The following is a conversation between Carol Kinsey Goman, Author of Stand Out: How to Build Your Leadership Presence, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving
Denver: Being perceived as a leader when interacting with customers, peers, or executives is the essence of leadership presence. And there are many of us who know it when we see it, but how do you develop it? My next guest has just come out with a new book that helps explain how. She is Carol Kinsey Goman and her book is titled Stand Out: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Carol!
Carol: Thank you, Denver. It’s lovely to be here.
Denver: Carol, what is leadership presence, and what is it not?
Carol: The easiest thing to talk about is what it is not because that’s what I found out first when I started working with clients. Because I would get people who were very technically savvy; they had tons of leadership potential; they might’ve even had a leadership title, but that didn’t necessarily translate into leadership presence. So it isn’t intelligence, technical knowledge, and even your business results. What it is is something… more elusive actually. It’s really how people perceive you.
So, it is a combination of the signals that you send, how your body language looks, how you dress, all the things that really don’t matter as far as what’s really happening with you, but matter incredibly with how you’re perceived. So, your emotional state, your communication style…all of those things add up to your leadership presence and how people perceive you.
Denver: So interesting. What’s the goal of leadership presence? Everybody wants it — I want it, you want it — but what does it help accomplish?
Carol: First of all, it sets you up for that next promotion, and it lets you stand out from your peers when you’re being evaluated. But mainly, leadership presence…the way I work with people, whether it’s in a book or a speech or a consulting session, is really to help people align other people’s perception of them with their best, authentic self.
And I think that’s where you have to start. Because if you’re trying to “fake it till you make it,” or pretend, then I am not a good coach for you, and the techniques in the book aren’t particularly helpful. Because what it starts with is: you already are credible. You already are everything you need to be. What you might need help with is expressing those qualities, and that’s what I am really good at helping you do.
Denver: I can just hear you speak like a coach– that you have a belief in your client that the answer is inside of them, and all you’re trying to do is unblock that and get it out. You don’t need to put it in. They have it already.
Carol: And isn’t that nice? Because I would be awful at trying to make somebody something they’re not, but I am very good at helping them express their best, authentic self. And that to me is the goal of leadership presence, that we all have more presence if what we’re doing is really expressing the best of us.
Denver: In your book, Carol, you identify the five Cs, and that’s as in the letter C, of leadership presence. So let’s run through each of them starting with “credibility.”
Carol: Credibility means that you can be knowledgeable, you can be innovative, you can be skilled, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that other people see you as the credible leader you authentically are. And sometimes that’s because of communication habits that get in our way.
First of all, you need to get to the point. Attention spans are really short today. And if there’s one thing that I hear from chief executive officers when I am working with someone that they’re considering an emerging leader in their organization, it is: “Please help them get to the point.”
So, I like to start with something like “start with the headline.” So for instance, if I were the head of HR, and I were reporting. I would not say, “Well, we’ve been looking for this person for a long time to fill this particular position. And we interviewed John. Now, John is a very good person. And we interviewed Mary blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And then we hired Bill.” What I would start with is, “We hired Bill. Here’s why.” And then I might go into, “We’ve been looking for this for a long time…” But whatever it is, if I start with a headline, I can fill in, or sometimes start with a headline and stop. And see if anybody even cares how you got to that.
Denver: That’s really very interesting because so many people start with the caveats. They try to explain some of the qualifiers to this decision, and by the time they get to the decision or the headline, the audience is long gone.
Carol: That’s true. And it’s not that you always have to do this, but boy, if you don’t have that skill for the time that you need it, then you’re going to be lost because, like you say, your audience will be long gone. It’s just not a nice-to-have communication skill. It’s necessary to be perceived as credible.
Denver: You talk about qualifiers– people trying to explain things or qualifying. Are men or women more inclined to use qualifiers when speaking?
Carol: Unfortunately, we women are four times more likely to use qualifiers when speaking. We are much more likely to start our sentences or our contributions with things like, “This may be a stupid idea,” or “You’ve probably already thought about this,” or something else that absolutely then makes whatever we’re going to say next almost obsolete. Start with what you were going to say, drop the qualifiers, and say, “Here’s my idea for that,” not “This is a dumb idea, but take a look at it.” Really just state it, and you will be perceived as much more credible.
There are lots of people that come across as highly confident that really don’t know what they’re doing. And the unfortunate part is: All of you who are competent aren’t going to look as competent as you are unless you also appear confident.
Denver: Do not minimize. The second C is for “confidence.” Carol, why are we attracted to people who are confident?
Carol: It’s a very strange psychological connection that we believe that people who are confident are also competent, and you and I know, and your audience knows, that this is not always valid. There are lots of people that come across as highly confident that really don’t know what they’re doing. And the unfortunate part is: all of you who are competent aren’t going to look as competent as you are unless you also appear confident. Now, you can say, “Well, that is just not fair.” And I agree it isn’t, but that’s the way brains are honed. That’s how people are going to perceive you.
So, because you are competent, I like to give people a lot of tips around looking confident. And I know that we were going to talk about body language perhaps a little later, but I think there’s a great tie-in with the way your body looks and how you’re perceived as confident, credible, competent.
Denver: Well, talk about some of those non-verbal cues.
Carol: First of all, I think good posture… the funny thing is if I’m doing a speech on body language for leaders or body language for women who lead, and I’m talking to the audience beforehand, and I mention the topic of my speech, the first thing everyone does is straighten their posture. Of course, that only lasts for about 30 seconds, and then they’ll all slump back down. But we innately know that posture is really important when it comes to being perceived as a leader.
Height and space is how leadership presence for the quality of confidence is perceived. So if you are tall, you have an advantage. That’s why we have so many CEOs that are taller than the average population because we believe that tall people are more confident and competent. When you move, if you’re on stage and you move on the stage instead of standing in one place, or standing behind a podium, you exude more confidence. You look more confident.
So, space and height are very important. And if you’re not tall… I’m 5’3″. I wear high heels, and my posture is really good because I know how much that matters.
Denver: We’re talking about power in terms of looking confident. In doing that, which way should your palms be facing?
Carol: It’s funny. When you’re looking at two sets of signals in the body language, we want leaders who are confident. But even before that, we want leaders who are warm, empathetic, and have our back. In fact, we first look for those signs of: Are they friend or foe? So, all the friend signs, the warm signs — palms up in that case, smiling, nodding, head, tilting, leaning slightly forward — all of those warm, engaging signals are what people really respond to first. So when you first meet someone, a big smile is great.
But in confident signals, the minute you rotate your palms down — and just do that when you’re listening to this, just rotate your palms down — and that’s kind of a signal of “I’m finished with this. I’m done. I don’t want to hear any more.” It’s a very interesting psychological thing that happens when you see a leader go from palms up to palms down. Particularly when we’re back to conference tables, if they rotate their palms down on the table, it’s almost always a signal that “I’ve heard enough,” “I’ve made a decision,” or “This conversation is over.”
Connection signals are also incredibly important today because empathy in the crazy world we’re in right now, in the unsettled chaotic conditions that most of us find ourselves, there is nothing more powerful for a leader than to be empathetic.
Denver: Well, I am right now, Carol, rotating my palms up. So I want to ask you about the third C, which is “connection.”
Carol: Yes because connection is all of those warm body signals, the ones that we were talking about– the nodding and the smiling. And they’re the ones that if you make them first, then allow people to relax into you as a person, and then you can display how confident and competent and how much status, power, and authority you have.
Connection signals are also incredibly important today because empathy in the crazy world we’re in right now, in the unsettled, chaotic conditions that most of us find ourselves, there is nothing more powerful for a leader than to be empathetic. And of course, you can be empathetic verbally; you can be empathetic in your body language, in those warm signals; but the absolutely most powerful signal of empathy is empathetic listening. So it’s really more than what you say and just as important as how you look is to listen, really listen to people.
And that means being fully present. That’s hard enough. Putting away distractions, focusing all of your energy on the other person — that is tough, right there. And then asking questions, only to make sure you understand, like “Tell me more about the situation” or “Did I understand you to say…?” And then restate what you heard.
And then the hardest one for coaches and some leaders is to ignore the urge to prematurely offer your opinion or advice.
Denver: The “advice monster,” as they call it.
Denver: How do you keep it in the cage?
Carol: It is really tough because we’re just aching to answer instead of really listening because a lot of times, people don’t want a solution. If they do, they’ll ask you, “Can you give me help with this?” Other times, they just want a sounding board, just a safe place that they can express their feelings and ideas.
Denver: Yes. And I think also, Carol, we deceive ourselves that our solutions are as good as we think they are. They’re definitely not because we don’t even understand the problem because we’re just saying, “Good. This I get… I got it. I’ve seen it before. I got the pattern recognition. Let me solve the problem for you.” And it’s not even the real problem.
Carol: You hit the nail on the head. Unless you’re empathetically listening, you don’t know what the problem is. So, we are solving things that aren’t even the issue.
Carol: You are absolutely spot on with that. And I have caught myself prematurely getting an answer together because that’s “my job” where I will remind myself to stop, listen, and make sure I understand exactly what they’re saying, exactly what they’re looking for. And boy, that is a skill that if you can develop it, or if you have it, if you can develop it even more, is an absolutely powerful leadership presence skill.
In fact, some of the people that I’ve had the most respect for as leaders, they’re just amazing about letting you believe that when you’re in their presence, when you’re in their office, when you’re surrounded by them, that you’re the only person that matters. And that is quite a leadership skill and amazingly effective.
Denver: Yes. In fact, that’s what they always said about Bill Clinton. He made you feel like you were the only person in the world.
Carol: It was interesting because I watched him. I was in New York when he was doing a book signing. And, of course, the line went forever, and I didn’t get in the line, but I got close enough to see what he did.
And it was very interesting because he would sign the book. He would look at that person in the eyes. They would leave, and he’d do a quick check back, another eye contact with them as they were leaving before he focused on the next person. And that amazing ability to think that it wasn’t… it was very subtle. It was like “You not only matter to me when I’m signing the book, but you matter to me afterwards.” And wow! Was that impressive! And was that interesting to watch!
“If you are the person who is keeping your poise under pressure, it doesn’t matter if you have the ‘title’ of leader, or you’re supposed to be the one in charge, because automatically, it’s almost like a brain sync or something, people will be drawn to you as the leader.”
Denver: You know that old story, I can’t remember it exactly, but I think it was around the Israel election of 1948. And the two candidates were running, and one of them a woman had met, and she said afterwards that she felt that he was the most fascinating person in the world. And then later on, she met with Disraeli, and she said, “He made me feel that I was the most fascinating person in the world.” I just thought that was… that’s exactly the essence of it.
Well, in this crazy chaotic time, this gets us to the fourth C, which maybe you can speak about, which is “composure.”
Carol: I happen to have in my extended family, both one, two, three police officers and a firefighter, and all of them tell me the same thing. Now, you can imagine they’re in high-pressure situations. So, they all tell me the same thing. And that is, “If you are the person who is keeping your poise under pressure, it doesn’t matter if you have the “title” of leader, or you’re supposed to be the one in charge, because automatically, it’s almost like a brain sync or something, people will be drawn to you as the leader.”
So there’s incredible power in simply being composed. When I say simply, I don’t mean that it’s simple to do because we all have those situations, those trigger situations where we automatically go into fight/ flight/ freeze, some response. We say things that we don’t mean, that we wouldn’t say later because the amygdala part of the brain has hijacked the prefrontal cortex, and we simply aren’t thinking straight.
So, the ability to think straight, if you will, really requires that you have some kind of technique to interfere between the trigger event — someone asking you that threatening question, or interrupting you, or whatever it is that you automatically respond to. And when that trigger event happens, you say to yourself, “Stop.” You take a deep breath, you exhale. And some people even give themselves a little, one-word pep talk or two-word pep talk like, “Got it” or “OK” or “Relax” in order to then choose how you want to respond.
And I know that sounds like that’s going to take time, but really thinking the word “stop,” taking a breath, and thinking one word to yourself doesn’t take any time at all. And in doing that, you can get back control, and you can make choices in the way you want to respond.
Denver: Interesting. Yes. You stop that automatic trigger. And I think if people ask themselves in the way they respond, which is almost a habit, “Is that really been serving me that well?” They’ll invariably say, “No, it’s not serving you well. Maybe it did 20 years ago, but it’s not now.” And if you can recognize that and take that moment, and then choose a path of some other response that serves you better, that is really a great leadership presence tactic to have.
Carol: And it’s also why we need to take a break before we respond on email. I have done this. How many times have you or anybody listening to this done the same thing? We get some email that really irritates us, and we fire off our response and then we think, “Oh my goodness! I wish I’d waited.”
You write it if you need to, save it if you want to, and then give yourself a day, or a few hours, or a deep breath, something, before you take a look at it and say, as you mentioned, “Is this how I want to be perceived? Is this how I want to respond? Does this serve me? Because many times, if you do that, you’ll think, “That’s not necessary. I don’t need to do that. That’s not who I really am.”
Denver: I think there are probably many of us here who have Googled “how to retrieve an email.” Is there a way I can get that baby back?
Carol: Oh, my goodness! Yes. Where’s the magic lasso or something,
What I found, sometimes, to my delight and sometimes to my amazement, is that you can have charisma simply by understanding where your strength is and playing to that strength, or as I would think of it: “relaxing into that strength.”
Denver: Can we put it back in the bottle, please? Oh, please.
The final C is for “charisma.” And a lot of people believe that you’re either charismatic or you’re not, and they believe they’re not. What would you say to them, Carol?
Carol: I’d say if you think of charisma like a celebrity making a flamboyant entrance to command the attention of everyone present, with a red carpet and paparazzi and flashing lights and gorgeous clothes, you’re probably right. Most of us aren’t going to be able to pull that one off, or don’t even have the opportunity to try. But that is a fitting display of charisma for celebrities. It’s not realistic, or it’s not even needed to project leadership charisma. And what I found, sometimes to my delight and sometimes to my amazement, is that you can have charisma simply by understanding where your strength is and playing to that strength, or as I would think of it: “relaxing into that strength.”
So I worked with one chief executive officer — this was also in New York — who was one of the worst communicators I had ever seen. I mean, just an awful speaker. And his entire organization hung on every word he spoke because he had amazing credibility. He had done almost every job in that company. He worked his way up. And when he spoke, it was from such a deep well of credibility that he could relax into that. And he didn’t have to change his speaking style. It’s always great to upskill yourself in any area, but it wasn’t necessary for his charisma.
Denver: So he played to his strengths. He didn’t spend a lot of time trying to overcome all his weaknesses, not that he needed to address them as you just suggested, but he really played to that strength. So interesting.
Carol: And a lot of times, connection is your strength. As you mentioned, that ability to make people think that they’re the most amazing person in the room, that they’re wonderful… My goodness, I have walked out of people’s offices and been so drawn to them because they have that ability to connect with me in a deep, personal, magnetic way, and it had nothing to do with them being flamboyant. So again, if you know where your strength lies in any of the other Cs, and you can relax into that, you will probably bring your innate charisma to light.
Denver: Speaking about connection as you just were, too, it is funny how all the soft skills have now become the hard skills.
Carol: Absolutely. Well, they always were–
Denver: I know!
Carol: –but the good thing about this time is more and more people are recognizing it.
Denver: Let me ask you a couple of other things, if I can, beginning with first impressions. We have just seven seconds you say before people will form an opinion about us. So how can we make the most of those seven seconds, Carol?
Carol: If we’re in real life, and then I’m going to walk you into Zoom because it’s different. If you’re in real life, those seven seconds are precious. So it depends on the attitude that you bring with you when you enter the room. You can either look dour or you can look upbeat. You can, of course, choose how you have dressed for the meeting or the interaction. So you can set a visual impression with your dress. And I don’t mean you have to be fancy, but everything you wear makes some kind of statement.
You can choose whether to have closed, like walk in with your arms crossed — nothing wrong with that signal, by the way. That could be I’m cold or I’m thinking. But it’s, as an initial first seven seconds, it’s not a good impression to make; so you’d want to have your arms uncrossed, perhaps your palms showing. If you get to shake hands with people again, you have the power of your touch. People can see your smile. You can make eye contact. Seven seconds. If you say, “Hello”, you have that vocal prosody, the sound of your voice. So seven seconds, you have a lot to work with.
If we move this to Zoom, that seven seconds feels like a luxury because you have about 1/50 of a second to make that initial impression on camera. So, no one’s going to see you sit down, walk into the room, et cetera. No one’s going to shake your hand. No one’s going to… all of those wonderful cues, and no one’s going to see how you’re dressed from the waist down, by the way. But definitely, they’re going to see your attitude.
So if you want to start a meeting, unless you have some really serious negative news in which starting with a smile would be totally inappropriate, that first nanosecond, you need to be upbeat. You need to be smiling, which I’d say before the meeting, take a few deep breaths focus on the importance of this meeting, not just for you, but mostly for the people that are attending — what does this mean to them? — so you can get out of yourself and into your audience.
And then sit straight because all you have with posture in Zoom is that initial impression. So if you need to put a pillow behind your back, sit up; don’t keep your arms tightly into your body, which women tend to do more than men, but I use an armchair so I can put my arms on that chair and bring them slightly away from my body. Those initial gestures are going to be lost unless you have framed yourself so that the top of the camera is a little bit over your head and it’s down to perhaps your waist so that people can see your gestures.
Those gestures that in real life can be broad and take up space, like I was talking about in confident gestures, and looking confident by height and space, on camera, those wide gestures go out of screen and become incredibly annoying. So you want to keep them into your body, but you still want to use them. First of all, it will help you think. That’s why we use gestures, even when we’re on the phone. And secondly, it will help your audience understand.
Denver: But when you’re talking with your hands, be sure your hands are visible at all times on the screen.
Carol: Yes. And bring them into your body, not close to the camera because they look like these giant things coming at you.
Denver: Coming at you like one of these horror movies or something like that.
Carol: And that’s hard to remember unless you practice because we all gesture out. So you want to make sure you bring your gestures in and stay within the frame of the camera. Otherwise, they’re lost.
Denver: One final question for you. Gender differences. Is there gender differences between men and women in leadership presence?
Carol: There’s a lot we have in common, but there are a whole lot of things that we don’t. For instance, even in body language, women tend… we tend to condense our bodies. We make ourselves look smaller than we are. So automatically, we have depleted our confidence cues. And men tend to expand their bodies, and so they look more confident.
So, women, we need to do something similar, and that doesn’t mean we need to act like men. When I did the chapter on women in the book, I always say, “Bring your femininity to work because in these days where empathy and connection are needed, we have a great deal of strength.” Now, not every woman is wonderful. Not every woman is empathetic and connected. I have actually coached some women who could brighten up a room by leaving it.
But mostly we bring that ability to connect with people, to listen, to be empathetic. And if your organization is going into a more collaborative environment, if your leadership understands the value of connection and empathy, those are the very skills that females bring more organically to an organization than men do.
Denver: Absolutely. But take up a little more space if you’re a woman, right?
Carol: Absolutely. Sit up straight, take up space, and look as confident as you really are. Don’t minimize by either saying, as we mentioned before, “This is a stupid idea,” or by minimizing your body, making it look smaller. In fact, when I did a speech once, the photographer for the organization came up and said, “Oh, Carol. That thing you’ve talked about, where women make themselves look smaller,” he said, “That’s so true. When I do a group shot, it’s only the women who say, ‘Oh, I’ll scooch down in front and be really tiny.’” He said, “Men don’t scooch.”
Denver: No. Men don’t do scooch. That’s a good button to have.
Carol: Exactly. And so women who are already smaller will say, “That’s okay. We’ll just minimize ourselves even more.”
Denver: Yes, because what they’re always interested in is the greater good, and they’ll make that sacrifice for the greater good of the picture in that particular case.
Carol: Without even thinking about it. And I don’t say that’s a bad thing to do. I just say: Think about times when you do that where it’s not such a valuable thing to add, where it doesn’t add to you… it doesn’t add to the group. It really minimizes your contribution and you have a lot to contribute.
Denver: Along those same lines with women, I think you also say that sometimes they don’t give as honest feedback because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, right?
Carol: What happens with that is that they will smile. They overuse warm signals inappropriately. So, if I’m giving you negative feedback, and while I’m doing it, I am just smiling because I don’t like to hurt your feelings. What you think is, “What the heck? I don’t understand. Is she upset with me? Did I do something wrong? Is everything okay?” And so that mixed message really depletes the effect.
It is much better, obviously, to be serious when you’re serious. You don’t have to smile your way through life. Smiles are wonderful, and they’re very powerful, but if they’re used inappropriately, if they’re used when you’re saying things like “You really hurt my feelings,” or “This didn’t go very well,” then all you’re doing is confusing people.
Denver: You don’t want to have that person leave the meeting and speak to their friend and said, “Hey, she seems to be very happy that I just lost our biggest account.”
Carol: Right. What??
Denver: We have just scratched the surface. You have so much in this wonderful book. The name of the book again is Stand Out: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. And this is not a bad idea to work on this as you look forward to 2021. And if you want to do that, this book is going to serve as your field guide.
Thanks, Carol, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program.
Carol: Thank you, Denver. The pleasure was mine.
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