I particularly like working with successful executives who are facing new challenges, radical complexity, and uncertainty because of a career transition. Many people think of “transitions” only in terms of moving to a different company. Major transitions can also be created at the same company by a promotion or lateral move, a new boss, dealing with a board of directors or a board committee for the first time, a change in the CEO or board membership or even remaining in the same job but faced with a significant change in the operating environment.
When a transition like this occurs, executives often must learn a new business, broaden their horizon of relevant knowledge and, most important, develop significant new leadership skills. Some executives get “stuck” when they experience a transition of this character and are not as effective in their new leadership roles as expected. They are then sometimes seen as lacking “executive presence.”
Executive coaches are often requested to work with up-and-coming executives and C-Suite competitors for the CEO slot to develop their executive presence. Usually, the request comes from a talent manager or senior executive or board chair who says, “this executive does not engender trust at meetings of the board or their senior team or create the necessary commitment to follow their lead in crisis situations or even in pursuing strategic goals.” The reference to a lack of executive presence is little more than saying “something is missing.” About the only thing that all coaches seem to agree upon is that executive presence is not a baked-in, gene-based talent; it is instead a skill that can be learned. In my view, there is no it. The lack of executive presence is code for a failure of leadership, which in turn may stem from a variety of very different deficits or gaps in leadership.
There are both external and internal leadership gaps. On the external side, it is all about what others see in the way the executive presents or leads: how the executive builds their team, handles a meeting, communicates their goals and strategic priorities and monitors progress, acts under great stress, deals with the board or their boss, makes decisions, ensures the execution of a plan and holds himself or herself and the members of the team accountable for the results. Is this a “We” person or an “I” person?
On the internal side, it is what is going on in the executive’s mind that creates behaviors like procrastination and lack of decisiveness, a refusal to take responsibility for mistakes or failures, extreme perfectionism, micromanagement, treating unsuccessful projects as failures for which others are blamed instead of learning experiences for the group, and a failure to take charge in a calm and composed manner when there is a crisis. These behaviors are often a reflection of deeply felt insecurity and self-doubt or sometimes a classic case of the Imposter Syndrome.
There is a third group of executive presence issues, where the executive appears to be doing all the right things, but the members of the team are not following – they are not committed to the leader’s goals and strategies. That may be due to the culture of the company. For example, the company may be extremely siloed or, in companies with very flat structures, there may be a culture that entitles employees to do their jobs in the way that they think best regardless of the views of the team leader. Deeply embedded cultural issues can only be resolved by the CEO or the empowered head of a major division. A new leader, especially one brought in to be a change agent, may feel frustrated at every turn and lose all sense of agency.
Effective leadership is based on trust, and that trust must be earned over time. The executive must be perceived as acting in accordance with his or her statements, seeking out the advice of others, admitting mistakes and holding himself or herself accountable for their consequences, being willing to hold others accountable for their mistakes, establishing clear strategic goals, communicating those goals clearly and broadly and accepting responsibility if they are not achieved. Without these underlying leadership characteristics, there is no credibility in the external indicia of executive presence – decisiveness in the face of hard choices, calm under stress, etc.
Finally, it’s important to keep in mind that someone transitioning to a wholly new role for the first time – as a CEO, CFO, CMO, or as someone responsible for a wholly new market – really does have a lot to learn. The issue, then, is how the new leader relates publicly to their direct reports and the rest of the company during this period of a very steep learning curve. Does the executive pretend that he or she knows enough to make firm decisions without seeking the views of their team and others in the company? Does the executive tread carefully in decision-making before taking an important step or just “act decisive?” Does he or she evince trust in the advice of their team? Some executives believe that to show uncertainty and vulnerability and the need for guidance is a show of weakness. They do not see that certainty in the face of ignorance is not only foolish, it is also almost always quickly visible; and it creates a major amount of mistrust.
When faced with an executive presence issue, the first job of the executive coach is to identify the nature of the gap. This usually requires extensive discussion with both the members of the executive’s team, his or her peers and the person to whom the executive reports. Is it due to a behavioral trait, a way of showing up that has been effective in the past but is not appropriate for the new job, a failure to communicate, or a deeper insecurity? Gaps of that kind are amenable to effective coaching. An experienced coach can guide a successful executive to become aware of the habit loops and survival mechanisms that no longer serve their original purpose and engender doubts about his or her leadership. It is not unusual for an executive going through a transition to feel that they have no one to talk to about these new challenges. If so, they can benefit greatly by having a neutral trusted advisor with a broad business and nonprofit background with whom to test their assumptions, ideas, proposals, and strategies before moving forward and discussing them with a more senior officer or the board.
Or is the executive’s behavior due to a company cultural issue? Does the executive feel victimized by the culture because it frustrates his or her every effort at change? Improving the culture may be beyond the pay grade of the executive, but an experienced coach can support the executive in finding ways to be effective within that culture rather than fighting it.
Distinguishing and reaching agreement on one or more critical gaps is a delicate and sometimes difficult task. A mentor in the same company may tend to soften the definition of the gaps to the point that the executive may not recognize them as a serious problem. A friend outside the company may not only soften the advice, they may also miss it entirely in what are usually one-shot conversations. An executive coach is wholly devoted to the interests of the executive and is “someone who tells you what you don’t want to hear, and who has you see what you don’t want to see, so you can be who you have always known you can be.” The coaching sessions are a safe place to discuss deeply the conduct that is standing in the executive’s way and how to change it.
 See Kate Purmal, Composure: The Art of Executive Presence (Amplify Publishing, 2021).  See generally Brene Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (Random House, 2018).  Marshall Goldsmith, What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful (Hyperion, 2007).  Attributed to Tom Landry, former head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.