Transcript: Friday, August 25 at Noon ET

The Art of Leadership

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Debra A. Benton
Executive Coach and Author
Friday, August 25, 2006; 12:00 PM

Finesse and charm are the unsung tools of leaders. Cultivating convincing communication skills and the ability to act with ease in social and professional situations can be as important as your degree. Adopt the skills of the CEO set in Finishing School .

Debra Benton is a leadership coach and author of seven books including: "Executive Charisma" and "How to Think Like a CEO." Learn more about Benton's strategies online at www.debrabenton.com

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Debra was online to advise readers on how to polish career comportment The Transcript of her recitation follows.

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Washington, D.C.: Can leadership be learned, really? I am interested in perusing a couple of your books, and I will likely walk away with many gems, but can we truly change who we are? Are leadership books for people who have already self-selected themselves for that role?

Debra A. Benton: Leadership can absolutely be learned just like accounting, sales and marketing, management, negotiation or any other business skill.

In my first book, Lions Don't Need to Roar (Warner Books) one of the first chapters of advice was "Be Yourself". I want that for you and I want that for me BUT you and I can change, evolve, improve and still be ourselves. If you think about it what is "myself?" It's largely what my parents, teachers taught you. Only when I became a thinking adult did I choose what "myself" is. I chose some of what I was exposed to as a child and a lot of what I was exposed to in my professional life to make up the current "true self".

If you are a leader, are considering trying to be one, work for a good one, or work for a bad one it's worth reading some good books about leadership. That same advice is true for improving any other business skill also.

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Angelica, N.Y.: There is a wonderful old story I heard years ago:

It used to be that Vassar girls' fathers would write a letter recommending them to the college. The prompt was something along the lines of "how is your daughter a leader?" Not surprisingly, every father viewed his  daughter as a leader (would that be the same today?). One remarkable father, however, wrote a wonderful note about his daughter. He concluded, however, "in a class of three hundred leaders, you are assured that my daughter would make a top-notch follower at your institution." (I ad libbed). Are we in need of more great followers?

Debra A. Benton: To be a good leader you have to know how to follow because in one's daily life you take on both leadership and follower roles depending on the situation and what's necessary.

At home you are the CEO of your family and at work you may be the team head or a team player depending on the situation and what the group's goals are.

The very important thing to remember: being a leader isn't about what you do, it's about what you can get others to do -- at home or at the office.

By the way, your Vassar story is good and I'd recommend any parent to send such a letter to any school a son or daughter is applying to.

You could also send one to your boss about one of your subordinates.

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Washington, D.C.: When you coach industry leaders, what is it that you repeat most often? What have you learned from these leaders? What sets them apart, do you think?

Debra A. Benton: That's a big question that could take hours to answer, but a brief response is:

1. Discussion on managing their thoughts toward themselves and towards others is my approach. Most are way too judgmental towards both and there is a right and wrong way to improve behavior: the right way is the simplest but few do it, that's what I teach.

2. From the great (and not always so great CEOs) I've worked with I've found they are JUST like you and me with the same fears, frustrations, insecurities, goals, ambitions, dreams for their children, etc. We are all alike,they just have more 000's in their bank account and they are better actors.

3. What sets them apart: Several things can. They got up one more time than the next when knocked down. They had pure luck. They gave 110% not 100%. They had parents who instilled confidence earlier on in their lives. They had teachers or experiences who instilled confidence. They were more disciplined in their behaviors than the next (Harvard research on #1 success trait by the way). The list can go on and on. It's not one thing and it's not one thing for everyone

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Washington, D.C.: Do you ascribe to Meyer's Briggs, and do you think that one is pigeon-holed by his/her personality? Can one enhance their confidence, really? How is it done without acquiring a bit of bluster?

Debra A. Benton: I'm not a fan of Meyer's Briggs but many smart people are so you have to decide yourself on that one.

YES, you can and must work on confidence every day, all day...as long as you do it for yourself as you simultaneously try to maintain the self-confidence of others around you there will be no bluster.

Confidence -- not arrogance, of course -- is the number one need of a leader.

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Washington, D.C.: I have had a very successful career as a highly compensated expert and senior government official, but I very much want to join a top-notch corporate team. I how do I make that known without harming my current situation?

Debra A. Benton: Conduct, on a DAILY basis, an ongoing personal public relations campaign to get known outside your circle, city, etc. Once a day initiate a contact to someone new: a letter, note, article clipped, compliment, question, etc. Most won't respond, some will, but recipients won't forget your effort. Every bit of effort out gets paid back somewhere/somehow. Be sure to do it DAILY. This is very important for everyone reading these questions, it is up to you to broaden your contacts. That would be a start to your situation, and since you're highly-compensated you could hire me as your coach to give more personal direction

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Arlington, Va.: I've managed a staff of 12 for about a year now. Although normally I am a "roll with the punches" type of person, occasional blips in one of my projects will get me really angry. I try to be reasonable with the staff member when I bring the issue up, but my body language and tone shows that I'm upset. Any advice on how not to shoot the messenger?

Debra A. Benton: Say whatever you need to say (sooner, rather than later) BUT say it with a relaxed, non-emotional tone of voice and relaxed facial expression (lips curved up, lips apart, a pleasant expression in other words). Attack behavior don't attack character. Inject some levity to reduce tension, and:

1. consider how you'd like someone to talk to you if the shoe was on the other foot.

2. be consistent, so there is no "occasional blip," people build trust when they see consistency even if it's taught consistency.

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Burke, Va.: Good afternoon, Ms. Benton. As a student of effective leadership, I am interested in your definition of the the terms "leadership" and "management" and what you see as the key difference between the two. Thanks and thank you for holding this chat.

Debra A. Benton: You're probably a better student than me but one take on this is:

management gets things done

leadership gets things done, effectively, through people.

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City in the U.S.: My husband works as an administrator at a university. He's always showing me e-mails from a woman who had his job before he was hired. She's constantly sending emails to her supervisor, criticizing him. The e-mails are usually factually inaccurate. He's stopped responding to them, believing this would have stopped her actions. However, she continues. She must be motivated by the belief that she will regain her position. She was relieved of the position more than a year before my husband arrived. Can you offer advice on how to handle this appropriately? My husband has to maintain a strong working relationship with this woman.

I don't think she realizes that her activities (resolving and responding to the complaints) are taking time away from other work which could benefit her and others at the university.

Debra A. Benton: The first time someone does something that bothers you, you need to address it clearly, firmly, quickly, directly with that person. Without emotional drama (tone of voice and facial expression like I've written before), clear it up; state what/how you expect communication/criticism be given. Bosses aren't looking at what she said as much as looking at your husband and how he handles it, in my opinion. But please know, readers, I'm giving an opinion on things without a full story so try to garner a bit of help for yourself but understand I'm shooting from the hip a little. Is that a disclaimer or what!?

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Arlington, Va.: Do the top industry leaders worry about work-life balance? Does this come up in your coaching?

Debra A. Benton: It's number one on everyone's list from CEO to entry-level...I suggest start incorporating it into your life your first day on the job so it becomes habit...and realize there are times when balance is not achievable you have to be out of balance to complete something big BUT you then get back in balance..it's give and take but the key is you stay on top of it....I suggest you consider everything that's important in your life and you give at least four minutes a day to it...don't let a day go by without your four minutes to each interest (interests can include: children, health, exercise, work, religion, family, politics, community, etc.)...another suggestion is schedule those four minutes on the calendar like you do everything else

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Washington, D.C.: How do we show ourselves to be budding leaders at entry-level positions, surrounded by disengaged co-workers? Should I just apply to business school to get ahead? Is business school the silver bullet?

Debra A. Benton: At every level, in every job/situation, to be seen you have to stand out, That doesn't mean wearing a yellow suit, it simply means: intelligently observe what most people do in that situation and than do something different (different and better; not different and weirder, of course)...I know that takes confidence but you got to do it before you even feel confident....trust me, the ones who "got somewhere" did just that.

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Washington, D.C.: In D.C. I feel that everyone has a Master's and similar work experience. How do I set myself apart in order to get the job that I can there in act as a leader?

Debra A. Benton: You can get an additional degree, of course...but I'd work on the setting myself apart in how you think, act, and relate -- up and down the ladder...for a full answer, read Executive Charisma (McGraw-Hill)

By the way, it's not just D.C. people could feel that way in San Francisco, Denver, etc.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: I'm pretty much a type-B personality, really don't prefer the company of people, prefer to go to work, work hard, and go home. I share none of the yes-man, ladder climber interests and traits of my corporate peers -- I don't play golf, not interested in sports, hate talking about myself, find small-talk just to impress the boss insipid. Think John Forbes Nash in "A Beautiful Mind" (minus the mental disability, as far as I know).

That all said, I know just being good at my job (financial systems) isn't going to get me to retirement, I'm going to have to seek positions that are higher profile, meaning networking and schmoozing, things I hate.

Again, this is just the way I am, can't change things too much, any advice?

Debra A. Benton: People tell me they don't like "office politics" (or schmoozing, etc.). My opinion is that all of life is just relationships (err politics, schmoozing, etc.) and business life is just relationships with money attached to it.

We don't like "it" because our parents didn't like it, likely because they weren't effective in all relationships which we then learned from and then we pass down to our children, etc.

I'm not for game-playing, I am for effectively dealing with people and the situations they put me in both personally and professionally.

Please know I'm not being harsh with this answer, it's just that I want people to change their attitude and try new ways to interact. You might find you're stellar at it!

Not sure if I wrote this story before or not: a young manager protested to me and her boss about not wanting to toot her own horn, engage in "politics," schmooze, etc. "I just want my work to speak for itself!" Whereupon her boss leaned over to me and whispered, "Than it better speak louder."

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Sterling, Va.: I am an inherently soft spoken person (my Myers-Briggs designation is ISTJ). I have to force myself to engage in "small talk" with peers and especially supervisors. Are there methods to bring introverts out of their shells?

Debra A. Benton: Good, force yourself, and keep forcing yourself, that's how you grow, get better, etc. And many great CEOs/leaders have to do the same thing every day.

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Washington, D.C.: I know that I am supposed to act gracefully and look others in the eye. However, I get inexplicably nervous when I meet with superiors. How do I get over this? Practice seems to help, in other words, the more I meet the less nervous I seem, but I am never entirely at ease.

Debra A. Benton: First of all, they are often nervous meeting you too. They are just better actors. Everyone is sometimes uncomfortable the key is to: 1. not look it, 2. make others comfortable around you.

To "not look it":

-put a relaxed expression, a slight smile on your face (even though you don't feel like it)

-look at their nose or mouth if you can't bear looking them in the eyes (they won't know the difference, to them it feels like you're looking in their eyes)

-slow down, don't jerkily move around, gesture, etc. Just take a deep breath and relax

To make them feel comfortable:

-forget about your own discomfort

-ask them a question to open them up

-if they remain "closed" in an unphased manner, ask another one

-listen to what they are saying, and ask more: something as simple as "tell me more about that" will do

-try to find something in common they are comfortable discussing and you are and continue from there

-volunteer information, don't just ask

-try to inject some levity to relax them further

You may think it's the bosses job to do this for you instead of you having to do it with the boss. Well don't wait for that to happen (from the boss), just make it happen from your perspective.

If you it isn't smooth, you'll learn, gain confidence, maybe set a good example, and maybe get noticed very positively.

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Ithaca, N.Y.: I am science Ph.D. student now but am looking into alternative career possibilities. My personal and extracurricular interests always have me leading and that is what I love to challenge myself with. I read leadership/management books and I think: I do that, this crappy person that I work under totally doesn't, I would do it this way, etc. I am sure I have much more to learn about leadership, but I know I would be an awesome leader (not just manager) in a business setting. The problem is I don't know how to get there from where I am now. My guess is I have to start somewhere to get the industry knowledge required to go to the top of a specific company but that is going to take a long time. I know there are no shortcuts, nevertheless -- any advice?

Debra A. Benton: A leader isn't an individual performer. A leader is one who motivates, inspires, enables others to perform. Cease judging others as to their ability or inability, you never know what all contributed to them getting where they are. You can only control yourself. Spend your time/effort in getting others who work with you moving in "the right direction" and your managers will definitely see your leadership ability and move you up. Believe me, they want demonstrated leadership.

Since you're an avid reader I'd recommend my two best-sellers: How To Think Like a CEO (Warner Books) and Executive Charisma (Mc-Graw-Hill)

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Washington, D.C.: after recently getting promoted, I seem to still be harboring bitterness that it took twice as long for me than most. Is this normal and what can I do about it?

Debra A. Benton: Everyone thinks that they should have been promoted/hired sooner/faster than they were -- it's human nature, I suppose. CEOs have repeatedly told me the same thing -- men, women, young and old. So my advice is stop thinking that. Instead change your self-talk to something like: "they were wise to see the value I can bring to the table, I'm going to enjoy this opportunity and make and get the most out of it. I'll learn from watching others upward mobility to see what I need to be doing to hasten my next move." Whatever you do, let go of the negative, it's useless, destructive, time-consuming.

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Debra A. Benton: I notice that my hour is up. I've tried to answer as many questions as possible, there are still several in the queue. I must say, they have been very good questions and I've enjoyed giving an opinion.

Please understand that I tried to answer quickly and with some substance but that to truly give a complete and good answer I always need to know more of a situation. That being said, I stand by what I've written and I leave you with this comment from a friend about me, "You may not be right, but you're never in doubt!"

It could have been meant as a slam, I suppose. I prefer to take it as a humorous, back-handed compliment. It's one of the things I learned from some of the good CEOs: Act like you know what you're talking about, because you probably do as well as anyone else, and always stay one page ahead in the instruction book.

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Debra A. Benton: Please check out my website. www.CEOwhisperer.com you'll find a number of articles I've written in the news column link that will help in the kind of questions we've been answering today.

If you are part of a company or organization that brings in professional speakers/executive coaches, please check out those links on my website too. Thank you for your participation today. Debra Benton

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