Excerpted from the book Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Copyright 2014. Reprinted with permission from HarperBusiness, a division of HarperCollins Publishers.
Think for a minute: When’s the last time someone at work gave you honest, critical feedback on some aspect of your executive presence?
For that matter, when’s the last time you gave someone at work a critical and specific executive presence pointer?
Unvarnished, concrete feedback on your appearance, communication skills, and gravitas is hard to come by.
Overwhelmingly, however, the consensus among our survey interviewees is that dispensing good critical feedback across all three executive presence pillars is a core leadership competency, one that should be developed and evaluated along with other managerial skills. Women and people of color I interviewed who’d been on the receiving end of good executive presence feedback were adamant about this, as the impact on their own careers had been profound. Receiving such feedback, they acknowledge, can feel like undergoing root canal surgery: Christina, a communications executive, tells of being “stung to her core” when told that her male subordinate had been mistaken for her superior in a meeting because he exuded more leadership presence than she did. And to be sure, giving executive presence pointers is no picnic: Annalisa Jenkins, global head of research and development at Merck Serono, has more than once reduced women to tears when delivering constructive criticism. But to shirk the imperative of giving feedback on leadership presence is to throw into question your standing as a leader. “Leadership isn’t about being voted Ms. Popular,” says Sodexo’s Anand. “To be effective, it’s more important to be honest, and have those courageous conversations, than to be liked. At the end, that is what will garner the trust and respect so crucial to leadership.”
I spoke to one high-flying consultant who actually quit a lucrative job at a bank because she couldn’t get her superiors to have those conversations with her. Whenever she asked for explicit feedback on how she handled a presentation or a client encounter, she was told she didn’t need any. “You’re doing great!” her boss assured her. She attributes this cop-out to two things: an absence of regular, formalized assessments in her division, even though the tools existed, and a lack of leadership sensibilities among the financial service managers to whom she reported. “They were dealmakers, people who got promoted for hitting the numbers and making money,” she explains. “I wasn’t impressed with them. They had nothing to teach me, and I wouldn’t have wanted to go anywhere they were headed. To develop my own leadership capabilities, I had to leave.”
In short, we know from our qualitative data that great feedback is (1) timely, meaning it’s delivered either right before or right after you’ve blundered; (2) specific to one discrete behavior, as opposed to a global condemnation; and (3) prescriptive, or explicit about what actions need to be taken by you. It should also be framed in the context of the business outcome, whether that outcome is your personal success (for example, exuding gravitas at an important meeting with a superior) or the success of your team (for example, holding on to key clients). There are of course endless variations that nuance this formula, but in essence you follow these guidelines.
All of this makes perfect sense when you consider our survey results on what characterizes bad feedback. Feedback is bad when it sets up a very narrow band of acceptability, a phenomenon we’ll explore at length in the next chapter: Women, for example, are told they’re either too angry or too nice, overly passive or way too aggressive, too young or too old. They’re told they need to “dial it back” or “step up to the plate,” “rein in the emotion” or “show some humanity.” Feedback is bad, too, when it’s vague: Carolyn Buck Luce, a former head of the global health care practice at EY [Ernst & Young], recalls being told as a senior executive that she needed to become “more vulnerable.” What was she supposed to do with this comment? Given the ubiquity of bad feedback in the workplace, it comes as no surprise that the majority of our respondents say they haven’t been able to act on the feedback they’ve been given.
Improving feedback will require a two-pronged approach. First, you as a rising star must learn to become better at eliciting, receiving, and acting on criticism. And second, you as a leader must become better at giving criticism while still modeling how to receive it.