Once again, Sterling Miller hits it out of the park with an article ostensibly written for in-house attorneys, but 100% applicable to anyone in a new position in any field.
When it comes to “executive presence,” I now have the benefit of being older with more than a few gray hairs. As a result, a lot of people (my wife, daughters, and assorted dogs and cats excluded) tend to pay attention to what I say and even seek out my advice. But, it wasn’t always this way. I was a young, clueless in-house lawyer once. I was also self-aware enough to know it. And I knew that at some point in every in-house lawyer’s career, to move up the chain (or show your value), you need to find a way to project executive presence without the help of Father Time. I suspect many in-house lawyers hear this at review time, i.e., “To progress here you need to improve your executive presence” or something along those lines. Unfortunately, that’s usually about the extent of discussion – it was for me. Just some amorphous criticism without clear guidance about what exactly you’re supposed to do next to bag this elusive unicorn. Sadly, there is no class in law school on the topic and you cannot order executive presence from Amazon (at least not in the USA). Instead, it all becomes a weirdly frustrating process of searching for something where you often have no idea where to look or what it looks like. Like searching for truffles in Nebraska. Ironically, you can often look around you and see people that “have it,” i.e., they seem naturally gifted with executive presence – you know it when you see it! But that does most of us little good. The good news is that it is a skill (or, rather, a set of skills) that can be learned and honed over time. This edition of “Ten Things” provides you with a road map to develop the key skills necessary to build your executive presence:
1. What is it? Ha! I have screwed myself right from the start because I am struggling already to define what “it” is. Regardless, here’s my take. Executive presence for in-house lawyers is some combination of skills involving brain power, personality, communication, and appearance that impacts how you make your in-house clients feel after they have spoken with/met you. The right combination allows you to inspire them and cause them to seek out and value your advice and counsel. They feel confident about your ability to help them solve their problem, no matter how complex or scary. Likewise, they will read and consider what you have to say with an open mind and a predisposition toward following your recommendations. When you find yourself in this position, you likely have the executive presence your manager or the company is clamoring for. Below I set out the combination of skills most likely to get you there.
2. The “Look.” Appearance matters a lot when it comes to executive presence. My working assumption was always that the business trusts the “guy with the tie” and tried to dress and look the part of a serious in-house lawyer. Did I wear a tie every day? Nope (though I would on occasion). But I was definitely not wearing t-shirts and ill-fitting pants. That said, I realize every company is different, and, for many, the dress code – even at the C-Suite level – is pretty much non-existent. Still, you want your in-house clients (and the executive team) to look at you and think – instantaneously – that this is someone we can trust with substantial issues, and we want to hear what they have to say. My advice is to watch how the senior leaders of the legal department and the company dress and emulate them. It may be a bit boring, but if you are shooting for executive presence (or the general counsel chair) it is a key building block. And, in my experience, you can never go wrong being a bit over-dressed at the office. No one will think twice about it. They will think several times over if you show up in a raggedy “Nirvana” t-shirt or a mini-skirt. For the rest, click here.