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The Essentials: Executive Presence

AMY BERNSTEIN: You are listening to Women at Work from Harvard Business Review. I’m Amy Bernstein. Welcome to season four of The Essentials. This is a series in which Amy G. and I cover key career skills by bringing together experts in those skills with audience members who are looking to get better at them. The thing we like about grounding these episodes in the specifics of individual women’s experience is how it makes management principles less theoretical and practical advice more realistic, not only for that one woman participating in the conversation, but for all our listeners in all sorts of industries. Here at HBR, I’m a vice president and I’m pretty confident that I come across as a leader, but a couple of jobs back – let’s say 15 years ago – I had an executive title, and yet according to my boss at the time, I didn’t act the part. In fact, she told me so. She said, “Amy, you need to work on your executive presence.” I was baffled. I had no idea what she was referring to. I ran back to my office and I Googled, “executive presence.” I realized what she was talking about. I was reticent. I rarely put myself forward, and I behaved as if I was waiting for someone to give me permission to step up. So, I had to be really stringent with myself and own that the feedback was pretty much on target and that was devastating. So, I started to view my world a little differently and I started to see opportunities that I would’ve shrunk from just a week earlier and forced myself to go for them. It might’ve been just speaking up in a meeting if I had something to add, at first timidly and then less timidly as I built up my confidence. I took on the scary stuff. The big test for me was a board meeting, and the board was terrifying. They were the type of people, and there was one person in particular, who would slice you to ribbons if you didn’t know your stuff. So, I thought about what I could control. I could control the way I looked. What did I wear? I had a very nice suit with a nice silk blouse. I actually dressed really well for this job. The other thing I could control was my command of the material. So, I dug in. I had every fact, every figure. I had socialized a lot of it. I’d run it past people who knew more to get their feedback, and by the time I was doing the presentation, I could almost have done it with my eyes closed. When members of the board asked questions, I had answers, but I also had prepared myself for not having answers and then I could respond, “Good question. I’m going to have to find the answer and get back to you,” and I will still tell you that I think that I gave a solid B performance and that represented a victory to me. I had a lot more to learn. I had a lot more self-examination to do, but it changed the way I thought about my role, my path forward and my responsibility for my future. Then I came to HBR and I encountered the ideas of Sylvia Anne Hewlett. Her thinking on executive presence is so clear. Sylvia’s an economist who runs a think tank and she has surveyed and interviewed a lot of business leaders. From that research, she’s identified the leadership traits that sets certain people apart. Those traits fall into three categories, gravitas, communication skills and appearance. Let me tell you about them. Gravitas consists of a bunch of elements, confidence, decisiveness, inclusiveness, respect for others, vision and integrity. Communication skills include the ability to command a room, to read an audience and to be authentic. Authenticity is also an element of the third category, appearance along with a polished look and a willingness to show up in person – even though appearance is, according to Sylvia, the least important factor. That willingness to show up in person piece is one that listener Mary Calmer is missing at the moment and she’s worried about it. Mary’s an insurance underwriter who wants to be an executive at some point in the future, and she’s trying to figure out how to make progress while working fully remotely at a company where she’s still pretty new.

MARY CALMER: One concern is that I’m just not visible enough and I don’t have as much face time as the people who are in the office every day and bumping into the CEO in the lunchroom and things like that.

AMY BERNSTEIN: She mostly communicates with colleagues and clients over email. Video calls are rare, and the few she does are generally one-on-one meetings with either her mentor or her boss.

MARY CALMER: I do a lot of work independently, to be honest. So, it’s hard to put myself out there, but that is one thing that I’ve been working on.

AMY BERNSTEIN: For motivation, she follows leaders like Megan Bock on LinkedIn.

MARY CALMER: I first heard Megan on a podcast for women in insurance called Bound & Determined, and I really resonated with her background. She started in a similar role as an underwriter, and she’s worked her way up to COO of her company, and she’s speaking on panels and traveling all around doing these great things, and I see her as a role model.

AMY BERNSTEIN: One who graciously agreed to join this conversation and leverage her industry expertise to advise Mary directly on how to grow and compete as a fully remote employee. Also with us is Laura Sicola, a cognitive linguist who coaches executives on how to communicate strategically. Megan and Laura’s advice isn’t just for Mary’s benefit though. It’s for yours too. Let me ask you, Megan, to what extent do you think executive presence contributed to your rise through the insurance industry and into tech?

MEGAN BOCK: I guess I would say executive presence is definitely a contributing factor. It is a part of, and perhaps even the impetus for continued promotion or opportunity, but table stakes is your subject matter expertise. You can’t actually have executive presence if you… This is just so obvious, but if you don’t know what you’re talking about.


MEGAN BOCK: And so, I think that the growth trajectory for me was number one, becoming a deep expert. I was an underwriting leader, and so I needed to actually understand what the risk of loss was in any given account situation. For example, what’s the difference between the risk of loss to a general contractor versus a street and road contractor, and what’s the nuance if that general contractor works in Chicago or New York or South Florida versus Nevada or California or somewhere else? And I won’t bore you with the answers to those, but I can tell you that I know them. And so, first and foremost was understanding the subject matter. And then on top of that, the executive presence, the how you show up, the how you communicate helps your message be spread wider. And then executive presence doesn’t just happen naturally. I think you actually have to work at it.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, let’s relate this to Mary, who is a senior commercial lines underwriter. When you were at that point in your career, say 10 or 12 years ago, did you have executive presence? Did you look the part of a senior leader?

MEGAN BOCK: I think unwittingly, yes. And here’s what I mean by that. I hate shopping. It is literally my nightmare. And so, in order to satisfy, sort of like, Well, I want to look nice, but I really don’t want to spend any time doing this, I found that Nordstrom has a free personal shopper service. And so, you can just go and tell them your size and they pull everything together to make you look fantastic, and as long as you put down your credit card and buy it, then it’s all done.


MEGAN BOCK: But I think the rest of it is first, the subject of matter knowledge. Second, I always prepare for a meeting. That means understanding what’s going on, understanding where I want the meeting to go, what my perspective is, and I come with a point of view.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, then you must be projecting confidence.

MEGAN BOCK: Exactly. And you speak up with conviction. Being willing and comfortable to engage with people in the room regardless of their level in the hierarchy, I think is also important. And that’s one thing that I’ve seen trip other people up. If you’ve got a real senior leader, then perhaps you don’t feel prepared or want to speak up or ask a question, and it’s much better to go the opposite direction, still speak up, have an opinion. Worst case, it turns into a robust debate.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Mary, let me ask you how all that is landing with you? As you hear Megan describe how she prepares, also has worked on the finer points of executive presence, where are you hearing areas for development for yourself? Where are the gaps for you?

MARY CALMER: I think that makes a lot of sense. You have to be a rock star at your job before you can get promoted, and you have to prove yourself that you’re ready for that next step. Areas that I could work on, putting myself out there and working on public speaking, speaking with a more strong voice, I have a tendency to mumble sometimes. My husband says I tend to wear my emotions on my face, especially my negative ones. So, I definitely need to work on that as well.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Laura, you’re an expert in speech. So, what Mary just said must have raised a few thoughts for you?

LAURA SICOLA: Well, first, I think it’s important that we redefine the concept of public speaking because public speaking, at least from my perspective, is really anytime you’re talking to someone other than yourself, whether you’re having a one-on-one meeting, whether it is a formal presentation, it’s publicly sharing your ideas and trying to get buy-in, trying to understand the other person and establish that connection with them. So, what’s important I think, is that we are clear in our intentions and we let that intention drive our focus and drive our approach to that conversation or to that presentation. Is it something that needs a little bit of levity? Is it something that needs to show some passion, some conviction to it? Is it something that requires a little diplomacy? Whatever it is, starting with the intention, what is the result that we want to get? What’s the response? The mental, cognitive, the emotional, the behavioral? How do we want people to receive and respond to what we’re saying? Use that like a GPS coordinate. You punch that in as the destination and then calculate the route, so to speak. And I think that really helps to be more effective in having people hear both our content and our intent. And when we think about the concept of more formal public speaking, as I think is probably what you were originally referring to, I think the easiest way to get past some of those nerves and get out of our own heads is what I like to call the four-words-secret to confident public speaking, which is simply, “it’s not about you.” If you’re public speaking, if you’re speaking to a one-on-one, to a group, to a meeting, to an audience, you are there because someone believes you have something to contribute. And it may be you who threw your hat in the ring because you believed you had something of value to give to that audience. So, they’re not waiting, leaning back in their chairs with folded arms to critique every little, “Um,” and, “Ah,” that you say. They’re just looking for the value. So, give it to them.

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AMY BERNSTEIN: I laughed because I say that to myself all the time, Laura. Thank you for bringing that up.

MEGAN BOCK: I do want to come back and sorry if I’m going off script here for a moment, but I want to come back to something you said, Mary, in your original assessment of self, “I need to be a rockstar.” I actually don’t think you need to be a rockstar and hear me out. You have to have the competence. You have to know what you’re doing. You have to say what you’re going to do and do what you say. But I feel like it’s a little bit of diminishing returns to be a rockstar in a particular role because that takes quite a lot of energy. And I actually think that energy is better channeled into things like raising your hand for special projects or identifying ways to connect with others in your organization. As long as you’re competent and meeting expectations, you’ll be granted those types of opportunities. And it is those types of special projects that get you thinking about the business in a different way, get you connecting with others across the country in your organization, which gives you perspective that you wouldn’t have had, and a true ability to differentiate yourself as a leader because chances are in that special project, you are the one with the specific underwriting skillset. And so, what you say, which you might just consider baseline competence, is actually a big differentiator when applied in that kind of a setting.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I’m so glad you said that, Megan, because I think that women in particular tend to undermine themselves with this perfectionism, and I wonder if most of us are just a lot smarter than we think we are?

LAURA SICOLA: May I piggyback on that?

AMY BERNSTEIN: Of course, Laura.

LAURA SICOLA: About five minutes ago, I wrote down the word perfectionism and put a big X through it as I was listening to what you were describing. And to the point of, Do I raise my hand, do I volunteer, do I try to contribute? So many people – men and women, but women in particular – will be much less likely to speak up in a meeting if they don’t feel like they have the answer. That’s not what meetings are about. Meetings are about group collectively working through stuff because everybody has pieces to contribute to the puzzle. It’s co-construction of knowledge, co-construction of ideas. We don’t expect you to unilaterally fix it, but we do want to know that you have value to contribute to the process, to the team. Don’t hold that back from everybody else.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Mary, you have already taken steps in this direction.

MARY CALMER: So, I’ve been asked to help on a couple of working groups outside the scope of my job duties. One is kind of a project management. They’re implementing a new system and they want people from each division to give feedback on how this project is going to work, this platform that they’re rolling out. So, they want someone with an underwriting perspective.

AMY BERNSTEIN: And I wonder if you can now see ways that you can use that experience being part of this working group to develop your executive presence further?

MARY CALMER: It’s a lot to wrap my mind around, but yeah, I think there’s some opportunity there.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Megan, what would you advise her?

MEGAN BOCK: It’s a great question, and the way I would think about your engagement in that work would be as an underwriter advocate.


MEGAN BOCK: You want to make sure that you’re representing not just your own specific perspective, but actually that of your team or multiple teams or those across the division, find out their pain points, their needs, and by actually gathering the data yourself and creating an executable plan, that makes you, number one, better connected with your peers; number two, a change champion or a leader amongst them, you’re seen as the advocate; and number three, particularly effective to leadership in actually driving the change that’s been a part of this project.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I think that what I’m hearing is that you’re saying, Megan, you want Mary to demonstrate that she understands the strategy of the company, she can connect her work to the strategy of the company explicitly, and that she is looking to expand the impact of her work. Is that correct?

MEGAN BOCK: Yeah, exactly. That is a much more articulate and succinct way of saying what I had put together for advice. I totally agree.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Well, it’s much easier to summarize a smart thought than to have it in the first place. So, Laura, jump in and help us understand what we’re hearing here.

LAURA SICOLA: Well, I think the most important piece from my perspective was the idea, if you’re looking to rise in your role, in your influence, in your opportunity is exactly what was just stated with regard to being able to demonstrate that your work has greater impact beyond just being a task. You’re not just a cog in the works, but also that you have the vision to see and understand what that value is and to be able to articulate it in a way that is strategic. There’s a lot of people who are frustrated because they feel like they are – I’ll use your term – “rockstars”at their particular task or role, and they want their work to speak for itself. And their work might speak for itself, but it doesn’t speak for them as a person. So, if all you are known for is expertise, we’ll keep you in that role because it’s where you belong and it’s the only thing people see you as being qualified to do. And being able to look beyond that and saying, “For this particular audience – these senior leaders, these people who are in operations, in business development, in marketing, in IT, and human resources – what of my expertise and of this idea is relevant to them, and how do I translate that expertise so that they see the so what involved, so it’s relevant for them?” And showing that you’re even thinking in those terms is visionary, is leadership in its own way, and most people don’t think in those terms. They stay very myopically focused just in, This is the wheel that I keep turning and I’m really good at it. The question is, do you want to be viewed as an essential member of the team or as someone who should be the captain of the team?

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, Mary, you’ve heard Megan’s thoughts, you’ve heard Laura’s thoughts. How do you imagine coming to your working groups in these strategic ways?

MARY CALMER: Oh, that’s a good question. So, one, I still don’t really know… For the project that they’re rolling out and they want an underwriter’s perspective, I’m not contributing anything at this point. They’re just feeding us information and showing us, “Okay, this is what this is going to look like.” And I have not spoken, I’m just soaking it all in yet, and I still don’t really know why I’m here. I was just told I’m going to be in this group, so I’m not really sure.

MEGAN BOCK: Don’t hesitate to ask for more information, to request the context, to set up a one-on-one with the person who is facilitating the session.


MEGAN BOCK: If you’re a little bit confused or don’t have the information, I can guarantee you, multiple other people in that setting are. And it’s an opportunity for you to demonstrate some leadership to say, “Hey, we don’t have enough context here. You need us to add value. I’m spending two hours a week, let’s talk about it.”


AMY BERNSTEIN: And I was thinking while Mary was talking, I would ask, “What are your expectations of this group?” Right?

LAURA SICOLA: I think we’re doing a ventriloquism act because I keep writing down notes and then Megan says exactly what I was thinking. So, it’s amazing. Yes, please be proactive, ask the questions. And I wrote down, ask, “What value can I add?”

MARY CALMER: Okay. So, Laura, I work remotely and I’m not sure how I can put myself out there as a leader and enhance my executive presence. Do you have any advice for people who are in my shoes?

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LAURA SICOLA: Absolutely. And the best part of it is that some of the most powerful tips are the simplest. So, things like the microphone that you use. Most people just use whatever the default is in the computer and they end up sounding like this. And what you don’t realize is that when your sound quality is like this, it automatically makes the listener diminish the assumption of the value of what you’re saying. It makes them not want to listen, and it makes them not like the sound. And it actually creates an increased cognitive burden on the listener because not just are they trying to understand what your point is, they’re straining actually just to understand the words. And then from there, to figure out if they understand the meaning, and then if they agree with it or what they want to contribute. And it’s really hard. If you feel like you’re squinting and leaning in because you’re straining to concentrate and focus on what they’re saying, that just makes people go, “Ugh, it’s too much work,” and so they disregard you. But when most people sound like this and then you come through with a decent quality sound, people all of a sudden sit up and they go, Wait, she sounds important. Let me focus in, let me listen to her. So, they’re totally subconscious in little details, but boy, for an extra 50 or $100, the quality of your sound is a huge factor in whether or not people believe you sound smart. So, that’s the first piece. The second, I think most of us, even though we’re maybe three, four years into this virtual or hybrid space, most people still have some sort of internal resistance to being on camera. But if you’re trying to establish rapport with people, have them know who you are besides someone who submits certain completed tasks. You want them to have a connection with you and build a trust with you as someone who they could see leading a group of people. They need to see your face and the energy that you use. And I don’t mean frenetic kinetic kind of energy, but just, do you sense that, “Okay, I’m here, I’m present, I’m focused? Let’s get stuff done. I’m eager to hear what you have to say and to see our status on this,” versus what most people do, which is… It’s like, Okay, I’m here. It’s time for my 47th Teams meeting of the day, when there’s that utter sense of energy having been sucked out of you. And, it’s like, if you seem drained and just wishing you could be anywhere else, that’s the feeling that you will give to them.

AMY BERNSTEIN: So, Megan, I wonder if you have any further ideas here?

MEGAN BOCK: I completely agree that camera on and connected is the best way. I don’t know about you, but after eight, 10 hours of Teams calls, I don’t love staring at my own picture. And so, I actually do the, “hide self” view, so that I’m not looking at myself and it actually lowers that level of, I don’t know, anxiety or cognitive stimulation because then I really am just focused on my meeting, the people who are there as if we’re in-person.

AMY BERNSTEIN: Mary, how does that land for you?

MARY CALMER: That’s very helpful. I do try to be on camera as much as possible because I don’t get the chance to be in front of my colleagues face-to-face very often. So, I’m glad you said that.

AMY BERNSTEIN: I want to ask you another question, Laura. So much of what you’re talking about really speaks to reading your audience, right? Reading the room. And the ability to read an audience is one of the top things business leaders expect of other business leaders. Sylvia Ann Hewlett found this when she asked a couple of 100 business leaders that question. But remotely reading the room, this virtual space, is really tough.


AMY BERNSTEIN: You’re toggling between presenting and you’re checking the chat and your mind is divided amongst so many different activities there. So, how do you advise people to do this well?

LAURA SICOLA: I think in part, you have to verbally prompt the rest of the group more proactively and more explicitly. So, get to the end of a segment or of a point that you want to make, stop and ask, “What questions are there so far before I go on?” And then wait. The worst prompt to ask, there’s two of them, and they’re totally counterproductive, is, “Do you understand? And are there any questions?” Because they’re both yes-or-no questions. And when you say, “Are there any questions?” You’ll hear silence or you’ll maybe see head shake and they’ll say, “No,” which is a total lie. The answer is yes. They just don’t want to be the first one to volunteer. Or you’ll say, “Do you understand?” And they’ll say, “Yes,” which is also a lie because the answer is no. You know somebody needs to prompt on something. So, just get rid of the yes or no and pause and say, “Let me ask this. What questions do you have so far? Go ahead, type it in the chat or unmute yourself. Let’s hear what needs clarification before we progress.” And then count to at least five, if not 10 slowly. Most people will ask a question, pause for literally less than two seconds. There is research. Sometimes it’s less than one, hear nothing. People haven’t even found the unmute button yet if they do have something that they want to contribute or they couldn’t have typed it in the chat fast enough, and you’re already going, “Oh, okay, it’s silent, I guess we’ll move on.” And we go. So, they just go, Eh, why bother trying to contribute when she’s clearly not truly giving me the opportunity?

MARY CALMER: You’re right. People do need a moment to take themselves off mute and ask their question. They’re not going to be ready instantaneously.

LAURA SICOLA: The one other thing that dawned on me that you can do when you’re asking the question, looking for feedback, et cetera, is to request a non-verbal response from the group. So, something that’s behavioral and observable, like for example, “Okay everybody,” in the chat, “Before I move on, if you feel like you’re clear and ready, please write, ‘Okay,’ or give me a thumbs up emoji. And if you have a question or are unsure, just put a question mark.” So, something quick and simple. They don’t have to fully think out and articulate the question yet, but at least they’ve given you the indication that they have one. So, then you can ask them from there and give them the space to contribute, which so many people need, and they’ll be extremely grateful to you for that.

MARY CALMER: So, we’ve been talking for a while now and you can see me over this call. Can I get one piece of feedback from each of you on how I could improve my executive presence?

MEGAN BOCK: Mary, first and foremost, I can’t imagine a better way of improving executive presence than raising your hand and saying you’d like to actually do some homework, a podcast. Really think about it. Right? You have to set the intention and actually spend the time and energy to make those improvements.

MARY CALMER: Thank you.

MEGAN BOCK: Secondly, you’re engaged in the conversation, you’re smiling, you’re nodding along. Your body language says that you’re in it, right? And so that creates that connection and that empathy with your meeting attendees, with whoever you’re having a one-on-one or whatnot. So, I think that’s excellent. I would suggest that one area that you could continue to work on or improve is your level of comfort and engagement with off-the-cuff commentary. And here’s what I mean. Certainly, this is a little bit constructed. We’re doing a podcast, and so we’re sort of trading off, but there’s a natural ebb and flow of conversation. And so, this is something that you are excited about, into, have convictions on. Feel free to interject, to take a thought and let it unroll in a way that’s going to drive your point home. If I had a piece of feedback, it would be that your engagement feels a little bit more guarded or in a box, and I would encourage you to just from a body language perspective or from your words, to let yourself out of that box.

MARY CALMER: Okay, thank you. Laura?

LAURA SICOLA: Ditto on everything that Megan just said as far as the positive. The fact that you stepped up and volunteered for this is a great beginning right off the bat because you’re putting yourself out there, you’re being vulnerable in public, and you’re letting others learn from you, and that’s really powerful and generous. That’s a great leadership trait. As far as how to increase the sense of engagement, what I actually wrote down was about energy variation because there’s different kinds of energy that we have, and especially, let me ask this. Do you self-identify more along the introverted end or the extroverted end of the spectrum?

MARY CALMER: Introverted.

LAURA SICOLA: Okay. And that comes through, and again, neither is better or worse, but what I often hear from the more introverted people is that, “This is kind of where I live energy wise. I’m a laid-back kind of easygoing kind of person. This is my normal speaking, this is me. That’s just me.” And to label yourself in that… and you didn’t, – I’m putting words in your mouth. But what I frequently hear from others with the phrase, “That’s just me,” is not about authenticity because you’re not that black and white, unilateral, mono-dimensional of a person. Everybody has, the highs and the lows and the intensity and the easygoing and those kinds of things. So, learning how to dig a little bit more and share that. And if you want to think about different energies, there’s the head energy, the, I‘m thinking about things. I’m going for the gravitas, which is a totally overused and overextended word. There’s the heart and the empathy energy. You mentioned earlier that you wear your emotions on your face very easily. The empathy, we want that to come through. So, allowing that in, of course, the right place, the right time, the right amount, having a little fun. Was any of this conversation fun for you? Is it exciting to be on the show and to get to talk to Amy and to Megan and to everybody? It would be good to hear the excitement come out a little bit, or even just a little determination or a little intensity come through. Again, not looking for you to be over the top, but a little more intensity, a little more variation, so that it sounds like you truly believe and feel what your words are claiming. When there’s that alignment, that congruence between what you say and the how you say it, then it sounds like you believe what you’re saying and then we believe that you believe it. And that’s the cornerstone of credibility as an essential leadership skill.

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AMY BERNSTEIN: I agree with everything that Laura and Megan just said, and the only thing I’ll add, nothing turns on a listener like hearing the speaker light up with excitement. It is a chance to connect. You really feel like you see who you’re talking to, and it’s inspiring. So don’t be afraid of your own inspiration, your ability to get people motivated.

MEGAN BOCK: I want to just pile on to what Amy just said. I had written down a note for this conversation, which was find your topic. What is the subject that you’re passionate about, that you have conviction, that you want to see go in a certain direction, where people can hear the smile in your voice, where people will lean in because they’re interested in your perspective on it? And it’s not everything. I have a couple of core topics that get me really excited. So, whenever I’m asked to do a presentation, I make sure that it’s actually in my lane. Is this a thing that I care about or I have perspective on? If not, I’m going to pass, but if it is, I know I can make that actually very compelling, very engaging, just that level of excitement, engagement. Find your sweet spot and that will really help you establish yourself with that executive presence.

AMY BERNSTEIN: All right, Mary, I see you smiling broadly there. What do you think of what you just heard?

MARY CALMER: Honestly, that type of feedback is hard to get and hard to give. So, thank you for that. I really appreciate it. One thing I’ve been thinking about is developing my executive presence while maintaining my authenticity and staying true to myself. So, Amy, do you have any advice on how to do that?

AMY BERNSTEIN: Yeah, I do. One thing that I know I bumped up against when I realized what executive presence was and when I saw how much I needed to do was to deal with the discomfort of behaving in ways that did not come naturally to me. Public speaking did not come naturally to me, but I realized I needed to be able to speak to my boss, my boss’ boss, the board. It wasn’t necessarily making a speech, but I needed to be able to express myself in a way that was compelling and persuasive and memorable, even when I was intimidated by my audience. And so, I just kept practicing, but the important part was that I recognized that my discomfort was what was getting in the way of my achieving this goal. And I had to understand that it wasn’t inauthentic to do this. It was uncomfortable until it became comfortable. Laura, what do you think of that?

LAURA SICOLA: I’m so glad that you ended on that point because authenticity is not synonymous with your comfort zone.


LAURA SICOLA: If anything, growth by default means you have to try something new, which by definition is going to be uncomfortable because you’re not good at it yet, but it doesn’t mean you’re being inauthentic by trying it. And we really pigeonhole ourselves as soon as we utter that phrase again, that, “That’s not me. I don’t like the public speaking. I don’t want to have to wear a suit. I don’t like this or that.” Okay, well, the metaphor that I like to use is what I call your prismatic voice, because authenticity is not a light switch that’s on or off. It’s not binary. If you’ve ever seen one of those little crystals that people maybe hang from the kitchen window or the rear-view mirror in a car and when the sunlight hits it, the little rainbow projects out the other side onto the wall. Similarly, if you consider that we are that white light and all of those colors are already in us. So, the question is, in this context, in this prism, which of those colors needs to shine most brightly for us to connect with the audience at the moment? So, right now, I’m using my coaching voice, my public speaking side, we’ll call it my purple, but I have a seven-year-old at home. It probably won’t surprise you to know that I don’t talk to him like this, and it would not be appropriate. Might be momentarily entertaining if a bit awkward, but I wouldn’t do this interview the way that I speak to him because it just wouldn’t connect. It wouldn’t make sense given the content. But it’s not that one is the real me and one is me faking it. It’s that they’re both authentic parts of my personality. So, figuring out which aspect of you needs to shine through in this moment and how to beef up all of those colors a bit, how to make them all shine more brightly and not just go to the comfort zone because your blue is your preferred. Preferred is not only authentic – the rest of you is authentic too.

MEGAN BOCK: Let me just chime in there. And I think that is so accurate, Laura, to describe that that range and the diversity that we each have my journey with authenticity has… Well, it’s been a journey. A decade ago, maybe when I was in your role, Mary, I thought I had to show up like the people I was talking to. And in insurance, that was a lot of male colleagues, counterparts. I pretended like I liked sports so that I would have something to talk about. God help me if somebody asked a question that was like two levels deeper. Over the years, I have realized, actually, authenticity is the opposite of pretending to be something you’re not. It is getting comfortable with who you are and allowing that both personal and professional to be more integrated. So, I sound a little more similar in my personal life as I do in my professional life, and I actually think that’s the Megan version of authenticity. And it allows me to connect well to my audience, whether those are my friends or my family or colleagues or the leaders of insurance organizations. That’s my version of authenticity. And Mary, yours will likely be a different version, but I also want to say it will still be a journey. It will still be uncomfortable at various times. I’m the Chief Operating Officer of a technology organization and I’m not in my office because I’m on the road, but if I was, I would show you the Post-it that I have hanging over my computer, which says, “How do you want to show up? As COO.” So, I am literally reminding myself before every single meeting, Who am I in the room with? How am I going to connect with them? And make sure, Megan, that you show up as the role that you are, as the executive leader that you are. That isn’t to say it’s easy. I need the reminder most meetings, but it is about how you prepare, how you show up, how you integrate, and be that authentic version of you. That can create that connection, can create that influence, and I’m glad we’re all on this journey together.

AMY BERNSTEIN: And it just reminds us that even when you have done so much of the work – you’re on this journey, you have great executive presence – it still takes thoughtfulness and it takes focus. And you have to remember that critical point that it’s not about you, it’s about your audience. How do you want to show up? I want to thank you all for being here, for contributing with so much candor, sharing your stories with us, sharing your wisdom. Mary, Megan, Laura, thank you so much.

LAURA SICOLA: Thank you for the invitation. It was really an honor to participate and to speak with all of you. And Mary, good luck.

MARY CALMER: Thank you all. I really appreciate your advice.

MEGAN BOCK: It was wonderful to speak with you. Mary, we’re rooting you on.

MARY CALMER: Thank you.

AMY BERNSTEIN: That’s our show. I’m Amy Bernstein. Next week, Amy G. covers the essential skill of building and maintaining trust.

AMY GALLO: You could even say to your boss, “I feel conflicted because I want to build trust with the team, but I also want to make sure I retain your trust. And so, how do you think about that? What advice do you have?”

AMY BERNSTEIN: HBR has more podcasts to help you manage yourself, your team and your organization. Find them at or search HBR in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen. Women at Work’s editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Tina Tobey Mack, Rob Eckhardt, Erica Truxler, Ian Fox, and Hannah Bates. Robin Moore composed this theme music. I’m Amy Bernstein and you can get in touch with me, as well as Amy G., by emailing

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