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Executive Image

Written by: Misty Smalley
Published: February 2013

Welcome to the third and final installment in the image series, which focuses on executive leaders. The theme of this article will not be dressing the part of the executive... you are where you are at least in some small part because you've long-since mastered that game. Rather, let's spend some time on the broader definition of image, which encompasses your presence and comportment.

I don't have to tell you that becoming an executive changes the game entirely. Where there may have been some semblance of work/life balance in the progressive leadership roles you held prior to this one, the executive lifestyle is largely about integration of work and life. You are known by more people, more recognizable wherever you go because of the visibility of your role. The lines between business persona and home persona become blurred, making it difficult to keep them in their tidy little compartments.

As you move about the world, you are leaving just one set of footprints. Joe the Executive and Joe with the Opinion about (insert anything controversial) are one and the same.  Want a relevant example of this phenomenon? Here is just one, from among the ocean of them out there.

Google John Mackey and see what comes up at the top of the results page. Not his accomplishments as the longstanding CEO of the very successful Whole Foods chain - no, at the top of the page are multiple links to written and video footage of comments Mackey made as a citizen with opinions about healthcare reform. Mackey is, along with every other fortunate soul in this country, has the right to his opinion... but does he speak for Whole Foods on this matter? Whether the company and the CEO agree on the matter, the reality is that they are viewed as on and the same. A level of celebrity accompanies executive roles, carrying your voices across mediums very quickly, sometimes out of context. Every word you utter ties back to your image - so much liability on one hand, but so much opportunity on the other!

Navigate the hazards; turn the flares into fireworks. Follow these four tips to refine and support your positive executive image:

  1. Know Your Biases
    1. Hot and Cold - Basically, know yourself and how to recognize and control your emotions and responses.  What are your hot button items? What are your internal coolants for when those buttons get pressed?
    2. Think, Think, Think - Prepare now to speak to the difficult stuff. Inevitably, the questions you don&aops;t want to answer will be the ones you are asked. Prepare a go-to statement in case you get stumped - "I don't have an answer to that right now", or "l will need to get back to you", etc... don't shoot from the hip - those shots seldom find the target.
    3. Keep Separation of Church and State - This is literal and figurative. Your personal opinion may not be that of the company, especially in sticky matters such as politics and religion... and public declaration of any personal philosophies may be aligned with the company you lead, so proceed with extreme caution.
    4. Get an Executive Coach - Coaches specialize in refining all of the above over the long-term, not just quick-hit "make-overs". Take your time and find a coach with whom you relate - this will be a long-term, meaningful relationship.
  2. Be "There", Wherever That Is
    1. Engage - Participate fully in whatever you are doing... be it a board meeting or your kid's soccer game. Multi-tasking works for some, but for executives or others who are "on stage", being in the moment with your body and your brain at all times will make you seem not only more vibrant but more interesting and authentic. Not to mention you'll enjoy it all much more when you are not distracted.
    2. Be Conscious - Be aware of yourself (both your home and business halves). At the executive level, your actions and statements in all situations may be integrated and judged. Make good choices and you don't have to worry on either account.
  3. Be the Culture You Want to See in the Company
    1. Lead by example – Quite simply - do what you want them to do, show them how it's done! Certainly there are perks that come with a spot at the top of the org chart, but employees notice what time you pop in and out of the office, especially if you require timeliness from them. Keep their respect by honoring the same codes of conduct.
    2. Connect - Walk around the office. Say hello to employees by name. Show your face, and that you acknowledge and care about them.
    3. Listen - Actively listen to what is said - without thinking about how you fit into the equation, without planning your next statement/question... just being "there" (see above). Talk less.
    4. Share Your Gifts – Mentor others, take the time to invest in others' development. Other leaders will take the cue that developing talent is important to the company and follow suit.
  4. Be Gracious
    1. Be Kind - Business can be tough. Be kind to your employees every chance you get, there need not be a reason.
    2. Decorum - Practice good etiquette, including impeccable manners and dining protocol, proper grammar, old-fashioned gallantry in person such as hand-shakes and held doors, and polished new-fashioned digital gallantry online (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
    3. Relate - Know and think about your audience, take measures to see their point of view/their circumstances. Be sensitive to the differences in your lifestyles and realities.
    4. Appreciate and Celebrate - Shine the light on the team and the individuals. Research indicates that employees value recognition from leadership even more than monetary prizes. Appreciate what they do for you and the company - all the time, every day, out loud.

Executives out there – do you have additional tips to share?  This is a learning environment – one perfect for sharing your stories and best practices…

Misty Smalley

Misty Smalley

Misty Smalley is an HR leader and writer who actively pursues interests in executive coaching, organizational development and training design. A life-long learner, she joyfully strives to help others to explore the meaning in their own journeys, then to express it authentically.