Monday, March 29, 2010

Where In The World Is The Next Generation Of PSF Partners?

By Mira Leonard, Partner with Creative Growth Group

You know how there are some people that you just can’t help but notice when they walk in a room? They tend to carry a certain air of gravitas, walk taller, speak louder (not shouting) with confidence and command immediate respect – present themselves as a proper executive. Where are these people now? I see fewer and fewer of them in the professional circles these days and most tend to be of what I’d call “old school”. Is the notion of “executive presence” extinct? And if that’s the case, what will the next generation of leadership look like?

Executive presence has always been an unwritten requirement for advancement in a professional services firm. But, now it may be unwritten, unspoken and unnoticed altogether. Living in a quick service society, especially in the US, the younger professionals we work with today appear to approach their professional life and how they present themselves in an extremely casual way. It starts with the way they dress, their preferred methods of communication and language, and most importantly, their pride-in-presentation and confidence (or the lack of both). Is this a function of the Millennium, Gen X, Y, Z (can’t keep track of them anymore) overall breeding or something else? Does this mean that the next wave of Managing Directors will text message their teams and clients instead of writing letters or meeting in-person, change the dress code to “no jacket required” at all times, and…?

Call me old fashioned, but I believe we should bring “executive presence”- and the professionalism it implies - back. We need to groom the next generation of leadership so that they are not only a generation of competent technicians but also advisors that capture their clients’ and colleagues’ confidence. I am glad to report that I am not the only one who has noticed this disturbing trend. Managing Partners and Directors are increasingly bringing the matter up during our conversations on how to elevate their professional force and make them better advisors, client cultivators and leaders. And, it all starts with executive presence. So, what do we do about it? In my experience it takes work on both sides of the equation – current and future leadership – to make a real impact. Here’s what I’ve seen work and might stimulate thinking:

Confidence comes with knowing what one stands for and having the internal strength (ego) to defend that position. Managing partners need to encourage their fresh workforce to start identifying specializations and define their professional claim to fame early in their careers. Professionals who know what they are or aspire to be “famous for” tend to carry themselves with a higher degree of confidence. Up and coming partners need to find the balance between improving their technical skills while serving senior partners and navigating internal politics. A lot of this has to do with the ability to establish and maintain peer-to-peer rapport – both with clients and colleagues – and to assert ones’ point of view with conviction yet patience and poise. Be mindful of each interaction and prepare ahead of time. I often hear from our younger clients that they tend to step back and let the senior professionals run meetings. While that’s most natural because the senior professionals most likely have the experience and perhaps the client relationship, I always encourage them to step up. It starts with a brief conversation with the rest of the colleagues ahead of time defining each one’s role during the meeting. Senior partners need to allow the junior partners equal “airtime”, encourage them to participate if not lead the meeting, become mentors and think of how this sharing of airtime supports the succession of the firm’s leadership and sustenance of its value.

Professional service providers are hired by clients for their advisory and leadership skills. Clients look for outside help, a comprehensive view of the situation and direction on how to go about solving a problem, hence leadership influence. And, in order to get a full view of the situation, professionals ought to understand it first and even before that earn the trust of their colleagues and clients so as to gain a better understanding. The latter takes time and patience which is not something junior professionals have in abundance. Yet, there are ways to get there – put oneself in place of the person across the table from you, listen actively and genuinely, demonstrate emotional intelligence. Remember the person I mentioned earlier in this article? The one that everyone notices when he or she walks in the room? That person can be either a completely arrogant jerk or someone that everyone’s attracted to because of the friendly and reasonable nature of his or her personality. Be the latter one! Radiate positive charisma and you’ll be able to lead both colleagues and clients.

So far, I’ve spoken only of what takes place between the ears of young professionals. How a professional’s thinking manifests in verbal and physical presence is equally important. I was recently in Europe for client visits and was reminded of all the small, external items that add up to make an impact. Most of the professionals I met had excellent command of their tone and language (mind you, they spoke at least three languages each), were always dressed a level up (even in casual situations) and seemed genuinely interested in conversations (made eye contact and smiled). It certainly made me feel I was working with an extremely high caliber of professionals – I am sure their colleagues and clients feel the same way as well. So, dear junior professionals, pay close attention to how you dress and carry yourself. If you’d like to move up to the next level in your career, distance yourself from the current casual fad. Communicate in a crisp and concise manner – sometimes, even, face to face rather than by Twitter - dress up (even on casual Friday’s) and build up the internal confidence to embrace stillness and eye contact.

Is there something to this or do we need not worry about executive presence? Is the power of a quick serve cultural trend too strong to overcome? Even if that’s the case, perhaps that allows you more opportunity - dear future leadership – to dramatically stand above your casual crowd of competitors – with a level of professionalism in thought, words and appearance that allows you to claim impact and influence.

About the Author:

Mira Leonard is a Partner with Creative Growth Group, Inc. where she is famous for helping to grow Creative Growth and manage our own business development efforts. She also serves as a client development strategist and coach for our professional services clients.

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