Thursday, 10 November 2016

For Professional Women Everywhere - The Rise of the Power Haircut

Hair has always been an issue. Whether we are talking about history, culture or religion, there is certainly a lot of significance attached to hair. In addition, when we are looking at photos of ourselves in our formative years; the thing that usually gets noticed first is our hair. And whilst it is all too easy to dismiss this topic as frivolous and unimportant, the reality is that our hair matters. 

On November 8th 2016 the USA went to the polls. Despite the fact that this particular election cycle appears to have been the longest, and certainly the most divisive in US history, it has created history. And what’s the thing that people often comment about in relation to Trump’s appearance? Of course it is the hair. 

In the UK, we have a female Prime Minister, as well as female First Ministers for Scotland and Northern Ireland. The first female Presidential candidate was nominated by the Democratic party this year. The Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund is also a woman and of course, the list goes on. One of my absolute favourite TV shows ever is ‘VEEP', (a political satire based on the Vice President of the US, who again happens to be a woman), and even in this brilliant show, there was an absolutely hilarious episode that focused on her hideous haircut. 

The question is of course: 'so what’? Well, all of the politicians I’ve named so far - and there are many more besides - have a particular type of hairstyle. It is shorter, shaped into a ‘bob’ style that now has the moniker of a ‘pob'. The political bob. This type of hairstyle is all about power. A women taking on a somewhat masculine style and softening it just enough to be feminine, in order to succeed in a male dominated political world. It¹s about authority, impact and strength. Long, luxurious locks don¹t work well for politicians because of the potential to convey frivolity and unnecessary expense in keeping it looking good. In addition, there are some social psychology studies that would suggest long hair can be associated with weakness. Hippies have long hair. Forbes magazine published the ’50 Most Powerful Women In Business’ and only eight women on it had long hair. A shorter style conveys control and power in a business world still dominated by men. Where hairstyles are longer, is in traditionally female dominated professions, which is more than a mere co-incidence. Ironically I have long hair. It's styled on Cruella De Vil and in combination with being tall, wearing high contrast black and white a lot, having a more dramatic sartorial style, a ‘flat’ face and an opinion on most things; my hair length is the one attempt to ‘soften' my appearance and appear less scary. 


So, should we all rush out and get our haircut? Actually no. 

Leaders with Executive Presence put intention and consistency into their look – and so their hair is an important component of doing this successfully. What is essential for professional women everywhere is to have a cut that suits the face and manage the condition of it first and foremost. We shouldn’t fiddle with it endlessly in the office and if we add colour; we should look after it (as roots are never a good look). As leaders we have our own leadership style; and we all have different ways to convey power and authority. For some, this means a trip to the hairdressers.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Wearing What We Mean

In the United Kingdom, this time of year is known for two things: the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, and the season of party political conferences. Leaving John Keats’s description of autumn to one side, in fairness, the UK has had a lot going on recently. Over the summer: a dramatic vote to leave the European Union, seismic changes to our political leadership across a number of parties and at the very top of our government, a change of Prime Minster (another woman no less!). In addition, as I write this, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have returned this week with their family after a very successful tour of Canada, and so I am prompted to revisit the topic of the meaning of our choice of clothing. Why? Because what we wear says something – whether we like it or not.

So let’s go back to politics for a moment. On Sunday 2nd October 2016, one day after her 60th birthday, Teresa May stood up to give her first conference speech as leader of the Conservative Party, and Prime Minster of the United Kingdom. A tough ask for anyone in her shoes, (which I’ll come back to in a moment), but particularly given the growing calls in the UK for clarity on when steps will be taken, to start to extricate the country from the rest of Europe and by so doing, move away from more than 40 years of legislative, commercial, economic and political entanglement. May needed to be clear, decisive, inspiring, inclusive, determined and collaborative. On top of all that – she needed to nail what she wore. In the end our Prime Minister chose a black trouser suit ('I’m a serious leader in a political world dominated by men'), accessorised with quite a fierce, chunky belt and bangle (but I’m not a man and I can assert my femininity and my individuality), pearls (a classic, feminine touch), and
then velvet slippers. At first read of the last sentence you may be forgiven for thinking: ‘what?!!!”Hold on a mere moment. Velvet slip-on shoes are very in vogue at the moment and Mrs May has a penchant for following fashion. She also has a reputation for being a hard worker, not very flashy, diligent, serious and earnest. Not necessarily bad qualities for a politician, but let’s get back to the shoes. Velvet as a fabric is soft and appealing to the touch and slip ons - or slippers – says casual, approachable, relaxed, ‘one of us’. But there was a detail to these shoes that cannot be mistaken. There were steel toe caps to these slippers. Yes, Teresa May wanted to convey warmth and approachability, but at the same time it’s clear that she was saying ‘Don’t. Mess. With. Me.’

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge brought their cherubic children with them on an eight day tour of Canada. Everything they wore was scrutinised for symbolism, relevance and – given the relentless number of photos taken of them – the visual aesthetic. The choice of colours for the Duchess’s outfit (a nod to the Canadian flag when she wore red and white, the maple leaf brooch which was a gift originally given to the Queen etc.) all drove acres of media coverage. When the children appeared, they were colour co-ordinated with their parents to convey family, love, aspiration, youth, the future, adorable, inspiring, in touch, the Monarchy etc. Royal tours create a vast amount of commercial and economic opportunity for both countries, as well as encouraging considerable debate, enhanced education and greater awareness of social, charitable and philanthropic interests which are close to their hearts. We cannot kid ourselves into believing that months of preparation and discussion DOES NOT go into finalising what they wear and wearing what they mean.

As leaders in business, we all have a visual signature. What we wear means something and the question is: do we convey the message that we want the world to get about us? Or do we think it doesn’t matter? Or do we simply never think about it? Whatever group you fall into, let’s be clear, leaders with ‘Executive Presence’ put consistency, intention and alignment in their look in order to support and convey their ‘brand’. Get it right; and we notice the person. Get it wrong and we notice the clothes.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Millennials, Mentoring and Making an Impact

I have been working on a fascinating project over the last few months with a global client that is looking to develop high potential millennials through a reverse mentoring initiative with the senior leadership team. My involvement has been to develop the influencing skills that will be needed for these young professionals to have real impact around the senior leadership table and here’s what I’ve noticed:
  • A real concern regarding what they are/are not ‘allowed’ to say.
  • A desire to please; a concern to challenge; a lack of confidence given their relatively junior position vis-a-vis their senior colleagues.
  • A real passion in their role and a belief in what they – as Millennials – think, act and feel.
So where have we focused our efforts?

Speaking in public with confidence and authority, facilitating a discussion to achieve a common goal and being comfortable to be ‘put on the spot’. In a complex, fast-paced business, with more than its fair share of ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty, having impact means being able to demonstrate these skills – amongst many others. It is also essential to getting things done.

So, where to start? Well, how about considering the following:

  • Managing our body language - because the majority of our communication is non–verbal and so how we sit, use our hands and look at people all has significant impact on the power of our message.
  • Rehearsing key messages in advance: practising saying not just thinking about key points is vital – especially when faced with a short window to get (and keep) the attention of the audience.
  • Knowing when to stop talking and structuring our messages into three parts creates a natural story and ‘finish point’.
  • Supporting opinion with fact makes our viewpoint more compelling.
  • Explaining the ‘why’; not just the ‘what’ (because as Simon Sinek says: ‘people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it’).
  • Being able to ‘elegantly interrupt’ someone who waffles on or takes the discussion off track are vital moderating skills.
  • Saying ‘I don’t know’ confidently (rather than apologetically).
  • Being willing to stand up and take responsibility for moving things forward (rather than pointing the finger at others or waiting for ‘the company’ to change).
…and that’s just a few of the topics we’ve explored. As the sessions have unfolded what is clearly apparent is that these are strategies and skills at all ages; not just for millennials. Making an impact isn’t easy; it’s about personal rather than positional power and whether we are a mentor, a millennial or simply a professional striving to do a good job, the skills of exquisite influence are ones that all of us can hone at any age.

Until next time…

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Management by Walking Around

I have been working with a client for a couple of months now, helping them to drive a new sales transformation process within their business. As the well-worn Peter Drucker phrase goes: ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, so no matter how great the strategy, how right the market conditions and how amazing the product, all will die on the altar of a divisive, negative, under-performing culture. Changing culture in business is under-estimated. It is hard because it means dealing with the most difficult raw material that any leader has to deal with – and that’s emotion. Dealing with emotion is hard because quite simply there’s no black and white. Each situation, each individual, each change is different – and therefore so is the emotion behind it.

In a large, fast-paced sales environment where high value deals are done in two telephone calls within the space of a week, some of the standard rhythms around longer 1:1 meetings, away from the floor where the leader can coach and give feedback to their team, will not be as effective in driving cultural change – if done on their own. Everyone wants a bit of heat and a bit of light from their manager, so there has to be other means by which leaders can interact in a low effort, high impact way that can – and does – work to drive a high performance culture and I call it ‘management by walking around’. To be clear, I do not mean aimless meandering. I do mean deliberate, intentional and consistent activity to reach the sales team with the right message to demonstrate support, constructive challenge, help, appreciation and stretch. Leaders with ‘Executive Presence’ make it look easy – the rest of us need to learn the strategies.

So, specifically:

  • Plan to make the activity part of your operational rhythm and stick to it.
  • Don’t bring an entourage. I used to work in the pharmaceutical industry where hospital consultants conduct weekly ward rounds with a cast of thousands. My consultants were always late for our appointments (as well as their afternoon clinics, I might add). We’re not trying to emulate that. It can become a huge time drain – as well as a distraction.
  • Decide if it’s a one way or a two way activity (i.e. do I just want to share something or do I want to discuss?). If it’s one way – plan the key message and be consistent; if it’s two-way, then be prepared to listen!
  • Follow up – especially where you’ve committed to during the interaction. Otherwise your integrity (and your impact) will quickly fall away.
  • Remember it’s not the platform for criticism – so don’t.
  • Make sure (over time) that you connect with everyone – avoid favouritism; that never plays well.
Remember, leaders with Executive Presence inspire those around them with that ‘I’ll follow you anywhere’ kind of aura. Making our interactions high impact – whether they are long or short – represents an opportunity for all of us to achieve this kind of response from our people. Management by walking around is an underrated tactic and as with all the topics about which I write I could say even more. However, now I must stop, not least because it’s time for me to go walkabout.

Until next time…

Thursday, 12 May 2016

Who Shows Up?

I spent time with a former colleague recently and was reminded of a film that I watched a number of years ago called ‘Polar Express’. In it was a phrase that resonated with me – the ‘mood hoover’.

Well, let’s just say my former colleague is one of those. A ‘mood hoover’ sucks the energy, will to live, positivity out of the air and casts gloom and doom wherever they are. In the presence of a mood hoover, no matter what might be going well, they will always find a way to bring the conversation down. Creativity is stifled, optimism dwindles and negativity prevails…it got me thinking.

Having ‘Executive Presence’ means having that ‘I’ll follow you anywhere’ impact on other people when you walk in a room; whether it’s the most junior or senior person in the company. Being able to inspire others, ignite their interests, talents, passion and creativity at work all sits at odds with being a ‘mood hoover’. As professionals, as leaders and as people – we are in a relationship business – no matter our industry, geography or role. I travel a lot and the vagaries of public transport mean that I am invariably delayed, distracted and demented getting to clients via trains, buses, tubes and planes. There are times when I could simply scream with pure frustration. So my point is simply this: part of how we convey presence means asking ourselves – every day – in every meeting, conference call or 1:1, who shows up? What’s our energy that we bring to each conversation or interaction? What’s our intention? What’s our mind-set? What are we communicating to the rest of the world, beyond the words which come out of our mouth? How do we ‘shake off’ the ‘mood hoover’ mentality – even when we’re emotionally over wrought and it would just feel better to let off steam?

Here are some suggestions:
  • Know your triggers, and plan to create something positive from the negative. For example, I’m very productive when travelling and so get a lot of work done. It's this I choose to focus on when stuck in such situations.
  • Identify what else you need to build resilience – is it more sleep, exercise, making the weekends less frenetic, doing something just for you or something else? These resources are essential to emotional well-being and stability.
  • Find things that make you laugh and make time to do just that. Laughter is good for the soul and replenishes even the most frazzled traveller….
  • Challenge yourself – is this your best self? Even when you feel like Michael Douglas in ‘Falling Down’, do you really think others deserve to experience this from you?
Know that your energy, purpose and intention is an essential part of Executive Presence and one that you communicate exquisitely – be it good or bad - every day to those around you. Do you have a brand – like my former colleague – of this unrelenting mood hoover? Or are you someone whose presence, purpose, intention and energy inspires and delights those around you?

As we build our impact, influence and relationships at work, always remember to ask yourself: who shows up?

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Does Size Matter?

My attention is drawn this month to a fascinating piece of research conducted by Exeter University. They examined, in some detail, the weight, height and earnings of UK men and women, and it reveals some ‘awful but true’ unconscious biases.

Amongst their conclusions is the reality that men who are shorter than the national UK average (5’ 9” or 1.75 m) earn an average of £1,500 less than their colleagues. This is not the first time height and leadership have been drawn together. Malcolm Gladwell, in his excellent book ‘Blink – The Power Of Thinking Without Thinking’, revealed some fascinating research from the United States. Again, the context was implicit bias, and Gladwell compared the height of CEOs from Fortune 500 companies versus the rest of the US male population. He found that 58% of the CEOs from Fortune 500 companies, were 6 feet or taller. This is 1 metre 82 cm for our metric friends amongst us and it compared with an average across the US population of 14.5%. In addition, in general in the United States, there are 3.9% of men who are 6’ 2” and this compared with almost a third across Gladwell’s survey sample of Fortune 500 CEOs. Now, you might think: ‘who cares?’

Well, let’s step back for a moment and focus on what it means for leaders today. This is the classic ‘tall poppy syndrome’. Whatever our role at work, all of us are in the business of influence and what I am not suggesting is that men who are less than 5’ 9” wear built up heels. However, what I am suggesting is that no matter our height, weight or size, it is critical for all leaders to convey what I call ‘executive presence’. By that I mean the ability to walk into a room and own it, being able to inspire those around them, whether they are the receptionist or the CEO. If we’re easier to be seen then it’s easier to be heard, and if it’s easier to be heard then it’s easier to influence. Leaders with executive presence radiate confidence. They command attention but do not demand attention. Leaders with executive presence are authentic, project poise and authority, they have high levels of self-awareness so know when they are making an impact and also know when they are missing the mark. Such leaders continue to harness strengths whilst continuing to work on their gaps or flaws.

So, height isn’t important – but executive presence is; it’s how we engage, inspire, motivate, enthuse, harness and retain the talent around us to deliver results.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Which Communication Trap Do You Fall Into?

Have you ever been in a meeting that has caused you to lose the will to live? I have been reflecting on language and communication over the last month because recently, I have had that experience. What prompted it? Quite simply the incredibly poor calibre of communication by senior, successful professional people. And it got me pondering….Janice Obuchowski wrote an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review more than 10 years ago that still resonates today. She talked about three kinds of communication trap – namely anonymity, obscurity and tedium.

The anonymity trap is where leaders start talking the same corporate language. Words and phrases which are relatively unique to that organisation get used over and over again. I wrote in my book last year on the topic of Executive Presence: Demonstrating Leadership In Times Of Change And Uncertainty, that one of my clients uses the phrase ‘taking people on the journey’. I have many problems with this; not least of which is that I don’t understand what it really means. However, in the context of the model, the phrase is an example of the anonymity trap because everyone says it, and so no single voice ‘stands out’. In other words, everyone sounds the same.

The obscurity trap is overuse of jargon, technical language and little known words and phrases in order to sound intelligent. I recently sat in a session where a colleague used the word ‘ersatz’. Exactly, how many of you right now are looking up the meaning of the word? I guarantee almost no-one (me included) knew what they meant when they said it; and it was designed to demonstrate being clever and erudite. Except that it didn’t work. It caused confusion and irritation, not to mention discomfort when clarity was sought. (It means an inferior substitute by the way).

The tedium trap is just way too much information. This is where our communication is a tsunami of facts, figures, stories, data coming at the audience at speed. Too much; too overwhelming; too little thought gone in to our communication. The result is unfocused and often irrelevant information.

So how do we, as leaders, stop falling into one or more of these traps? Well to convey Executive Presence I would suggest:
  • Don’t use standard formats or templates for presentations or pitches. Be different by structuring your message differently – especially at the beginning and the end (when attention is at its highest).
  • Use metaphor and analogy – it is far more effective for conveying a message – especially when the communication is dull and/or complicated.
  • Split your message into three parts to make it a narrative structure, just like a story.
  • Be clear on what you want to achieve by communicating the message. Beware of ‘just updating’ people. The last thing we all need is data for the sake of having data. Unless you want a decision (for example, is it red or green? Tuesday or Thursday?); action (for example, to send a note or make a call) or commitment (time, money, people etc.) then why are you telling us?
  • Be brief! Less is always more….
  • Cut out the buzzword bingo nonsense.
  • Be humorous (but not flippant) if this is a natural ability you possess.
Our communication is a reflection of the culture in which we live. We all have the capacity to be affected by it (for good and ill), and our challenge as leaders is to make our communication stand out for the right reasons, not blend in with everyone else for the wrong ones.