Philip Cao

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The Quest for Leadership Presence: Finding Your Voice

4 min read


When you listen to Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo CEO, you hear calm, measured confidence. When you listen to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, you hear upbeat, energized confidence. And when you listen to Mary Barra, GM CEO, you hear the concise messaging and confidence of a been-there-done-that leader.

Each of these women telegraphs leadership through her voice. When you listen, you don’t think, “I am listening to a woman leader.” You just know you are listening to a leader, a person with a passion for what she wants to convey and the utmost belief in her mission.

Our voices are one of the most powerful tools we can develop and leverage to convey leadership. By the same token, a weak voice lacking a passionate, well-defined, meaningful message will hinder our ability to grow and advance as leaders.

Sheryl Sandberg exhorts us to lean in. The most obvious way to do that is through what we say and how we say it.

One’s voice and the way one talks about their work is a powerful signal that we read instantly. We know leadership when we hear it.

Leaders Stand Out
As a recruiter and career coach for IT audit and IT governance, risk and compliance (GRC) professionals, I listen to a myriad of professional voices as people describe their jobs and careers. The leaders stand out from the moment they speak. They talk about their work with energy and intensity. Their thoughts are organized and they are clear about their contributions to their clients and teams. They communicate what they do by illustrating their work with specific examples.

An important point:  Leaders build credibility by demonstrating what they do and have done, not by talking in generalities.

Indra Nooyi, in an interview about her keys to success, says that excellent communication skills were her focus early on. She worked hard to present a genuine voice and clear messages of her vision.

One can read books about improving communication, but doing the scary work of practicing your leadership voice, making mistakes along the way, is the best way to hone your message and vocal presence. Networking at conferences is an outstanding training ground for trying out messages and getting immediate feedback.

While networking at your next meeting, conference or coffee break, offer something about the exciting work you and your team are doing to drive the enterprise and make it a great place. Your understanding of the bigger picture, and passion about the mission, are critical leadership elements of this communication. Craft your story into a concise one to one and a half minute presentation of the cool stuff you are doing. Leading means communicating a vision for the greater good. This simple act helps you do that.

Illustrate Your Leadership Competencies
I use the STAR (Situation – Task – Action – Result) technique to help candidates create examples for interviews. Behavioral interview questions, designed to help interviewers assess competencies and traits, not the least of which is leadership skills, demand examples that illustrate thought process, character, decision making, judgment, persuasion and conflict resolution. Using STAR as a framework to organize work examples and accomplishments will help you create interesting stories that differentiate you from the competition. Your goal is to be memorable—in a good way. This method will help you achieve that.

People get to know us through the stories we tell. Leaders illustrate their work through powerful stories.

Important tip:  When you acknowledge your team or describe how you fit into it, put the focus on your contributions. This is critical. I prep people for interviews every day. The most common interview mistake I hear—made by men, but even more so by women—is subsuming individual accomplishment under the mantel of “we” and being uncomfortable stepping up and saying this is what I am doing, this is what I bring to the table.

Leadership presence is something you can cultivate every day. Your work presents you with multiple opportunities to lean in and speak. Small changes in how you present yourself, your vision, your knowledge and your contributions will earn you greater recognition as a leader.

Editor’s note:  The ISACA Now Blog section is celebrating Women in Technology Month throughout June by featuring female bloggers. If you are a female blogger and would like to contribute a blog, please contact us at [email protected].

Caitlin McGaw, President, Candor McGaw Inc.

[ISACA Now Blog]

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