What is executive voice? It’s more than just what you say, it’s how you say it. And make no mistake, every leader should have an executive voice. If you’re wondering whether you do, ask yourself—are you confident and cool under pressure? A master of taking control of a room? Do employees take you seriously? Does your presence inspire confidence in stockholders and customers?
By Rob Volmer
Developing an executive voice is like anything else: Some people are natural masters, others can learn enough to get it done, and some … well, what can you do? If you answered “no,” to any of the questions above, don’t panic. Most people can learn to speak, write and act authoritatively. Let’s take a look at six ways you can develop your executive voice.
1. Be Strong.
There’s a voice for every personality, but the key is confidence. Indecisiveness, however smart or well-intentioned it may be, is easily taken for weakness. You have to know what you’re doing and, more importantly, act like it.
Douglass MacArthur’s credo was “never explain yourself.” That seems completely counterintuitive to having an executive voice, but his silence was remarkably effective. When the General issued an order, it was nobody’s business to question it. Part of the MacArthur aura was the power structure of rank in the armed forces. Part of it was his patrician upbringing at the top of the social order. Either way, the man saved the Pacific and managed not only to live among the defeated Japanese after the war, but to personally write the constitution under which the world’s third largest economy operates to this day.
Steve Jobs was another imperious leader who attained a cultish following among engineers and analysts through his absolute authority and his unquestioned “conviction in the rightness of his own actions,” as William Faulkner would say. Jobs was famous in part for his jeans and black turtlenecks. You knew what to expect. Jobs’ uniform conveyed a sense of creative independence apart from the schlub in the grey suit. The CEO in jeans was breaking the mold. The CEO in the suit was working for the man. Jobs’ clothes reinforced Apple’s competitive approach to computing.
Jobs and MacArthur are almost comical in the personas they cultivated. Each man designed his own uniform, although in extremely different contexts. Former Chief Justice William Rehnquist did the same. Known for his conciliatory management style and for wresting control of the court’s docket from Congress, Rehnquist added four gold stripes to the sleeves of his robe, imitating the costume worn by the Lord Chancellor character in a local operetta. Rehnquist was not afraid to place his mark on a job and culture bound by tradition. He was the chief, and you could like the stripes. That’s confident authority.
What is common among all three is the confident assumption of the mantle of leadership and a clear, unmistakable executive voice. In developing your own voice, it is critical that you communicate confidence in both overt and subtle means.
2. Don’t be a one hit wonder. Strive for consistent greatness.
Being great once is admirable. Being consistently great is awe-inspiring. Know the difference.
On February 4, 1989, Phil Collins was knocked out of the number-one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It must have been a big day for the guys in Sheriff, whose song “When I’m with You” displaced Collins’ “Two Hearts.” But Phil Collins was back at number-one by December. Sheriff was through being great.
The difference is Collins made a career out of relentlessly getting everything right, all the time. The result was 100 million albums sold, a distinction only held by two others–Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. Whether it was Genesis in the 1970s or radio pop in the late 1980s and 90s, Collins studied the craft of record production, mastered it and practiced it with unwavering discipline.
A key to being consistently great is to see your task as a process rather than as an event. Don’t just prepare for a single speech; strive to become a master of the art of speaking.
3. Practice doesn’t make perfect.
Practice is essential. But you can easily convince yourself that you’re working on it and end up deceiving yourself. This happens all the time. Play golf? Then you know. Play an instrument? Here’s an exercise. Find a local bar. Not a cool bar or a successful bar, but one that’s sort of getting by. Drop in for a beer on a weekend night. I’ll bet you a cold one there are people in there playing music. Ask them how long they’ve been playing. I’ll bet you another beer they say they’ve been at it since they were kids and they love it. Finally, listen to a song. I wager a cab fare home that they are not awesome at music. This applies to public speaking, blogging, schmoozing, etc. Despite the fate of our evening’s entertainment, most people can improve their communications skills with additional support.
4. Perfect practice makes perfect.
Managing anxiety, maintaining rhetorical control and behaving gracefully in social settings are all workable skills. None of them require a physics fellowship or athletic ability. The world is full of resources, but perfect practice and drilling with professional help is the key. Lawyers and politicians have cottage industries built around preparation for debate and litigation. Their careers literally depend on mastering communication in highly competitive environments. Managers can leverage this market of consultants and paralegal services or they can build it into their own organizations. But understand that the really good ones still practice, perfectly.
5. Don’t trust your mom.
Hey, your mom is great. While she steered you through childhood as your biggest fan, her advice is probably biased and possibly destructive. This goes for anybody who loves you. Analysts, shareholders, your employees and everybody else who depends on your decision making won’t be so nurturing. Find a critic. You need objective evaluation of your performance, and not at convenient intervals. It needs to be hardwired into your daily awareness. You won’t get the cold, money-first perception of the market from family, coworkers or anyone else who has to face you in a social setting. The smart game is to do like Inspector Clousseau of the Sûreté, and pay someone to attack you. Seriously. You’ll never know what to drill until someone who doesn’t care how you sleep at night tells you how you’re doing. Get feedback and take it seriously.
6. Judgment day is every day.
Long ago a sage (i.e. Ice Cube) wrote, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”
Every time you or your leader steps out in public, issues a statement or makes a speech, there are critics watching and noting. They may be analysts, employees or competitors, but whoever they are, they’re watching and looking for cracks in the façade. The best defense against the haters is to be one when you look in the mirror. You can hire all the image consultants in the world – every last one of them – but until you listen to what they are telling you and put it into practice, it’s worthless.
Some people, despite a desire and commitment to practice, just can’t do it. There are lots of those people. You may be one. If that’s the case, have a laugh and delegate. But how will you know if you’re making tracks or spinning your wheels? There is one sure-fire way to evaluate your own performance. It takes the ability to judge yourself; that’s the hard part. But it’s been used by thousands of singers who have no choice but to improve their public voices.
Singers have a trick. Record yourself. It’s amazing how quickly you can judge yourself as a disembodied voice coming off a tape machine. It’s not fun. But it shows you what to work on. Record speeches on video and watch the playback with a critical eye. It’s what the best coaches do. Everything that makes you groan while watching yourself is a point to practice. Be mindful of what doesn’t work. Fix it and record yourself again.