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Executive voice: what it is, why you need it, and how to cultivate your own

By Heather Hudson

Last updated September 21, 2021

The CEO of a struggling financial services company speaks confidently and reassuringly to her thousands of employees. “We’ll get through this,” she says meaningfully. She follows up with a vision for how these hard times will result in a positive outcome, and then unveils a strategy that outlines what every level of the organization needs to do to turn things around. It will connect and resonate with employees at the associate, manager, and leadership levels. It’ll be a short talk, but one that galvanizes an entire workforce. Everyone will feel that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

That’s executive voice in action. Not everyone has it, but every leader needs it, says author, speaker, and leadership expert Rebecca Shambaugh. In a world where trust, engagement, and inclusiveness are increasingly valued, it’s what leaders of all levels should be cultivating.

What is executive voice?

“It’s the ability to establish credibility, inspire others, and influence stakeholders and other individuals within and outside your enterprise,” said Shambaugh.

“Someone with a strong executive voice can command the room, provide clarity, align, and hold people accountable for achieving key business results and objectives.”

She says ‘executive voice’ is the new ‘executive presence’, which traditionally referred to a person who was visually put-together, distinguished, and charismatic. Executive voice is a different skill set that goes beyond looks and charm. “It’s really about inspiring and engaging people, creating a level of trust, setting the right tone for an organization and providing strategy,” she said.

“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.”

[Related read: Informal leadership: Be the person at work that others look up to]

Who needs an executive voice?

Whether you’re an associate manager or a senior executive, every (potential) leader has the opportunity to influence and establish credibility, according to Shambaugh.

“We all have audiences; we need to ask ourselves, ‘How can I best get on their channel? How can I best resonate with them, inspire, and influence something important?’” she said. “If you want to ascend, you have to show up with the kind of part you want to be. You have to embody a strategic voice that is trusted, authoritative, and inspiring.”

How to cultivate your executive voice

While your personal leadership style can and should be distinct, there are several key attributes associated with embodying a strong executive voice. Here’s what you should work on as you develop yours.

Be concise and clear.

Leaders with strong executive voices aren’t known for rambling as they share a strategy or discuss a difficult decision. They avoid jargon, speak plainly, and stay on point. A leader who addresses people thoughtfully and concisely imparts wisdom, along with strategy.

Create the right balance of strategy and execution.

“Executive voice is less about performance and the details of what you or your team is doing. It relates to the strategic context of a broader voice that connects in an enterprise way,” said Shambaugh.

“This might include strategic growth goals, change efforts around the organization, cultural issues, or things that connect the dots in a way that affects people upstream or downstream. This is the strategic lens that should influence how you interact with others as a leader.”

Focus on solutions.

There’s a reason leaders are paid the big bucks—it’s incumbent on them to bring bold and actionable solutions that others haven’t or aren’t able to consider. Rather than critique the answers that have been brought forward to date, a leader with a strong executive voice can be counted upon to bring clear solutions that demonstrate strategic thought.

Understand context and know your audience.

We all know shameless leaders and political figures who tackle a speaking engagement by bull-headedly staying “on message” no matter what the audience needs or the context of the gathering.

“Your number one concern should be, who am I speaking to? What is it that’s important to them? What are their top concerns? What do they want to learn? What are the goals of the meeting? How can I bring value to the people assembled here?” said Shambaugh.

“The way you speak to your team will naturally be different from the way you brief executives. Tailor your tone and your message to the people in front of you.”

[Related read: We’re not all leaders, but we all can practice emergent leadership]

Look at the bigger picture.

Experienced leaders typically have a diverse network, which enables them to cultivate a unique, big-picture perspective that extends beyond their day to day. Use this network to understand the impacts of business decisions across industries and how they might relate to your organization.

If you’re part of a large organization, take time to cultivate a network within all areas of the business. Learn how each team connects with the enterprise as a whole and look for synergies that could bring forth innovative solutions. Understand how your role and team fits into the bigger picture and how the rest of the organization connects.

Align your verbal and non-verbal communication.

Shambaugh says body language comprises 60 to 70 percent of communication. “Tonality, eye contact, facial expressions, the warmth of a smile, posture… these are important signals and energy that you put into a room. You want to be sure your non-verbals are congruent with your verbal message.”

Be prepared.

When it comes to exuding confidence, nothing beats preparation. Before meetings, presentations, briefings, and any face-to-face communications, take time to consider the needs of the people you’re meeting with, the information they’ll be looking for, and what your role will be. Come up with a few strategic questions. And be comfortable with being part of meetings that require you to exclusively listen. This will help you set your own expectations and bring an authoritative, solutions-focused executive voice to every interaction.

Be self-aware.

“When you have a deeper awareness of your hot buttons and blind spots, you can self-manage your emotions before they’re even triggered,” said Shambaugh. When you know where the trip wire lies, it’s less likely you’ll wade into dangerous territory in a contentious meeting. And if you think about it ahead of time, you’ll have a plan for steering away from it.

Tune into social intelligence.

Social intelligence is the ability to read the room. “If you’re briefing executives and in the first 18 seconds you note that people are not making eye contact, have their arms crossed, and are reading notes, pay attention to these cues. Somehow, you’ve gotten off message or what you’re saying is not relevant or the timing isn’t good. Instead of continuing to power through the slide deck, pause and ask if you’re on the right track,” Shambaugh said.

“A powerful executive voice pays attention to social cues and is able to adapt by switching gears or simply saying, ‘This might not be the best time to bring up this topic, so why don’t we table it for a different time?’ or ‘I understand you want to know big picture, not operational, so here are the big points.’”

[Related read: Create career magic with a personal board of directors]

3 ways to learn executive voice

Shambaugh acknowledges that there are very few people born with executive voice. She says the trick to mastering it is tied to three things:

  • Astute observance. “Watch people who have good executive voice. Note how they hold themselves and what they’re doing that inspires and engages others. Why do people listen to them?”
  • Get feedback. Put together a personal board of directors. “Ask trusted people in your network for constructive, detailed feedback, including examples. ‘What specific things or behaviors can I hone in on that would help me show up more strategically?’”
  • Invest in a coach. “There are lots of organizations and professionals who can help you develop your executive voice. You’ll get a targeted focus on key elements you can link back to in your day-to-day interactions.”

As you work on nurturing your executive voice, remember that authenticity is critical. While it’s helpful to note the way others exude leadership qualities, it’s important to develop your own style. Executive voice is as personal as it is masterful.

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