May 2, 2022

Are You The Leader That You Want People To See?

Is it becoming more difficult to demonstrate executive presence in a world where it seems everything is virtual?

Recently, the founder of a well-known technology company went on record as saying, “Companies should call employees back to offices because when people work from home, that institutional culture will slowly become weaker and weaker.” This executive is expressing a sentiment that is shared by many, especially leaders, who cannot perceive of a company functioning in any way other than how it has been: people working at their desks, at the office.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the hybrid or work-from-home culture here; instead, I want to look at what the leader said in terms of a leadership touchpoint. In reading his words, what feeling do you get? Do you think, “Yes! This is a strong leader who knows how to run a company!”, or do you feel these words sound churlish and authoritarian? There’s no wrong answer here because what you feel is what you feel. The error, for all leaders (new managers to seasoned leaders), lies in missing the mark on how their comments will make people feel. That’s where touchpoints are strongest in either reinforcing the bond between leader and follower, or weakening it.

We are, without doubt, entering a new age. The hybrid work scenario is not just an idea down the road but is something that organizations and its leaders are now working to understand. Meanwhile, a surprising number of employees across a range of industries, are opting for an at-home or hybrid work style, and those who are not allowed to do this are simply leaving, as part of a large and ongoing phenomenon called the Great Resignation. They are not just thinking about leaving or talking about leaving, they are actually leaving.

Leaders tend to generate a great deal of their leadership persona from the power of their presence. That’s what executive presence is supposed to be: a blend of visual, verbal, and vocal elements that helps inspire allegiance and devotion. How can that be done when people and teams are becoming increasingly virtual?

This change, like many changes in life, becomes an opportunity for self-reflection and improvement. Does the change to a hybrid world pose a threat to your current style of management? Good! Even if it doesn’t – even if you plan to keep the company population working onsite as they have always done, it’s still good. There is still an opportunity for you look at your brand through the prism of this new normal, to see which habits and actions should stay, and which should be updated.

Executive presence reflects in every touchpoint someone has with you. Every email, and every conversation, whether in-person or on video, your image and your availability, your speaking skills and your listening skills, your capacity to feel empathy and equally to display it. It is also very fragile. The credibility and goodwill that can be built up carefully over time can be shattered in an instant. One moment where self-control is forgotten can dissolve the brand away like water over a sugar cube.

But at this very moment where some may see it as being threatened, it is becoming more important than ever. The changes brought about by the pandemic, new working environments, and the perpetual pall of uncertainty mean that people are looking to leaders for guidance, confidence, and strength.

Leaders who appear to fear these changes will lose themselves. The executive quote at the beginning of this article may have in mind a cohesive team, but the words used may come across to too many people as desperate or even possibly tyrannical: not so much a leader of people, but a keeper of them. Perhaps it was the choice of words – a focus on the weakening of an institutional culture at a time when people are discovering their own career independence and are focusing more on life-work-balance than on a corporate structure.

Your opinion might differ on this. But are giving yourself the opportunity to hold up a mirror to yourself and ask: “Am I the leader that I want others to see? Do I speak the language, use the words, and demonstrate in every touchpoint, my commitment to each individual employee?”

The good news is, your people – employees, customers, colleagues – they are looking to you now. During periods of great change, they will take refuge in your executive presence. It’s up to you to make sure that such a presence is ready for this new normal.

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