I recently spoke with the CEO of a medium-sized manufacturing company about his new CFO who was poised to attend our flagship program, Leadership at the Peak. He’d recently promoted her and was very comfortable with that decision until a week later.
He told me she was smart, very hard working, and had been with the company in various accounting roles for the past 4 years, most recently as comptroller. She was respected by colleagues and employees, and over time had become the right-hand assistant to the CFO. So when the CFO announced his retirement, she seemed like a natural candidate. Sure enough, after a brief search she was promoted to the position.
The following week the company hosted a small celebration consisting of the accounting office, various department heads, and other members of the senior leadership team.
The CEO arrived early and mingled with the gathering — soon the newly appointed CFO entered. What startled the CEO was the greeting she received. No one turned a head. There was no recognition or applause, and the way she entered clearly suggested she didn’t expect any such attention. Soon she was a part of the crowd, and while everyone was congratulatory, the excitement she and her promotion generated was decidedly mute.
“I saw then what I knew but had failed to recognize before,” the CEO told me. “She had all the skills for the job but one; she lacked an executive presence, a certain energy, and gravitas. She neither commanded nor received attention.”
“I need her to have a bigger presence,” he told me, “because her new role not only includes presenting the numbers, but instilling investor confidence in those numbers. That executive presence is what I’ll need when, as a team, she and I meet with major stakeholders and analysts. I’m concerned.”
Establishing Executive Charisma
Sometimes called charisma, the CEO was referring to that special quality some people possess or learn that allows them to authentically show up and command respect as leaders. The Greek origins of the word “charisma” itself convey a certain mystique, and suggest that it was seen as a divine gift related to qualities of grace and desire.
And indeed, some people do seem to innately possess an abundance of charisma, which has been shown in a variety of C-suite studies to be a significant factor in executive success.
But what if, like this CFO, an executive has proven functional skills but is lacking in what the CEO called executive presence? What can be done? Can executive presence be taught?
Despite a growing body of research into what comprises executive presence and how it’s developed, particularly for women and non-native English speaking professionals, it remains an inexact science with decidedly mixed advice.
According to a study done by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2013, women in particular feel an intrinsic tension between being authentic and conforming to corporate cultural norms. Women in the study said that feedback about executive presence is often contradictory and difficult to act on.
Perhaps the biggest learning of the past few years is that charisma is not only a gift bestowed on a few — it’s a highly prized skill that can be acquired.
Leaders can gain these skills with experience and by modeling the behavior of others around them who exhibit the qualities needed to be successful. Or they can pursue an accelerated training approach, one requiring considerable feedback and clear development goals.
The CFO’s Journey
By coming to Leadership at the Peak, this CFO had — with some encouragement and initial trepidation — chosen the latter approach.
The first day of her training at CCL included a simulated live TV interview. As her cohort came into our TV studio area, I recognized her immediately. Her thin smile and wide eyes suggested nervousness as she sat in suspense. One by one her group came up to be interviewed and filmed for later review. When it was her turn, I could see that watching previous participants had done little to calm her fluttering nerves. We chatted briefly while the floor director placed a microphone on her lapel and then after a short countdown and introduction, we were live.
The questions she got weren’t easy. With the help of her CEO and others who worked with her I was able to identify the challenges she and the company were facing. More importantly, these were issues she would likely be talking about again in other venues — before her team, her board, or with major stakeholders.
While the staging was designed to make this feel very real, it was essentially a pressurized practice opportunity allowing her to see how she came across as a leader. The only real audience was the TV crew and her cohort. The only real judgment was that which she bore. At the end of the week she would go home with the only copy of her time under the hot studio lights.
Our dictum is “challenge and support,” and this was clearly a challenge for her. After the interview, the applause, and high-fives from her colleagues, this CFO was smiling, relieved to be finished. Yet this was just the first and perhaps easiest part to the exercise. We would be getting together again later that day to deconstruct the interview along with her coach and others I’d interviewed.
That afternoon in our debrief room, we rolled her interview and stopped after the first question. I noticed she had pushed her chair back from the table. Arms crossed, a look almost of pain etched her forehead. How did she feel about her response, I ventured? She was obviously not happy with her performance so I added, “So let’s start with what you liked about it. What did you do well?”
Looking puzzled she laughed and said, “I’m so used to being critical, I don’t know.”
A colleague offered, “She used your name, Michael, and she smiled.” Another said, “Her answer was very clear and she looks like an executive.” Her coach added, “This is a strong start. I’m looking forward to hearing more.”
After another question, I paused again and asked her for her take. She was smiling, and with a sigh said, “It was actually better than I thought. I was so nervous I wasn’t sure if what I was saying made any sense at all.”
As we watched the rest of the interview, patterns emerged. Overall, she did a credible job, dutifully answering the questions, often with an auditor’s earnestness. The topics tempted her into giving tactical responses, and as she provided a logical litany of reasons for company actions, her demeanor grew ever more serious. There was nothing wrong with what she said or how she said it, but her new role demanded more than a detailed rationale; it required a certain charisma, an executive presence that was still embryonic.
John Antonakis — at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland — conducted one of the more intriguing studies of charisma. His team wanted to see if charisma could be taught. First, they deconstructed the constituent elements, which their research suggested were the foundations of charisma. Then, through a number of carefully designed interventions, they were able to successfully increase the perception of charisma in a group of mid-level managers.
Antonakis’ study demonstrated that with the right approach, charisma can indeed be learned. One of the key findings is that charisma is rooted in a leader’s ability to inspire and influence through emotional and often non-verbal communication.
This CFO was expected to have command of the facts in her new role. That was a given. But she also needed to be able to express those facts within a strategic framework that tapped into emotional registers. She needed to convey the facts in a way that was engaging and made us not only understand, but care.
Watching the video, she saw that her responses were largely cerebral, her emotional affect mostly flat. She learned that by tapping into her genuine passion for the business’ purpose and including relevant stories and examples, she was able to relax and make her responses much more compelling. By the end of the debrief, she began to understand that her new role was more than being a leader of metrics; she could become a strategic partner in communicating the exciting vision of the company from her unique vantage.
As part of the program, I provided her with some additional tools to help expedite this process. When we wrapped up, she told us she was eager to begin working with her coach on implementing this expanded perspective in her communications.
Creating or improving charisma isn’t easy, but it can be done. Executive presence can be taught. I’ve seen it happen time and again in our Leadership at the Peak program, where there is a proven process that provides ample constructive feedback along with ongoing coaching and support.
About the Author
Michael Gardner works at CCL’s Colorado Springs campus where — for the past 15 years — he’s been doing Executive Presence research for Leadership at the Peak. He’s often engaged in custom programs in which Executive Presence and various forms of presentation and media training are offered. Previously, Michael was the publisher of a magazine and book-publishing company, and his writings have appeared in a variety of national and regional publications, including the New York Times.