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Self-Leadership Challenge #10: Tough Decision-Making Made Easy

As a senior manager or executive, you’re constantly faced with difficult decisions. Most of the time, you can make those decisions based on experience, financial analysis of the situation, input from colleagues or your boss, or even perhaps pure instinct. But once in a while—and this happens to us all as leaders—you’re faced with a truly gut-wrenching decision that simply has to be made, and there doesn’t seem to be any “right” or “obvious” choice anywhere you look.

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One of my executive coaching clients is a perfect example of this. Harry was a senior leader at an international pharmaceutical company. He was usually exhausted, working most of his waking hours. By the time Harry came to me, he was burnt out and ready to give up his career to go live on a beach in Belize. (Well, not literally, but I suspect he could have easily been talked into it…) Through feedback, we uncovered that one of Harry’s big issues was decision-making—not in any particular area, but the physical and mental stress of making regular tough choices in any area.

“What does it feel like when you have to make a decision?” I asked him.

“Painful!” Harry replied.

“Painful,” I said slowly. “So, tell me, Harry, how did you decide to marry your wife?”

“That decision? Well, that one was easy,” he replied. “I just knew it was the right thing to do.”

“So, making that decision wasn’t painful?” I asked.

“Not at all!” he said, chuckling.

“When you bought the house you live in now, how did you make that decision?”

“Again, that was fairly simple,” he said. “My wife and I just walked in, and I just felt it was the right house for us.”

“And, again, was that decision painful?” I asked.

“No,” Harry replied.

“Got it,” I said. “So, it seems not all decisions are painful then—just some. What’s the difference between the less painful decisions you’ve made—the ones we just talked about that seemed so easy for you—and the ‘painful’ decisions that you mentioned earlier?”

This started an interesting conversation that peeled back the layers around Harry’s decision-making process at work. Through the discussion, he revealed that almost everyone he worked with was either a doctor or a scientist—a fairly “left-brained” set of professionals. Based on his experience, those individuals typically felt more comfortable basing their decisions on facts, figures, numbers, charts, and graphs. Harry’s colleagues were naturally strong at analytical and linear thinking, and they relied on that for making decisions.

Therefore, for Harry to justify his decisions to those scientists at work, he had to go through a long and complicated analytical process. This involved explaining to his colleagues how he had done the analysis, reviewing numbers, and holding lengthy discussions with them that centered on the data.

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Why was this so exhausting for Harry? Because his natural decision-making style was intuitive. If he listened to his gut, he could make decisions reasonably quickly because he just knew what the right choice would be. But that wasn’t happening at work because the professionals he worked with could only be influenced via numbers, facts, and figures. Instead of their guts, his coworkers were using their heads.

So, when Harry had to make tough calls, he was subconsciously trying to move into his colleagues’ “head space.” He attempted to mirror the decision-making process of those he worked with, but that wasn’t at all natural for Harry. And that’s why he was struggling so much to make decisions—why they were so “painful” for him.

“Great self-awareness, Harry!” I acknowledged. “How will you use this insight to ensure that your decision-making process becomes less painful, quicker, and easier in the future?”

Harry stated that he would first listen to his gut when he had to make a decision, honoring his natural decision-making mode. He would make up his mind based on what his gut told him was the right answer. Then—and only then—would he pull together whatever data he needed to support that initial “gut” decision. Within a matter of days of implementing this system, Harry was making decisions faster, easier, and with much less stress. His confidence grew, and the length of his workdays shrunk, leading Harry to feel all-around happier.

An important takeaway from Harry’s story is that self-leadership is founded on a solid sense of knowing yourself. What works for you may not work for others, and vice versa.

Your “Motivational Balance Sheet”

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Here’s a potential way to help you with decision-making: The “Motivational Balance Sheet” that allows you to look at the pros and cons of a situation and assess various possibilities by putting non-numerical choices into numerical terms. It sort of “levels the playing field” regardless of your industry, your background, or the way you view the world.

Here’s how it works: Let’s say you’re considering taking a different position within a new company. Write down all the key reasons (a) why you would take the job, and (b) why you would not want to take the job.

Now, rate each of those reasons in terms of how important they are to you. Use a scale from 1 to 10, with “10” being very important to you, and “1” being not important at all. Then, simply add up your scores and see which list gets the highest number. Here’s an example:

Motivational Balance Sheet—Accepting a Different Position in a New Company

Reasons to Accept Importance Rating

Reasons Not to Accept

 

Importance Rating
I will make more money. 10 I will have to work longer hours.   9
I will experience exciting challenges.   8 There will be a learning curve, and I’ll have to prove myself.   5
I will be more likely to reach my full potential. 10 It makes me nervous to make a change.   7
It would be good for my resume/CV.

 

  8 I may end up with less time to spend with family. 10
Positive Total: 36 Negative Total: 31

In this case, the positives outscore the negatives, which might help you make the final decision.

Think of a tough choice you’re facing right now, and use the Motivational Balance Sheet to help you make the decision.

For more strategies to help you make tough decisions more easily, check out my book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

Self-Leadership Challenge #9: Small Talk is a Big Art—How to Become a Master

Mastering “small talk” can make a big difference in your career. Yet, time and time again, executive coaching clients tell me they dread it. When I speak to an audience and someone mentions that they dread small talk, I sometimes role-play, acting like I’m an individual who has a lot of trouble with it. I inch my way slowly toward someone in the audience and say, “So … um … hi there … um … how are you?” When they say they’re “fine,” I say, “Oh good.” I look around the room, fumbling for what to say next. “Then … um … do you work in this area?” Once they answer that question, I look stumped. How do I move this conversation forward?

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If that sounds a bit like situations you’ve been thrown into (and suffered through), don’t feel badly—you’re far from alone! All across the world, leaders tell me they dislike small talk and avoid it at all costs.

But as a self-leader—especially one who’s working on expanding and strengthening your network—you will inevitably find yourself in plenty of situations, formal and informal, where you’ll have to have small-talk conversations. Improving your skills in this area is vital to self-leadership and to your brand as a leader.

Keep it “open”
Just like asking (and not telling) is a powerful strategy in the workplace, one of the easiest ways to make small talk more comfortable is to ask open-ended questions. If you ask questions that bring only a “yes” or “no” answer or a short one-word response, you’ve given the other party nothing to latch onto and will likely get nothing back in return—except awkward silence. Questions that start with “What” or “How” will get the other person talking. This is particularly helpful if you’re an introvert who hates to talk about yourself. With this strategy, you can just ask a few simple questions and then listen to the other person do the talking.

Examples of open-ended, small-talk questions include: “So, what do you like most about your job?” “How did you get started in the industry?” “How has your business (or organization or industry) changed over the years?”

You could also make statements that encourage the other person to elaborate: “That’s interesting … tell me more.” Or, “Help me understand what you mean by that.” Then, listen with genuine curiosity, remembering that nodding your head and murmuring the occasional “Mm-hmmm” will make sure the other person feels heard.

It’s not about you
Keep in mind that good networking is not about you! It’s about making the other person feel comfortable and feel heard. The good news is that, as the other person’s comfort level increases, your own discomfort level is likely to diminish as well.

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Of course, you shouldn’t stay completely silent throughout the entire conversation. To find meaningful ways to chime in occasionally, listen carefully for common ground in the other person’s responses. Does the individual say anything that you can relate to in your own experience? For example, your conversation partner might say, “I got into the industry because I really enjoy technology; I just can’t get enough of the latest breakthroughs.” You can respond with, “I’m with you—that’s why I got into the industry, too. I have an endless fascination with everything tech.” Then, pick up on that commonality and move the conversation forward with, “So, where do you see the next big technology breakthrough coming from?”

Small talk on the job
Instead of finding yourself in a networking situation with someone you don’t know, what if you find yourself at a company event faced with making small talk with a coworker or senior leader? Again, the same guideline applies: Ask open-ended questions rather than tell. If you’re talking with someone you don’t know well but who’s from your workplace, be honest and say, “We’ve worked together for a while now, and I still don’t know that much about you. What do you like to do in your spare time?” Or if it’s someone you already know fairly well, you could ask, “How is the XYZ project coming along?”

Be prepared
Here’s another powerful suggestion to prepare for our next networking event: The next time you have a small-talk situation coming your way, arm yourself with a list of at least ten possible open-ended questions you could ask that could apply to multiple people and situations. Make sure the questions you have in your arsenal begin with either who, what, when, where, or how (never “yes/no” questions, and avoid “why” questions, too). Examples are: “How often do you attend this type of event?” “Where are you from?” “What is your role at work, and how long have you been holding that position?” “Who is your main contact here, and how do you know them?” “What do you like to do in your free time?”

Of course, don’t underestimate the importance of smiling and making eye contact. When the person introduces himself or herself, repeat the individual’s first name: “It’s nice to meet you, Joseph.” Repeating the name makes it more likely you will remember it, and it immediately establishes greater rapport.

Armed with these tips, you’ll be prepared for any event where you need to interact with strangers or work colleagues. The more you prepare yourself, the more comfortable you’ll feel, and the faster you’ll master the art of small talk.

Want to learn more? My book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success,” includes many more tips and tools to help master small talk for greater self-leadership success.

Self-Leadership Challenge #8: How Your Thoughts Impact Success

When Victoria showed up for her executive coaching session with me, she looked forward to focusing on three behaviors that she had identified as holding her back in her career progression. Here’s what she had written down:

  1. I need to speak up more in meetings, particularly with senior leaders.
  2. I need to stand up to pushy clients.
  3. I need to become more comfortable promoting myself to top management.

But during our session together, it quickly became clear that the issue for Victoria wasn’t necessarily these behaviors. Instead, it was her underlying mind management driving those limiting behaviors.

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It isn’t unusual for a potential coaching client to show up for a trial session with a change-in-behavior objective, and then realize that their thoughts are actually at the heart of the challenge.

In Victoria’s case, through our discussion, she discovered that she had been quietly talking herself out of embracing the very behaviors she wanted to embody. She had been listening to that little voice inside her head that says, “If I speak up, I’ll probably be wrong and make a fool of myself.” Or: “Even if I don’t agree with a client, I don’t want to rock the boat, so I just go along with it.” Or: “I’ve never been any good at self-promotion, so my chances of getting anywhere in this job are slim.”

Does Victoria’s dilemma ring true for you, too? These kinds of limiting thoughts can pass through your mind so quickly that you don’t even consciously realize it. But these thoughts are incredibly powerful and can have a dramatic effect, causing you to postpone actions and make all sorts of excuses for not initiating positive change.

What’s at the heart of it all? One of the worst enemies of self-leadership is a fear of failure, and it plagues even the most high-ranking executives.

Here’s another example: Sarah is a woman who helped start up a successful high-tech company. Previously a strong individual, full of energy and excitement, she and her fellow leaders grew the company from a dozen employees to a thriving organization of several hundred.

By that time, Sarah had become a mother, with one child already born and a second one on the way. She found herself struggling to balance the demands of work and home and realized that her family was getting the short end of the stick. So, after serious consideration, she decided to leave the work world for a few years to focus on raising her kids. Those “few years” turned into more than 10 years of being out of the corporate environment.

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That’s when Sarah arrived at my office for coaching. “I thought I could just pick up my career where I left off,” she said, “but I realize I was being naïve. What was I thinking?”

She then proceeded to tell me about how she was certain she had completely blown her recent interview for a new position. “You won’t believe what I said, Brenda,” she told me. “What an idiot! How stupid can I be? Some of the answers I gave to questions were ridiculous, the more I think about them.”

I looked at her and quickly changed my demeanor. “I can’t believe you did that either, Sarah! What were you thinking? You really are an idiot, you know that? How stupid can you be! Your answers were completely ridiculous!”

Sarah looked at me with shock on her face, clearly taken aback by my words. But it only took her a moment to understand my purpose. When I saw the recognition register on her face, I returned to my normal tone of voice and asked, “Now, if I were your boss, Sarah, and I spoke to you that way, would you work for me?”

“No!” she said, “Of course, not! That would be the worst boss in the world!”

I responded, “But, all I did was mirror back to you exactly what you’ve been saying to yourself. My point is: You have been listening to the worst boss in the world—and it’s that nasty little voice in your head.”

The Power of That Nasty Little Voice

When it comes to mind management—a foundational element of self-leadership—it’s absolutely critical to watch the little voice inside your head … like a hawk. Many executives deal with the same problem, so much so that author Seth Godin even wrote a blog post about this very issue called, “The World’s Worst Boss.”

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If you think about it, that inner voice is the one that talks to you the most (no matter how chatty your spouse or others in your life might be). So, it’s fundamental to pay attention in order to get clear about what that voice is saying to you morning, noon, and night. Simply by paying attention, you can bring these thoughts to the surface and change the dialogue you have with yourself.

Remember: That voice has no right to treat you in a way that you wouldn’t allow others to treat you. It’s your choice which voice in your head you listen to—the one that tells you that you are ready to handle any job/challenge that comes your way … or the one that will defeat you.

Great self-leaders recognize the power of their thoughts. How will you begin to change your inner dialogue today?

Want to learn more? My book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success,” includes many more tips and tools to help strengthen your mind management for greater self-leadership success.

Self-Leadership Challenge #7: How Great Self-Leaders Influence Others — Even Without Title or Authority

My executive coaching client, Mei, had just received a high-visibility promotion. It would shift her from leading the sales function (with full profit and loss responsibility) to taking over a regional sales job in charge of 11 countries. However, with this new move, P&L responsibility would remain with the 11 country heads.

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Her new regional job meant that there were dotted-line reports in each of the 11 countries, but she had no “direct” authority over those reports or the country heads. Essentially, Mei shifted from a post with full authority and title to a position without any official power. She could no longer rely on an “I’m the boss” approach.

Mei came to me for coaching because she had never been in a job which required her to rely solely on her ability to influence others; she had normally relied on authority and title to get things done. As such, she felt the need to strengthen her influencing skills—and quickly—if she was going to succeed. Given the high visibility of her new position, not to mention how critical this was for her career, one thing was clear: Failure was not an option.

The need for greater influence skills is more and more common in today’s matrixed world. Indeed, due to flattening organizations, many executives today don’t have the positional power they had in the past.

To further complicate matters, in today’s global work world, the need to influence frequently happens remotely, with less face-to-face contact than in the past. That means we don’t have the benefit of reading body language or using our facial expressions to help us persuade others to our point of view. Often, we must speak to people in different time zones late at night or early in the morning, when we may not be operating with the full energy required.

As a result, influence is one of the most important skills of contemporary self-leadership, and that’s why it’s also one of the most common issues I see in my executive coaching practice.

How Great Self-Leaders Influence

When you think about people who have a great deal of influence, does someone in your organization come to mind? What does this person do to influence others? Is the influence based solely on position and title, or is it based on a skill or quality like warmth and likability?

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Even though my client, Mei, had never previously been forced to rely solely on influence, I reminded her that she had certainly influenced her colleagues and others on a number of occasions. I asked her to make a list of ways that excellent self-leaders persuade, recalling situations during her career in which she herself had successfully done so, as well as times she had observed other great leaders compel others to act.

Here is Mei’s list:

  • “Great self-leaders influence by being fair and objective with others. A number of my colleagues have reported to bosses who treated them unfairly at some point in their careers. That stays with you, and when you work with someone who does treat you fairly, you want to do right by that person.
  • Great self-leaders influence by having no hidden agendas. It’s important to be transparent. If people trust that I’m honest and up-front, they’ll be more likely to accept what I have to say.
  • Great self-leaders influence peers by earning their respect. If my peers don’t respect me, I will be less likely to win them over.
  • Great self-leaders influence better when not attached to a specific outcome. I’ll be more influential if I stay flexible and don’t insist that everything must be done in a certain way.
  • Great self-leaders influence by doing what’s right for the team or the organization. I need to keep in mind that it isn’t personal; it’s about doing what’s best for the company.
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  • Great self-leaders influence by asking powerful, open-ended questions that don’t lead to simple “yes” or “no” answers. These kinds of questions encourage dialogue, which, in turn, strengthen trust.
  • Great self-leaders influence by being inclusive, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age, or body type. I need to watch any tendency toward unconscious bias and make sure I don’t allow labels to negatively impact outcomes.
  • Great self-leaders influence by not overwhelming others with lots of details. I need to stay aware of how much information people actually need in order to see my point of view, and then offer no more than that.
  • Great self-leaders influence by steering clear of drama and problems. I need to remain positive and avoid complaining or focusing on what isn’t working.
  • Great self-leaders influence by being excellent listeners. My influence is more likely to be successful if I talk with people, and listen actively, rather than talking at them without listening.”

Armed with these ideas and the Influence Toolbox included in my book, Leading YOU: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success, Mei felt more confident about her new position, and her trepidation about taking on the challenge changed to excitement.

What other examples have you seen great self-leaders use to successfully influence others?

We’re celebrating! Find out why…

This past Saturday, April 1st, 2017 was a big day for us here at BDA. Not just because it’s April Fools’ Day (although we do have a lot of fun with that) but because 15 years ago on that date, our company, Brand Development Associates (BDA) International, was born!

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In this blog, I share more about this very personal brand-building journey.

And, to add to the 15-year anniversary excitement, I was also humbled to learn that I have been recognized as one of the Top 25 Global Coaching Gurus and one of the Top 20 Global Branding Gurus for 2017! And, to honor these exciting milestones, we are offering great prizes to 15 lucky winners – you’ll want to check out the details below!

Looking Back to Look Forward – Our Entrepreneurship Story

It feels like April 1, 2002 was only yesterday. I sat in my new office – well, at that time, it was actually a converted small bedroom in our home – and thought with such excitement, “I did it! I started my own business!” After almost two decades of working in big companies, I felt an incredible sense of freedom to go out on my own.

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But it didn’t take long before fear seeped in, with questions like, “I’ve given up the comfort of a high-paying corporate job with all the perks. I’m starting from scratch with nothing! What have I done?”

In fact, I jokingly say I chose April Fools’ Day to start the business because if it didn’t work out, I could always go running back to the corporate world and say, “Just kidding!”

In all seriousness, though, I was determined to make it work. I had some savings, but I knew I had to spend funds wisely if my business was going to survive. I had to get smart – fast – about how to do that.

Faced with this dilemma, I took a deep breath and gathered up all the tips, tools, and techniques I had learned during those many years of big-brand management. I began applying them diligently to building my own brand – but this time, in ways that didn’t cost much. I kept my eye on the target – on the brand I wanted to build – and that brand became the North Star to guide every day-to-day decision I made. In other words, I focused on what I did have, rather than what I didn’t have.

In the process, slowly but surely, I uncovered hundreds of ways to build my brand using the same methods I had employed with household name brands, but without the need for the deep pockets I had in the corporate world. Then, I was able to take what I learned and teach other business owners how to do the same. I started out showing them how to master corporate and product branding, and my focus eventually evolved into leadership branding – how to help individuals, executives, and leaders build brands for themselves.

Looking back 15 years later, I can honestly say this journey has been the most amazing ride, and I’m grateful for every minute of the experience. Five years into the company, Daniel Jackman joined our team, and that’s when the magic really kicked in!  The business grew and grew to the point where, today, it’s been enormously rewarding to serve as a professional speaker, corporate trainer, and senior executive coach to dozens of the most recognized companies in the world.

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Currently, BDA International has had the honor of working with clients across six continents and 70 industries, and people often ask us how we achieved that. In fact, such a large number of clients and other individuals ask about how to become a successful entrepreneur that I decided to write a short book in which I share the top 15 lessons I’ve learned from 15 years of running my own business. Watch for the release date – it will be out in a few months!

Do YOU Have What it Takes, Too?

In the meantime, I wanted to share with you two of my favorite articles about what it takes to make it as an entrepreneur. It’s an active, engaging topic, as more and more people decide to take the plunge and start a business. What are the characteristics of a successful entrepreneur, and … if it’s appropriate for you, do YOU have them?

10 Traits All Successful Entrepreneurs Share

8 Successful Entrepreneurs Reveal the Best Business Advice They Ever Got

Don’t think this topic applies to you? Think again: Even if you work “inside” a company, are you an “intra”preneur, using your entrepreneurial skills within the organization to get faster, better, and more innovative results? Those skills will help you both inside or outside the corporate world.

Thank You!

As we celebrate our 15-year milestone, I want to say thank you to all of our fantastic clients – both corporate and individual – and all of our blog readers who have followed us all these years and been so supportive. If it weren’t for you, this company would be nothing, and we are incredibly grateful to you every single day. Thank you for the incredible support you have offered our company over the years!

Self-Leadership: Important for Entrepreneurs and “Intra”Preneurs, Too!

During my years of coaching senior executives, I came to understand that self-leadership is the most important – and most overlooked – driver of overall success. It’s a key part of being a successful entrepreneur – and a successful “intra”preneur, too. Self-leadership allows you to lead yourself to reach both “doing” goals – (Executive Presence, speaking up, effectively addressing conflict, etc.) and “being” goals (strengthening confidence, staying calm when facing tough situations, making difficult decisions, etc.)

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As a coach, I was able to pinpoint the 15 most damaging self-leadership behaviors, which became the basis of my latest book: Leading YOU™: The power of SELF-LEADERSHIP to build your executive brand and drive career success. As always, I’ve filled the book with lots of practical ways to correct these behaviors in your world, along with real-life executive coaching case studies that illustrate how these tools and techniques can help you become a markedly better leader.

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This book picks up where Would YOU Want to Work For YOU™? left off, providing what I believe is the missing link for most executives and entrepreneurs across the globe.

I’m excited to share that the book is receiving positive feedback and impacting leaders around the world! Here are just a few of the comments that people have shared with me after reading the book:

“I recommend Leading YOU™ to anyone who is a leader – or aspires to be. As I look at myself and others in my profession, I can see that author Brenda Bence is right: Self-leadership is the missing piece for most of us. Brenda has been invaluable to me at critical points in my career, helping me bridge my current role with my aspirations. A decade later, I continue to view my work with Brenda as a true breakthrough moment.”
Andrew Padovano – Managing Director, Citibank New York

“This book closes on the value of coaching to help you implement changes. I can personally attest to this. I was fortunate enough to enlist Brenda as my coach 6 years ago, and I estimate she has added well over US$150,000 to my compensation since that time.”
Marion McDonald – Chief Strategy Officer, Ogilvy PR, Asia Pacific

“Almost every leader focuses on leading others. [In this book], Brenda shows that self-leadership is just as important – maybe even more important – because it’s the foundation of all leadership.”
Dale A. Martin – CEO, Siemens Hungary

“Many practical tips in this easy read as Brenda uses many real-life scenarios as illustrations. It spoke to me in so many ways – I highly recommend this book!”
Angelia Kay – Regional Director, Garlock Asia Pacific

“Just what I was looking for! Brenda cuts right through the confusion on this topic and she provides a clear pathway for career development. I highly recommend Leading YOU™ to anyone looking to find the right balance and direction in their career.”
— Reid Velo – Consultant, Trust Edge Leadership Institute, Minneapolis

See You in Thailand!

“Please let me know when you’ll be speaking at a public event!”  This is a phrase I hear often because I normally only present at private corporate meetings, conventions, and conferences.

However, next month, I will be speaking at a regional coaching conference in Bangkok, Thailand on May 26 – and it’s open to the public!  At that conference, I will be presenting material from my upcoming book, The Choice, where I reveal a simple yet powerful choice that every leader has before them – whether focused on leading self or leading others.

I would be delighted if you would come join me!  Click on the visual below to find out more.  I hope to see you there!

Self-Leadership Challenge #6: The “Secret Sauce” of Powerful Executive Presence

What is Executive Presence? I have found a lot of confusion among executive coaching clients about the true meaning of this “buzz phrase.” The way I like to define it is: “a set of attitudes, behaviors, and skills which—when combined—send the right signals, influence others, and ultimately drive results.”

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If you’re a senior leader, you no doubt already have some degree of Executive Presence. It’s how you’ve reached your current level in the first place. The most admired people have Executive Presence in abundance—people like Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, and Richard Branson, to name a few. You know when you’ve met someone with powerful Presence. You feel drawn to that person and you want to connect with him or her.

“But can you learn Executive Presence?” clients ask?  Yes. And doing so improves your self-leadership, strengthens your executive leadership brand, and helps you advance in your career. Want proof about how important it is? According to a study of 236 senior executives, who make decisions about promotions within their organizations, Executive Presence accounts for more than one-quarter of what they look for in someone who is aiming to reach the next level.[1]

Many similar studies exist, all pointing to one outcome: Executive Presence is fundamental for those who want to reach increasingly higher levels in any organization. And it takes strong self-leadership to stay aware of and demonstrate the specific attitudes, behaviors, and skills required to embody powerful Presence.

So, what can you do to develop powerful Executive Presence? What’s the “secret sauce”?

The Most Important Ingredient of the “Secret Sauce”

I believe that underlying every aspect of Executive Presence is one core element: confidence—the absolute certainty that you can do what it takes to succeed in any situation. When you have confidence, you believe in yourself, so that—even if you’re undertaking something new—you know you’ll be able to figure it out when you get there.

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Yet, many accomplished leaders lack the confidence they need to cultivate strong Executive Presence. One indication of that: I’ve met a large number of leaders who suffer from the “Impostor Syndrome.” That’s a term which describes high-achieving people who don’t really trust their successes. They are constantly afraid of being exposed as a fraud, no matter how much they’ve accomplished. “I just got lucky,” they might say. As much as they want a higher level of responsibility or a specific promotion, deep down they question whether they are good enough to get it.

Then, there are other leaders like my client, George, who allowed a setback to damage his confidence. He had 29 years of experience in the corporate world. For 27 of those years, he was a dynamic go-getter, moving up the ladder and achieving great success every step of the way—not just in his professional life, but in his personal life as well. For the last two years, though, things hadn’t gone so well for him.

He had taken over a division that was new to him, and it wasn’t performing well under his leadership. When we met, I could sense George’s energy. He was like a balloon that had been deflated.

“George, for how many years did you have tremendous success?” I asked him.

“Twenty-seven years,” he responded.

“And for how long have things been a bit rocky?”

“These past two years,” George replied.

“So, you’ve had 27 years of positive, ongoing successes, and only two years—24 months—of less-than-positive outcomes. Is that correct?”

I could see the realization of this sinking in. “You’re right—I have to keep that in perspective,” George said. “I can’t let these past 24 months cloud a career and a life that has gone so well. It’s only a small portion of the whole.”

George is an example of how quickly confidence can fade if we’re not careful to nurture it. And once confidence fades, Executive Presence takes a hit.

Keep Your Confidence Level Steady

If you take an inventory of your successes and how they came about, you’ll most likely recognize that it was definitely not “all luck.” Your talents, skills, and hard work are why you’ve achieved success.

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Here’s an exercise to help you look honestly at what you have done and the skills you’ve developed, while acknowledging what you believe you genuinely lack. Make two columns on a legal pad or on your computer, and on the left-side column, list your most valuable attributes. Don’t stop adding to the list until you’ve run out of qualities and skills (and don’t be humble!)

Then, in the right column, list the areas where you still need work. Be objective about what you could do better. Once done, sit back and review the two lists. If you’re like most of my clients, I suspect you’ll be surprised at the outcome, because we often underestimate what we can do versus what we think we cannot do. (I assigned George this exercise, and this one task alone gave him more momentum than he’d had in a long while.)

It’s critical to look at yourself the way others do, but it’s difficult to see yourself through an objective lens. That’s why it’s so important to getting meaningful feedback—and why I devoted an entire chapter to that topic in my book, Leading YOU: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success.

The single most powerful and productive exercise I give my clients is the task of keeping a “Confidence Journal.” It’s simple: As you go through your day, and you have an experience that either increases or decreases your confidence level, write down what happened and why. Whether you are being challenged by a peer, find yourself on the receiving end of a compliment from the CEO, needing to fire someone, or struggling to influence outcomes, make sure to remain objective, and ask yourself: “What’s happening to my confidence right now?” Go inside and figure out how the experience is impacting you. What’s the context? Who’s involved, and what’s triggering the “boost” or the “bust”? What’s really causing those ups and downs?

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Jot every incident down, and give your confidence level a score based on how you feel: 1 = Not feeling confident at all, 10 = Feeling fully confident. Don’t judge yourself as you write—just be objective. Detach emotionally for a moment, and become an impartial reporter of what’s happening inside you, noting what triggered your shift in confidence.

Depending upon how many incidences you have, after a week or two of keeping track, pick up your confidence journal, and look for trends. What do you see, objectively? For example, it might be that your confidence level drops when you address very senior leadership, but you feel fully confident when addressing and leading direct reports.

Or maybe you wrote: “When I’m dealing with peers over whom I have no direct authority, my confidence level drops.”

Or: “When I’m involved in a conversation in my area of expertise, my confidence is high, but when I’m called upon to discuss areas outside my division, my confidence is reduced.”

Some clients keep the journal for two or three weeks, while others like to keep it going for two months or longer. It’s up to you. Once you understand the triggers that are causing confidence highs and lows, you’ll then be better able to preempt the triggers so that you can avoid confidence dips.

If you strengthen your Executive Presence in this way, you’ll be much less likely to allow a setback to diminish your belief in yourself. Keep in mind all of your achievements, and use them to keep you moving forward, even when faced with a challenging situation.

Assess the state of your current Executive Presence by taking my  Executive Presence Quiz.

[1] Hewlett, Sylvia Ann; Leader-Chivée, Lauren; Sherbin, Laura; Gordon, Joanne; Dieudonné, Fabiola; “Executive Presence,” TalentinInnovation.org, http://www.talentinnovation.org/assets/ExecutivePresence-KeyFindings-CTI.pdf.

Want to learn more? My book, Leading YOU™: The power of Self-Leadership to build your executive brand and drive career success,” includes many more tips and tools to help strengthen your Executive Presence for greater self-leadership success.

Self-Leadership Challenge #5: How to Self-Promote Without Bragging

I once coached a leader named Margaret, a Human Resources executive who, along with her team, was responsible for 125 leaders within her large organization—no small feat. However, as a result of a company merger, Margaret and her team suddenly found themselves responsible for almost double that—245 leaders—and were informed that due to cost-cutting measures, they would have no additional staffing. So, overnight, Margaret and her team were faced with almost double the work and no added help.

Margaret came to me feeling anxious, wondering, “Can we do it? Is it possible?”

She and her team created a vision, devised a strategic plan, worked weekends and late nights, and ultimately did an exemplary job of managing their larger mandate. In fact, within one year, they were working like a well-oiled machine, effectively managing all of the 245 leaders without incident.

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When Margaret’s annual performance review came, her boss praised her wholeheartedly. He congratulated her on a job well done and let her know just how much the company appreciated what she was able to accomplish.

How did Margaret respond? She shook her head modestly, and said, “Oh, it’s OK. It was nothing….”

When Margaret met with me and shared the outcome of her performance appraisal, she must have seen an expression of surprise on my face, given the tremendous effort she and her team had put in during the last year.

She shook her head. “I know, I know. I can’t believe I said that!”

After debriefing the situation, Margaret shared that she hadn’t taken the compliment well because she was uncomfortable in that moment and didn’t want to appear boastful.

Promoting ourselves and talking about our accomplishments in an unboastful way can be uncomfortable for many leaders. It is absolutely true that nobody likes to listen to the braggart who goes on and on about all the great things he or she has done. But there’s a difference between bragging from a place of insecurity that makes you need attention, and simply bringing attention to your achievements—with a combination of humility and pride.

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Margaret and I talked about how she would have liked to respond to that compliment, and we even prepared a statement that she memorized in case the opportunity arose again. About a month later, Margaret’s boss’s boss came to see her to also express his appreciation for her hard work. This time, she was prepared. When the compliment came, Margaret responded, “Honestly, it took everyone on the team working long hours and even weekends, but I’m really pleased with what we did, and I’m so glad you appreciate it.”

By answering in this way, Margaret gave credit to everyone on the team, demonstrating that she is an excellent leader. But it also allowed for some self-promotion without putting the emphasis only on herself. Then, she brought it back to “I’m really pleased with what we did, and I’m so glad you appreciate it.” As a result, she was able to show awareness of her own accomplishments without resorting to bragging.

Self-Promotion is Self-Leadership

Are you like Margaret? Have you avoided self-promotion out of the fear that you’ll be seen as a braggart or as someone who doesn’t have humility? I know that being humble is a foundational characteristic in many cultures, and I wholly respect that. But if you avoid promoting yourself on the job, your hard work may go unnoticed. I tell my clients, “Please only learn to be a good self-promoter if you want a successful career and higher compensation!”

Despite the benefits of self-promotion, most senior leaders still avoid sharing their “wins.” Some of them think, “It’s not that big of a deal. I’ll wait until I achieve something bigger, and then I’ll talk about it.”

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Others ask me, “Shouldn’t talking about my accomplishments be my boss’s responsibility?” Well, yes, probably. But let’s get real. Put yourself in a modern-day superior’s shoes. Financial pressures are creating increasingly flatter organizations, which means bosses have a larger number of direct reports than ever before. Also, the need for companies to go beyond domestic borders to continue their growth trajectory means not only do bosses have more direct reports, but those direct reports may be located all over the world. So, be empathetic to the fact that top executives’ jobs have gotten more and more difficult over the years, and their ability to focus on and promote upwards each individual who works for them has become stretched very thin.

You can now hopefully see how today—more than any other time in the history of modern capitalism—self-promotion has become a vital part of self-leadership. As such, by letting your boss know on a regular basis what you’re doing, you are actually making his or her job easier! The boss will be grateful because—trust me—when it’s time for your yearly performance management review, he/she will be better able to endorse you to upper level management. You will not only be helping your superiors, but also demonstrating strong self-leadership and solid Executive Presence in the process.

Another point to consider: By keeping track of your accomplishments along the way, you will be better prepared for your next performance review without the need to invest hours in reflection and writing time. You’ll be glad you can avoid that feeling of, “Did I miss anything?” that often accompanies your own self-assessment in annual performance reviews.

How to Self-Promote Without Bragging

Promoting yourself without bragging takes a bit of finesse while you’re first learning the art. With that in mind, here are some specific steps you can take:

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  1. Send regular emails to your boss—not about yourself, but about the good work of one or more of your team members. Give those deserving people a spotlight; that will show your superior that you’re a terrific leader without taking credit yourself. And, by the way, sending this email about others’ accomplishments is an excellent way to demonstrate your own self-leadership, too.
  2. Shortly before your performance review, make a list of accomplishments you want to highlight to your boss. This is your chance to let him or her know your strengths. If it helps you feel more comfortable, spend a little time phrasing your remarks so that they don’t sound boastful, using proven facts to support your claims. For instance: “The revenues of the Alberta project exceeded expectations, and the strategy the team and I put in place reduced costs by 12 percent.”
  3. Don’t miss a chance to let someone else praise your good work “upward.” If a client, customer, or colleague sends an email expressing gratitude or saying they were impressed with your work or the work of your team, forward it to the boss with a message saying how grateful you are that this person took valuable time out of their day to send positive feedback.
  4. Always try to applaud another person before you mention your part in a project’s success. For example, “Shania worked evenings to finalize this plan, and her efforts really helped me seal this deal. I appreciate having such solid team support.” Notice that you use the words “I” and “me” without taking all the credit for yourself.

If you continue to feel uncomfortable when mentioning your own accomplishments, spend time planning the words you will use, as if you were selling a new client on your company’s products or services. Practice the phrases at home or with a friend or a peer you trust until you reach a point where sharing your accomplishments feels more natural. Then, you’ll be promoting yourself without the need to brag at all.

Do you want to strengthen your self-leadership skills? Check out my latest book, Leading YOU™: The Power of Self-Leadership to Build Your Executive Brand and Drive Career Success, where I share dozens of tips, tools, and techniques to help you rise to the top in your career.