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Executive Presence: A Vital Skill for Pathologists

Picture the one individual who altered the course of your life by being a role model. Among the many people who worked with you, this person stood out. Their appearance, communication skills, and behavior inspired others to collaborate with them. This quality is known as "executive presence" in the professional world. It's a combination of confidence, clarity in communication, and professionalism.

Executive presence in pathology and laboratory medicine is more than just a bonus. It's essential. Picture yourself in a tumor board presentation where you must present a complex case. It's a critical moment where your communication needs to be crystal clear and trusted by your colleagues. You must articulate the information precisely, connect with your audience, and show you are a team player. Your executive presence is crucial in whether your peers believe or dismiss your findings.

Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the invaluable role of pathologists and laboratories. Suddenly, pathologists were in the limelight, required to communicate vital information to the medical community and the public. In such scenarios, executive presence was pivotal.

Individuals with executive presence have exceptional communication skills and view every interaction as an opportunity to enhance their reputation. Emotional intelligence is a crucial factor in developing executive presence, as traits like empathy, warmth, and humility elevate a person's confidence and leadership abilities. Additionally, charm and polish are often the most significant qualities that aid executive presence.

9 Tips to Building Your Executive Presence

  1. Be concise. Executive presence is never about being abundant in your communication but, rather, being clear and direct. Rein in any tendencies to keep talking or explaining yourself. It's a mistake to assume your listeners want 100% of everything you know about something. Instead, share the 30% they need to know and let them ask for the other 70%. Share the key ideas, then ask if they want more.
  2. Tailor content to the audience. Do they need a deep dive into the research and statistics, or do they need an executive summary along with your recommendations? Figure out their key motivators, such as efficiency, profitability, and minimizing risk. Then speak that language with information and examples that appeal to that motivator. Think: It's not what I want to say, it's what they need to hear.
  3. Connect to the vision. Those with executive presence have a strong vision for themselves, the department, or the organization. And they're not afraid to share it with others to motivate them into action. Whether assigning an individual task or trying to rally a team, you can enhance your executive presence by tying your content or directives to the bigger picture. People generally want to understand the why for doing something, so connect the dots for them and explain how their work ties to the greater good.
  4. Turn on your camera. There are few acceptable reasons anymore for keeping your camera off in virtual settings. You may think, "But no one else turns on their camera. Why should I?" Think of it as another opportunity to build your executive presence. Others can see you in action and not just hear your voice. Make sure to focus on the camera, not the other attendees. It may seem counterintuitive, but looking at the camera is the best way to create trust and influence. The art of building a virtual relationship is to look at people infrequently!
  5. Show empathy. Treating others with compassion doesn't take away from your ability to be tough, make difficult decisions, or tell people when things are not going right. Psychologist Carl Rogers described empathy as "seeing the world through the eyes of the other, not seeing your world reflected in their eyes." Screen out distractions (technology, noise, your uncomfortable chair, etc) and give the other person direct eye contact. Next, don’t be judgmental.

    Rather than saying:
    "You shouldn't have …" or "I can't believe …"

    "Go on" or "What happened next?"

    Notice their body language and ask a feeling question to help them explore more deeply:
    "How did you feel about that?" or "Is that what upset you?"

    Finally, don't offer advice or try to solve their issues unless specifically asked for your assistance.
  6. Listen well. Stephen Covey said it best: "Seek first to understand, then to be understood." That should be the aim of anyone who wants to listen well. Asking questions of the other person will show interest and help you better understand any issues. Asking too many questions, however, may redirect the conversation or shift the focus from the speaker to you. Position yourself directly across from them and face heart to heart. Acknowledge that you are listening through verbalizations, nodding, facial expressions, and leaning forward. Summarize your understanding of what you've heard and the meaning you're making of it.
  7. Read the room. It's important to sense the mood of others in a room and adjust your content, tone, and energy level to match. Is it time to dial back, listen, and observe, or be defensive about your role? When you enter any room, scan it and try to name the vibe. Do you sense vitality, or is it calm? How have people arranged themselves—alone or in groups? Are they chatting or quiet? Those adept at reading others are like a sailor reading the wind, quickly changing course, and building on what’s happening in the moment.
  8. Work the room. Networking is not on most people's list of fun things to do, but those with executive presence know it's necessary to grow their network. So go with a plan in mind—of people you want to connect with or information you hope to learn. Shake off the struggles of the day and put on your happy face. Look for small groups—those with outward-facing body language are the best to approach for conversation. Introduce yourself, then turn on your curiosity. Incorporating their first name during the conversation is the best way to remember it. Find opportunities to offer your time, resources, and introductions to those you meet. You'll be remembered more for what you give than what you ask for.
  9. Make small talk. Relationships are key in any work, and before you can have relationships, you must have rapport. First, open the conversation by saying or asking something about them, the event, something in the news, etc. The easy path to making great small talk is asking questions. Don't grill the other person like an interrogator but aim to be more interested than interesting. When it's time to disengage, do it gracefully.

    Try using one of these magic phrases to exit the conversation:
    "I don't want to monopolize you ..."
    "I'm sure there are others here you’d like to meet …"
    "I'm going to circulate …"

Executive presence in everyday life and our profession is about blending technical knowledge with communication, humility, adaptability, and continuous learning. Executive presence is empowering. It instills confidence, fosters team unity, and ensures that pathologists' insights are received with the weight they deserve. It is the guiding force that ensures professionals excel in their domain and effectively collaborate and lead in the broader medical ecosystem.

Gaurav Sharma, MD, FCAP, is a clinical and molecular pathologist practicing at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan. He chaired the CAP15189 Committee and has previously served on the board of the Michigan Society of Pathologists, the CAP's Standards and DIHIT Committees, the CheckPath Clinical Pathology Committee of the American Society for Clinical Pathology, and the Informatics Committee of the U.S. and Canadian Academy of Pathology. Additionally, he is the chair of the Henry Ford Medical Group Charter and Governance Committee.

Jill Hoel, AICI CIP, is an executive coach and trainer. An expert in executive presence and presentation skills, Jill has worked with corporations and organizations throughout the country, designing branding and communication strategies for professionals from support staff to the top executives of Fortune 500 companies. More about Jill Hoel and Executive Coaching.

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