krawcheck exhorts her audiences. “Women spend so much more time on personal grooming than guys do. Take me. I spend more, but let’s assume fifteen minutes a day, an hour and fifteen minutes a week, five hours a month, sixty hours a year, on hair and makeup, and I have not shaved my legs yet! I’ve not yet dyed my hair, there is no mani-pedi, the brows have not been waxed, I have not gone to yoga, I have not run, I have done nothing but my friggin’ hair and makeup.”

I’ve heard this shtick from Krawcheck on numerous occasions, and I can attest that it never fails to break up the room in gales of laughter. However brutal her message in fact, especially when her message is brutal—Krawcheck’s reliance on humor endears her to her listeners, who then become open to some inconvenient truths.

Not everyone can pull off a funny story at the lectern, but everyone can learn to banter at the water cooler. Many of our focus group participants affirmed the importance of mastering the art of small talk. “It’s the conversation before the meeting that establishes whether or not you’re worth listening to in the meeting,” one senior executive pointed out—a skill she refers to as “mastering the banter.” It shows, she explained, that you’re part of the larger conversation, someone who’s “one of the tribe.”

To be sure, because the language and interests of the dominant tribe tend to dominate casual conversations, women and multicultural executives often find themselves at a disadvantage. In the words of one African-American focus group participant, “I don’t watch the same television shows as my colleagues. That makes it hard to chime in about the most recent episode of Survivor.”

Well, watching Survivor isn’t likely to boost your EP. Yet as I found at Cambridge, it’s critical you strive to be conversant on a host of topics, if only because you’ll have the confidence to insert yourself into the casual conversations of your superiors. “You don’t have to say you’re a Giants fan or Democrat or a Republican; you just need to know enough to add to the conversation,” says Deb Elam, a vice president at GE. “It’s all about forging a bond with people one that you may need to lean on down the road.”

Leadership Communication: BODY LANGUAGE AND POSTURE

On her second day of work for a leading insurance firm, one female focus group participant recalls how she was taken aside after a staff meeting and chided for doodling and slouching in her chair. “I don’t want to ever see that again,” her new boss told her. “You should be sitting up straight, pulled up to the table, making eye contact, and taking notes. You should be paying attention!” She tried to assure him she had been listening. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, waving a hand impatiently. “What matters is that your behavior told everyone that you weren’t.”

Never underestimate the communicative power of body language. While 21 percent of senior executives we surveyed recognize that how you hold and carry yourself affects your EP, anecdotally the evidence around body language suggests a much greater impact. “People gauge your EP the second you enter a room: how confidently you walk in, how firmly you shake hands, how quickly you make eye contact, how confidently you stand,” observes Deloitte’s Adachi. “In those initial seconds, you’re going to be judged on what they see, not what they hear, and your body language and poise are what they see first.”

Consider how the U.S. presidential candidates conducted themselves while facing off during three nationally televised debates in 2012. Indeed, executive coach and body-language expert Carol Kinsey Goman actually called the election on the basis of President Obama’s body language alone, especially during the third debate. “He looked more comfortable and sure of himself,” she observed, “using the definitive palm-down gestures and wide ‘steepling’ gestures that show certainty. And he has a great genuine smile (a big likeability cue) that he flashed a couple of times tonight.” Governor Romney did well, too, Goman noted. “But he perspired, swallowed frequently, licked his lips, stammered, and (about 58 minutes into the debate) gave a slight shudder that showed in his shoulders and upper chest—all indicators that he was under a high level of stress.”

Since people will be “reading you” the moment they lay eyes on you, take care to enter a room or take the stage with aplomb. Is your head up, your gaze focused straight ahead? Shoulders back but relaxed? Do you stride or shuffe? And do you look happy at this opportunity to engage? Or do you look like you’re nursing an ulcer?

When Catherine, a corporate senior executive, enters a room, people don’t even need to know she spent more than twenty years in federal law enforcement to accord her awed respect. Tall and elegantly dressed, this African-American woman radiates gravitas in her posture, stride, and stance. “I’ve been told I don’t demand respect, that my presence expects it,” she says. “Some of that came from growing up in the South and having to fight and wrestle with a lot of issues. When you are the first black person in a school classroom or at a company meeting, you learn to walk in with that Condoleezza Rice attitude of having to be better than the best. That conditions everything. Because I walk into every meeting with that attitude, holding my head high, I leave a positive impression behind. People want me at their table.”

An erect bearing also conveys respect for others. That’s why your mother told you to sit up straight at the dining room table: to show deference to those around you. In the fi l m The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg, slumped at the deposition table, telegraphs volumes to the attorneys assembled around him. “It’s hard to root for someone who makes you feel as though you don’t warrant his attention,” a young law firm associate told me.

A number of recent studies find, however, that the most important benefit good posture confers is chemical: When you stand tall, feet planted solidly and somewhat apart, chest out and shoulders back, you actually trigger a hormonal response that boosts testosterone and lowers cortisol, the steroid released from your adrenal glands in times of stress, from your bloodstream. Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School, discovered this through a series of controlled experiments she conducted on her colleagues (findings she shared as a TED speaker). While the hormones last only about fifteen to twenty minutes, the rush of well-being and confidence may trigger “a physiological cascade that lasts all day,” says Dana Carney, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

While standing at attention bolsters your own self-confidence, it absolutely signals to others that you are paying attention—which, as we’ve discussed, is perhaps the keystone of all effective communication. To radiate presence you have to radiate that you are present. And as Brady Dougan points out, that’s where many a would-be executive stumbles. Virtually every executive I spoke to talked about enormously able men and women who sabotaged their chances at a top job by conveying in gestures large and small an inability to remain present when it mattered most. Kent Gardiner, chided early in his career for checking his watch too often during meetings, says he’s become a stickler about ensuring his colleagues don’t commit similar blunders of inattention, including pen-clicking, foot-tapping, paper-rustling, and device-checking. Jane Shaw told me one of the rudest things she recently witnessed was a board member turning his back on the meeting in order to deal with some emails. Tuning out to consult your smartphone elicited some of the most heated discourse in our focus groups and interviews, in fact. Sara, who works in derivatives and structured finance at Moody’s, told us, “I really get annoyed when I see a handful of managers who think their time is more important than everyone else’s, who don’t hear what I am saying after I’ve spent weeks preparing. This behavior really undermines their executive presence in my mind. How can you trust a leader to keep his eye on the big picture if he can’t keep his eye off his iPhone?”

Leadership Communication: BLUNDERS

During her twenty-four years in Congress, Colorado representative Patricia Schroeder was lauded for her stalwart advocacy of work-family issues (she sponsored the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993) and her tough stance on congressional reform. However, for many her name will forever be linked with bursting into tears on national television when she announced in 1987 she would not seek the Democratic nomination for president. “Women across the country reacted with embarrassment, sympathy and disgust,” wrote the Chicago Tribune a week later. Saturday Night Live lampooned her in a skit on the presidential primary debates.More than two decades later, Schroeder told USA Today, she was still catching flak about it. The verdict: Wiping away those tears erased the perception that Schroeder might have been fit to be the country’s chief executive.

Crying is just one of a menu of communication blunders that, in a mere instant, can suck the executive presence right out of you. Others, as identified by our focus groups, include breathlessness or any other sign of nerves, constantly checking your iPhone for the latest messages, being obviously bored, being long-winded instead of getting right to the point, and relying too heavily on notes and other props. These flaws are fatal for one simple reason: Whether you’re speaking to a small group or a large audience you need to fully engage your audience’s attention, so that they both hear and remember your message.

Leadership Communication blunders

 Without helpful—although it might seem brutally honest—feedback from a colleague or boss, how can you tell whether you’ve buried your point in an avalanche of self-inflicted communications mistakes? There’s an easy indicator: Listen for the “cough count.” How many times does your audience feel compelled to cough or clear their throats? Similarly, check the “fidget factor.” Are you spotting people shifting in their seats, crossing and uncrossing their legs, examining their nails or cuffs, or adjusting their arm positions on the tables or chairs? All of these things are a dead giveaway that your presentation is making them wish they were elsewhere.

Establishing eye contact is particularly important. When you start speaking, you want everyone focused on you—and the way to do that is to focus on them. Every person in the audience should feel that you are speaking to them.

Eye contact is, of course, dependent upon a clear line of sight. That means you need to lose the props—or at least a sizable number of them. Eyeglasses, podiums, notes, flip charts, and PowerPoints can all get in the way. It’s impossible to make eye contact with anyone if you’re struggling with twenty pages of notes or fifty densely packed PowerPoint slides. The less there is between you and your audience, the better.

How to polish your Leadership communication Skills

Ditch the verbal crutches. Fillers such as “um,” “like,” and “you know” get in the way of and undermine your message. Tape yourself. Allow yourself to pause when you’re giving thought to something mid-sentence. Moments of silence give greater import to the words that precede and follow them.

Broaden your small talk. Kalinda, a real-estate analyst at a financial-services company, affirms the usefulness of being able to contribute to casual conversations: “One of best things ever to happen to me was managing the NFL budget,” she says, referring to a former job. “I didn’t know a thing about American football when I got there, but I recognized I needed to, if I was ever going to be considered one of the guys. So I read Sports Business Daily every day. The teams, the games, the analysts—I could talk about all of it with anyone. Even now, if I hear football being discussed, I insert myself in that conversation, because I have something to add. For the same reason, I picked up golf a couple of years ago. I’m not good at it, but I can talk about it, and that opens a door with my managers.”

Get control of your voice. Lord Bell, the guru and PR maestro who masterminded the British Conservative Party’s 1978 campaign, helped tone down the Iron Lady’s speaking voice with a simple concoction: water tinctured with honey and lemon. Sallie Krawcheck makes sure she breathes, consciously and deeply, before taking the stage, to eradicate any shakiness in her voice. Kerrie Peraino sips water to relax her throat muscles, as tight muscles can produce a squeaky, raspy, or breathy tone.

Overprepare. Barbara Adachi finds that by dint of careful preparation, she can overcome her inclination not to speak unless spoken to. “I used to go to meetings and just not say a word,” she recalls. “People wondered why I was even there. Unless asked to comment, I wouldn’t volunteer. Speaking up was so hard for me. And I still need to push myself in new situations. But if I go in wellprepared and knowing I know more than I need to, I find it easier to speak up and not go back into my cocoon.”

Less can be more. Jane Shaw, former chairman of Intel’s board, affirms that you can’t afford to be a wallflower at meetings. But she cautions against speaking up just for the sake of it. “Inject a comment when you have something fresh to add. If you’re asked for an update, stick to new items. Invite others to add their opinion rather than babble on. If someone has not weighed in, you might throw it to them when you finish,” she advises.

Invoke your vertical. Anne Erni, who today heads up human resources at Bloomberg, describes an incident early in her career on Wall Street where her body language helped her pull off an unpopular decision with a hostile crowd. “The other executives were ganging up on me, literally yelling and cursing. Meanwhile, forty people were waiting for us to come forth with a decision. I had to focus on getting to that goal. I sat there and, with every ounce of energy, just kept pushing my feet into the floor, sitting tall, and making my spine and head straight. Then I leaned forward and spoke. It not only got me through that awful moment, but I won their confidence, and we moved forward.”

Lose the props. It bears repeating: You will exude executive presence if you establish and maintain a direct connection with your audience, whether you’re addressing two or two hundred. Learn to present without props.

Do not allow challenges to your authority to go unanswered. Hecklers are looking to rob you of your command of the room by getting under your skin. Don’t let them. Parrying with humor is your best defense, as it demonstrates that your confidence can’t be shaken and makes the heckler look petty for trying. You can also declaw a barb by acknowledging a germ of truth in it—and then annihilating that germ with counterevidence. Sometimes, however, it’s important to reassert your authority by going full frontal. Dwight Robinson, chief of diversity at Freddie Mac, describes how his first sponsor chose him as his deputy to run the state housing authority committee. Robinson knew he was utterly qualified to win the position, but as both he and his sponsor were African-American, he knew the decision would come under fire. Indeed it did. But Robinson’s sponsor did not flinch. To the builders, the developers, and the mayor who questioned his choice, he countered, “You’ve got twenty-seven other departments with two people of the same race in charge. They’ve solved their problems, so how does it signal something negative when two white people are running twenty-seven agencies and two black people are running one?” Robinson says it was a “life lesson” for him in exercising courage and asserting authority.



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