The Missing Piece
We live in times when diversity is acknowledged and, for the most part, respected. We have worked hard, and although there is still plenty to be done, we have come a long way. Still, when it comes to 'non codified’ diversity - whatever is difficult to squeeze into a recognisable category - we are very wary. A friend who recently attended a professional workshop shared an interesting experience. He told me that although all the participants were very polite and friendly, somehow he felt a bit isolated. He wasn't sure why. He noticed that the group was puzzled by his questions that they found "interesting" if not a bit "critical". He jokingly added that if he had had the right amount of facial hair, he probably would have blended right in. Even though there was nothing obviously different, the age group, the difference in opinion and maybe his looks didn't create an easy to identify picture. Instinctively it was safer to leave him outside the circle.
Since we were born, we learn about labelling. We have perfected this surviving mechanism over centuries, and we instinctively abide by it. In Martin's case, his performance at work was flawless; his clients liked him; he was profitable, and he had a few creative solutions, but he couldn't gain access to the "club".
Since we were born, we learn about labelling, and we teach our children how to do so. By classifying, we learn to speak, and by ordering all the information we receive, we can distinguish between a good or an adverse outcome and therefore protect ourselves from danger. We have perfected this surviving mechanism over centuries, and we instinctively abide by it. Still, there is the risk that what doesn't kill us limits our curiosity—essential to learn and evolve and stay flexible.
What happens when we are at odds with our working environment? This can turn out to be a harrowing situation.
Take Martin. Martin, a lawyer, joined his company, and he fit right in at least at the beginning of his career. He steadily advanced through the ranks. Everybody appreciated his commitment and his passion for the job. When it was his time to make to partner though, he was rejected, and when it happened over and over again, he started to become suspicious. Mainly because the feedback was somewhat vague, and it had nothing to do with anything explicitly related to his profession. If you meet Martin, you won't find anything out of the ordinary, but if you were to see Martin among the other partners, you would notice that he looked somewhat different. Less polished, not so groomed and definitely more outspoken.
It may sound unacceptable to you, but this is happening all around the world and in all industries. The drive to homogeneity is creating a lack of diversity and ultimately a waste of talent. In Martin's case, his performance at work was flawless; his clients liked him; he was profitable, and he had a few creative solutions, but he couldn't gain access to the "club".
The drive to homogeneity is creating a lack of diversity and ultimately a waste of talent.
Joanna was very passionate about driving a new, more sustainable agenda for her company. Her ideas were good, but she was way too intense for a very conservative boardroom. If were you to find yourself in Martin's or Joanna's situation, think like a marketer ad study your audience.
Or consider Joanna's story. She was very passionate about driving a new, more sustainable agenda for her company. Her ideas were good, but she was way too intense for a very conservative boardroom preoccupied with keeping their company afloat. It didn't help that in her desire to be heard she had tried different approaches. Sometimes it was all about case studies and data and other times it was presented more as a visionary. Although her ideas would potentially make her company prosper, she was struggling to make an impact, and as a result, she was seriously thinking of leaving as she couldn't share the sense of vision of the company she used to like so much.
What could you do if were you to find yourself in Martin's or Joanna's situation? You could undoubtedly consider leaving your firm and find a more suitable environment. If you like your company's values, there are ways to give you the right visibility without compromising on your authentic self.
Think like a marketer and study your audience. Ask yourself who they are and what triggers their reaction both positively or negatively. If the board of directors are mainly concerned about profit, the chance is they would warm up easier to propositions coming from somebody more factual in their way of reasoning. If they are change averse, they will clam up to anyone too passionate. To work towards a more executive leadership position, it is essential to pitch to your audience in the right way, with consistency and from day one. In fact, you could create a simple grid with four columns; (my audience; what I want to achieve; my strategy; feedback) and use it as a template for your conversations to keep yourself in check.
Communicating in the right way is only one side of creating an executive presence.
Data collected on questions asked to 4000 professionals and 300 leaders (Executive Presence, Sylvia Ann Hewlett), show that excellent communication skills (a concise and compelling speaking style, the ability to command a room and assertiveness among the others); gravitas (more specifically confidence, poise and "grace under fire", decisiveness and integrity) are the traits that make professionals more visible as potential leaders. Not surprisingly, even though somebody may still disagree, being groomed, in good shape and dressed the part, as well.
If you decide to embark on the journey to identify the missing piece(s), I would definitely recommend working with a coach. It isn't a script to learn, and it isn't about playing the politics. It is above all about awareness of who we are and the steps we decide to take to achieve our goals. It can be a game-changer, but only if it reflects our authenticity and allows us to create a very personal leadership style in tune with the environment in which we are determined to invest our future.