Ten Things: Building Your Executive Presence In-House

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.[1]  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.[2]

3.  Approachability.  People follow and seek out people they like (you know this from your own experience).  This may be the entire premise of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.  It’s also true.  Meaning that being approachable and likable are key attributes of leadership.  As you look to build your executive presence, spend time considering how you come across to your team, your peers, and your boss (if you’re not sure, ask!).  Are you someone they look forward to speaking with or does the thought of a meeting with you make their stomach hurt? Hopefully, it’s the former!  Your clients and colleagues should not be afraid to approach you for help.  Focus on the following:

  • Make everyone feel welcome when they reach out to you.  If you’re too busy to speak, reply, or meet with them right away, just let them know (nicely) that you’re pressed for time at the moment, but you’ll get back asap.  Do not give them the big sigh, eye roll, or exasperated “what the [funk] do you want?” look.
  • Have a sense of humor.  The job is tough enough.  Allow yourself to laugh at things, especially when it comes to poking fun at yourself.  Nothing humanizes an executive faster than a little self-deprecating humor.
  • Be a collaborative partner.  Just like in kindergarten: play nice, share, use “please” and thank you, do your share of the work, be helpful, etc.   If people know working with you will be a good working experience (even when the assignment is tough), they will seek you out.
  • Be a trustworthy partner.  No one likes someone who does not keep their word.  Do what you will say you will do.  Keep confidences.  Be someone the business wants to talk to and confide in.  Everyone wants to work with someone they can trust.

4.  Excellent communication skills.  All successful leaders have mastered the art of communication.  Most importantly, they communicate in the right way for their particular audience.  You communicate differently with manager-level employees than you do with the Audit Committee of the Board of Directors.  Learn to read your audience and communicate with them in a manner that is both appropriate for the circumstances and works for them.  Obviously, things tend to be more formal and buttoned up with the board and looser and more down-home with others – you need to be able to do both.  Regardless of which audience you have, when writing or speaking, keep things simple and to the point. Don’t be the overly wordy lawyer who makes everyone groan when you open your mouth or when they see an email from you in their inbox.  Less is usually much more when it comes to presenting legal issues in-house.  The ability to translate lawyer-speak into plain words is critical. Likewise, do not assume your audience knows about legal issues or even cares that much about them.  Become a teacher and make the topic interesting and informative.  And never talk down to people.  Knowledge is power, but do not wield your superior knowledge of something like a club.  Preparation is the key to good communication. Unless you are caught unaware, always take as much time as you can to prepare your communication/presentation, be it an email, a PowerPoint, a meeting, or whatever.  Finally, consider the physical attributes of communication – they matter!  Make eye contact, control the pitch of your voice (the lower the better), lose the “ums” and “likes,” stay calm, get comfortable speaking to groups, and pause frequently when presenting to give your audience a chance to ask questions (or just digest the information you are providing).  Think about all of the bad communication you have experienced over the course of your career and do the opposite!

5.  Judgment.  People will flock to your banner if they believe you consistently exercise good judgment.  Good judgment, however, almost always depends on the circumstances.  In other words, you don’t walk the halls making good judgments at every turn, hence the “exercise” part of the phrase.  You exercise good judgment by having a philosophy around how you make decisions, i.e., you have a process you follow that helps you, more often than not, make good decisions and, thereby, demonstrate good judgment.  It took me a while to figure this out, but once I did, I broke it down to a mental checklist that I ran through (and still do) when faced with the need to make substantive decisions.  Here it is:

  • Don’t make decisions when you’re mad or upset.
  • There’s always another side – what’s the other side of the story?
  • Don’t make assumptions – learn the facts.
  • What information am I missing and where do I get it?
  • Who wins and who gets hurt?
  • Who else needs to be involved in making this decision?
  • What is the company’s risk tolerance and how will this fit in?
  • Do I need to make this decision immediately or do I have time to think more about it?
  • What are the three most likely things to happen after I decide?
  • What’s the downside of my decision?
  • Am I being consistent?
  • What is the “right” thing to do (and why can’t we do that)?
  • What would Abraham Lincoln do?

I know the last one may seem a bit odd, but being a President Lincoln aficionado, I believe he mastered the art of good decisions and good judgment (read Team of Rivals).  Did he always get it right?  Nope.  But neither do I and neither will you.  Having a “method” to consider problems and reach decisions, however, will – more often than not – lead to good, decisive decisions, the offspring of good judgment.

6.  Know the Business.  I think my next book might be called “Know the Business,” because I harp on this particular attribute constantly.  You cannot be successful in-house if you do not understand the company’s business, i.e., how it makes money.  When it comes to executive presence, many of the skills discussed in this article hinge on your understanding of the business.  Plus, the business is much more likely to trust someone who clearly demonstrates a command over how the business operates.  Your ability to i) talk about the business in real terms (and not abstract), ii) to look at different legal issues brought to you and zero in on the impact (good or bad) to the business, and iii) discuss strategic issues (often non-legal) all depend on how well you understand the company’s business model, its products and services, its key customers, competitors, and vendors, and its goals and strategic direction. It’s on you to learn it.  Go do it!

7.  Flexibility.  When I was a young in-house lawyer, I often fell back on “because I said so” as the reason the business should follow my recommendation or direction.  Not my finest moments I’ll admit.  One thing I learned is that the business wants to understand the thought process that goes into legal advice – just like they do with business decisions.  You need to be able to “show your math.”  If not, and if you do not show that you can be flexible and practical, the business will tune you out pretty quickly.  Even worse is they will start to avoid you or look to go around you. In other words, a key component of executive presence is your ability to project flexibility and give practical solutions.  Start with this simple fact – the legal department does not run the business.  We are there to give advice and options, but if the business wants to do something different that’s generally fine. [3] So long as the right person is making the decision and they have the right information to do so. Next, consider any legal advice and options you provide in the context of whether or not they are practical and doable in the real world, i.e., the world in which the business operates.  If not, you have a problem.  Finally, consider all the ways to get to yes vs. taking the easy path to just saying “no.”  If the business knows you will do your best to find a path forward, they will come to you and they will listen to you even if the ultimate answer is, indeed, no.  If they think you are inflexible and looking for ways to say no, they will not.  It’s that simple.

8.  Leadership. This one is really important as it is very difficult to get far on the executive presence scale without leadership skills.  Some people are natural leaders, it just comes easily to them.  But, if that’s not you, don’t worry; everyone can learn to be a leader.  Leadership starts with having a vision.  Where do you want to go and, more importantly, where do you want to take your team, department, or the company?  Leaders are the people who often say, “If I were in charge, I’d do…” and when they get their shot, they do it.  And more.  Leadership requires that you are proactive and not reactive.  If everything catches you by surprise, you have some work to do.  And you must be at ease with change.  Nothing stays the same for very long, especially in the business world and especially in an in-house legal department.  If you are someone who hunkers down and wants everything and everyone to be exactly the same as it was yesterday, sorry, but you’re not a leader.  You may not even be a good follower.  Good leaders delegate well, promote and mentor others, and defer credit – making sure everyone gets good work and the spotlight.  They are naturally curious and ask good questions, not because they want to put anyone on the spot, but because they want to learn and understand.  They come prepared to meetings (even the “small” ones) and they really listen, often letting others go first, pulling everyone into the conversations, and ensuring that those in the room feel comfortable speaking the truth without fear of reprisal.  I often asked my team to take whatever I was saying and tear it apart, to find the weaknesses in my thinking.  I would rather figure it out internally than get crushed externally because I had a blind spot.  Simply put, leadership = thick skin.  Most importantly, good leaders are empathetic to others’ situations, showing humility, grace, and kindness when necessary.  Empathy is a strength, not a weakness.

9.  Gravitas.   I remember watching moot court presentations one year in law school. There was one presentation that has been stuck in my head for over thirty years now.  The presenter was asked a very difficult question by the panel of judges.  At that point, most law students were in a hurry to jump the question and respond as quickly and “deeply” as they possibly could, rattling off everything they had read in the materials without much thought to how relevant it was to the question asked (i.e., more is better).  This presenter didn’t say a word for thirty seconds (though it felt like five minutes).  He folded his hands and adjusted his glasses.  He looked at the judges directly and nodded slowly, like he was ticking off issues in his head.  Then he calmly and precisely walked the judges through a succinct and brilliant answer, using plain English and straightforward, declarative sentences.  I was in awe.  I had just seen a master class in gravitas (though I didn’t know then what that was – I just knew it was great).  Honing your executive presence means developing and honing your ability to project gravitas.  To me it means a combination of the following:

  • Knowledge (subject matter expertise and general).
  • Thoughtfulness.
  • Seriousness.
  • Confidence (and dignity).
  • Integrity.
  • Credibility.
  • Teacher.
  • Plays evenhandedly with good and bad information.

Lastly, it’s poise – working well under pressure and being the rock that your colleagues can hold onto when things get bumpy or crazy.  Everyone wants that person in the room with them when things get tough.

10.  Strategic Thinking.  Your ability to project executive presence is tied to your ability to demonstrate strategic thinking.  Successful executives see more than just the specific issue before them.  They have learned to think “strategically” about things, i.e., consider multiple factors and viewpoints.[4]  For in-house counsel, it means you are thinking about more than just the immediate legal question on your plate.  You are considering it along with other variables, the most important of which are the needs of the business and the strategic plans and goals of the company, i.e., legal risk and business.  When your colleagues see you as someone who considers the wider picture (and someone who has educated themselves about the business and the issues it faces) they are much more likely to seek out and follow your input because they know they will get more than just a cut and dried legal answer.  They will get information and thoughts that can help them make better business decisions.  And that is extremely valuable to the business (and to other members of the legal team).

*****

Wow.  It feels like I barely scratched the surface here.  There is so much more I could say about all of the above, but I am limited by my format somewhat (and your ability to tolerate my wordiness).  Also, I know that you are looking at this list and thinking aren’t these really just a bunch of “soft skills?”  You’re right, they are.  And there are dozens of soft skills that an in-house lawyer can master to help advance their career.  The list above just happens to be the subset of soft skills I believe are the most critical to establishing an executive presence.  But it’s not an exclusive list. There are certainly many other skills you could swap in or add to my list.  It really depends on the particulars of your situation.  To help you figure that part out, here are some additional resources.

You should consider a wide list of skills and focus on the ones you think will help you the most given your circumstances (if you’re lucky, your manager can/will help you pick).  Finally, remember that building an executive presence doesn’t happen overnight, or over the course of a month or two.  It takes hard work sustained over a long period of time, along with a willingness to engage in a lot of self-reflection and self-improvement.  I know that’s not exciting, and no one likes to wait, but take the first step and, as always, enjoy the journey – it’s the best part.

Sterling Miller

February 28, 2022

My fifth book, Showing the Value of the Legal Department: More Than Just a Cost Center is available now!  As the ABA says, “Buy this book or grandma gets it…”  The ABA is serious about this.  And they know where she lives!  You can buy it HERE.

Cover of Value Book

Two of my books, Ten Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies and Ten (More) Things You Need to Know as In-House Counsel – Practical Advice and Successful Strategies, Volume 2, are on sale now at the ABA website (including as e-books).

I have published two other books: The Evolution of Professional Football, and The Slow-Cooker Savant.  I am also available for speaking engagements, webinars/CLEs, coaching, training, and consulting.

Connect with me on Twitter @10ThingsLegal and on LinkedIn where I post articles and stories of interest to in-house counsel frequently.  

“Ten Things” is not legal advice nor legal opinion and represents my views only.  It is intended to provide practical tips and references to the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.  If you have questions or comments, ideas for a post, please contact me at sterling.miller@sbcglobal.net or, if you would like a CLE for your team on this or any topic in the blog, contact me at smiller@hilgersgraben.com.

[1] Seriously, how do some people ever get to be managers of people?

[2] I happen to love my raggedy Nirvana t-shirt.  But, I only wear it around the house.

[3] Unless it’s criminal.  Then a different set of rules kicks in.

[4] This is also referred to as “critical thinking.”

2 comments

  1. Hard to break this down but I think these are all useful. Excellent points on gravitas and poise. I participated in a training on communication and presence several years ago and I still remember the trainer demonstrating how to walk! Don’t look like you’re in a hurry and nervous, distracted, overwhelmed etc. even if you are. So simple but makes a difference. I look at my bosses and see two people who have so much going on but always seem calm and in control of themselves.

    Like

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