To Sound Like a Leader, Think About What You Say, and How and When You Say It.

To Sound Like a Leader, Think About What You Say, and How and When You Say It

Liked this post? Share with others!

Nancy started her day feeling prepared to brief her executive team on a high-stakes project she
had been working on for the past two months. She had rehearsed her slide deck repeatedly, to
the point where she had every level of content practically memorized. She arrived at the meeting
early and waited patiently, yet anxiously, for her part of the agenda. The meeting began, and
within a few minutes Jack, one of the cochairs, asked her to brief the executives on her project
and recommendations.

Nancy enthusiastically launched into her presentation, hitting every talking point that she had
meticulously rehearsed. With a solid command of the material, she felt at the top of her game
and was relieved that she’d spent so much time practicing and preparing for this meeting. But
just as she was about to move into her recommendations, Jack interrupted and said, “Nancy, I
appreciate your hard work on this project, but it is not relevant to our agenda, and it doesn’t
have merit for the business objectives we’re covering today.” Mortified, Nancy retreated to her
chair and sat in silence for the rest of the meeting. She couldn’t wait to bolt from the room the
moment the meeting ended to reflect on how this moment — which she expected would be a
positive turning point in her career — had turned into a disaster.

What just happened here? While Nancy was prepared to participate in the meeting, she failed to
think strategically. This is a common problem that trips up many capable managers, executives,
and leaders when it comes to determining their role in communications, meetings, and other
forums. Learning how to develop and convey a more strategic executive voice — in part by
understanding context — can help leaders avoid finding themselves, as Nancy did, in a potentially
career-damaging situation.

Why You Need an Executive Voice

Whether you are an associate manager or a senior executive, what you say, how you say it, when
you say it, to whom you say it, and whether you say it in the proper context are critical
components for tapping into your full strategic leadership potential. If you want to establish
credibility and influence people, particularly when interacting with other executives or senior
leadership, it’s important to be concise and let individuals know clearly what role you want them
to play in the conversation. It’s also important to demystify the content of any message you
deliver by avoiding jargon and being a person of few — but effective — words.

All of these factors relate to developing a strategic executive voice. Your executive voice is less
about your performance; it relates more to your strategic instincts, understanding of context,
and awareness of the signals you send in your daily interactions and communications. Like its
sister attribute, executive presence, executive voice can seem somewhat intangible and thus
difficult to define. But the fact is, we all have a preferred way to communicate with others, and
doing this with strategic intent and a solid grasp of context can mean the difference between
success and failure in your communication and leadership style.

One of the most important aspects of having an executive voice relates to being a strategic
leader. I frequently hear from top executives that they would like to promote one of their highpotential leaders but feel the person is not strategic enough to advance. When I hear managers
say this, I try to gently push back and suggest that maybe the problem isn’t the candidate’s lack
of strategic leadership potential; perhaps they are failing to tap into their abilities as a strategic

Whether you have someone on your team who you think lacks strategic readiness or you’re
worried that you might be a leader with untapped strategic potential due to an undeveloped
executive voice, read on. Below are some coaching strategies that I use frequently with both male
and female executives to help them add a more strategic executive voice to their leadership tool

Understand the context. How often do you find yourself throwing out an unformed idea in a
meeting, not speaking up when people are looking for your ideas, or saying something that
doesn’t quite fit the agenda and suddenly getting that “deer in the headlights” feeling? If these
situations sound familiar, what is it that went wrong? In short, these types of tactical errors come
down to failing to understand the context of the call, meeting, or discussion that you are in.

For example, if you are the primary authority on a topic, then it’s likely that the context would
require you to lead the meeting and make any final decisions. But if you are one of several
executives who might have input, then sharing your view and connecting the dots with others
(rather than stealing the spotlight with your great ideas) would be your role. If you are in learning
mode and are not asked to present at a meeting, then your role when it comes to communication
would be to observe and listen. Knowing or finding out in advance what your expected role is in
a group forum or event can guide you in determining the kind of voice you need for that particular
venue and can help ensure that you understand the context before you speak up.

Be a visionary. Sometimes we fail to tap into an executive voice because we focus too much on
our own function or role. Strategic leaders are more visionary than that, taking an enterprise
view that focuses less on themselves and more on the wider organization. Another part of being
visionary is developing the ability to articulate aspirations for the future and a rationale for

This type of executive vision helps guide decisions around individual and corporate action. You
should work toward connecting the dots with your recommendations to show how your
decisions affect others around the table, including your staff and the organization as a whole.

Cultivate strategic relationships. One of the best ways to build your strategic thinking is by
leveraging relationships more intentionally, with specific business goals in mind. This calls for
having senior leaders and executives who bring a strategic perspective of the organization’s
goals, changes, and top priorities that we may normally not have access to. When you cultivate
and invest in broad strategic relationships, it helps you avoid getting caught up in day-to-day

It’s easy to lose sight of the significance of cultivating new and diverse relationships when you
already have a full plate — but part of being able to access a strong executive voice is expanding
your knowledge beyond your specific position, department, or area of expertise

To develop your executive voice, take time to reach out to at least one person each week
outside of your immediate team or functional area. Try to learn:

  • how they fit into the business as a whole
  • their goals and challenges
  • ways you might support them as a strategic business partner

Bring solutions, not just problems. While coaching a wide range of executives, I’ve seen firsthand
that most feel frustrated when people point out challenges but don’t offer any resolutions.
Leading strategically with a strong executive voice involves problem solving, not just fingerpointing at difficult issues.

You can show up more strategically by doing your homework and taking the lead in analyzing
situations. Brainstorm fresh ideas that go beyond the obvious. Even if you don’t have the perfect
answer, you can demonstrate your ability to come up with clever solutions.

Stay calm in the pressure cooker. People with an effective executive voice aren’t easily rattled.
Can you provide levelheaded leadership even when — in fact, particularly when — everyone
around you is losing their composure? When you can stick with facts instead of getting swept
into an emotional tailspin no matter how stressed you feel, you’ll be able to lead with a more
powerful executive voice.

It can be uncomfortable to recognize and admit personal challenges regarding your executive
voice, and at first you may get pushback when making suggestions to improve the executive voice
of those on your team. But once you overcome this initial resistance, whether in yourself or
others, you’ll find it’s worth the up-front effort to investigate how to contribute most effectively
to important meetings and other communications. By making the necessary adjustments to your
approach to participation, you can avoid flying blind and start showing up more strategically in
every setting.