Amy Jen Su, managing partner and co-founder of Isis Associates, is an executive coach and speaker on issues of leadership presence and executive endurance that make a difference to a leader’s performance success. She has a proven track record helping senior leaders more clearly articulate vision, socialize their message, and build key follower-ship as well as consider the organizational capabilities and structures necessary for delivering on the vision. She has served on the faculty and senior coaching teams for formal leadership development programs across a variety of industries including biotechnology, private equity, management consulting, financial services, and public service institutions.
Her previous business experience includes working as a management consultant for Booz Allen & Hamilton where she advised senior executives of large consumer products companies on marketing and growth strategies. She was also a strategic planner for Taco Bell Corp when it was part of PepsiCo, instrumental in helping to launch Taco Bell into non-traditional points of distribution. Amy holds a MBA from Harvard Business School and BA in Psychology from Stanford University, graduating from both with honors and distinctions. Her additional background and certifications in integral coaching, yoga, and the Eastern philosophies provide for a unique high impact, whole-person approach.
Muriel Maignan Wilkins, managing partner and co-founder of Isis Associates, is an executive coach and leadership consultant with a strong track record of helping senior leaders and teams take their effectiveness to the next level. Muriel is adept at working with senior executives develop in the critical career accelerator areas of executive presence, role transitions, and relationship management. She has in-depth experience designing and leading customized leadership development programs, group coaching, leadership assessments and leadership team alignment efforts. She has served senior level clients across a number of industries including management consulting, private equity, biotech, financial services, retail and non-profits.
Before co-founding Isis Associates, Muriel’s executive management experience includes holding P&L responsibility as a Director at U.S. News & World Report, leading consulting engagements as a Manager for the strategy practice of Accenture, and being a strategic planner at Prudential. Muriel was recognized by the Washington Business Journal as one of metro-DC area’s “Top Minority Business Leaders” and is a frequent speaker on leadership communications issues. Muriel holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, a marketing degree from Georgetown University, and a leadership coaching certification from Georgetown University. Her nearly twenty years living in North Africa, Europe and the Caribbean give her an invaluable perspective which she brings to her work.
They are the co-authors of Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence, published by Harvard Business Review Press (April 2013).
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Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.
Su: The turning point came, when I was a management consultant, sitting in a team room one evening at 3 am cranking through a spreadsheet analysis on how to drive more margin out of a consumer goods product. And, I remember feeling angry and disappointed as this came after having received a performance review that said while I was a great team player and always got the job done, I should be aware of my presence and influence style especially around senior level folks who perceived me to be young looking.
As I pulled that all-nighter, there was this moment where I realized that hard work alone and technical capability were not enough and that perhaps I wasn’t in a line of work that was allowing me to bring my fullest value and distinction to the table. Fortunately, an accident, took me out of the workforce for a year during which time the vision and courage to become a coach came together as there was time to reflect on who I was authentically and how might I best impact others around me. The journey continues every day as I ask myself regularly – am I leading and living an authentic life? Am I impacting others positively?
Wilkins: For the first half of my career, I was successfully rising fast as a marketing and strategy executive. And then two things happened: (1) I realized that as an executive I desperately needed leadership development support that really applied to my day-to-day business challenges but I couldn’t quite find it anywhere, and (2) I realized that I had an entrepreneurial itch that had been there a long time and kept getting stronger and stronger. I suddenly became keenly aware that the only thing I had to lose was time. And so I left my corporate job, changed career course to focus on leadership development and started Isis Associates with Amy Su. I haven’t looked back since.
Morris: Now please shift your attention to Own the Room. When and why did you decide to write it?
Wilkins: When we first began our executive coaching firm, we found that the answer to so many of our clients’ developmental needs was to work on their presence. Not because they didn’t have it – in fact, many of them had strong presence. But they had not figured out how to take what they had mastered in a previous role and adapt it to the next level of responsibility. In addition, our own personal experiences played into writing this book. We had both received strong feedback about our presence early in our careers. Muriel that she was too assertive and needed to “tone it down.” Amy that she came off as too deferential and needed to “toughen up.” But it was feedback we didn’t know what to do with at the time. We’ve had our own journey in finding our respective Signature Voices and continue to shape it and adapt it as we grow as individuals and leaders. After years of working with thousands of leaders shape their leadership presence, we recognized that many others could also benefit from the same approach and strategies that we offer in the book.
Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.
Su: We were finalizing the manuscript for the book when the Summer Olympics were on and not only were they fun to watch but there was interest given that throughout the book, we describe building presence as analogous to the conditioning of an athlete. There was one evening the gymnasts were on and we watched how when they stepped out onto the mat or bars, something happened, they were 100% present. This was the ultimate in presence.
They had spent years of their life conditioning and practicing everyday and when it was game time – they just went out and did their thing— instinct, confidence, and years of conditioning took over. This influenced how we ended the book to pull through the athletic analogy fully that like athletes we train and condition our mindsets, communications skills, and energy for presence but that once we step into that meeting room or conversation, it’s just about bringing our best and being present to ourselves and others in real time.
Wilkins: Maybe not a revelation but certainly a very strong reminder that came to the forefront as we wrote the book is how much attaining and maintaining your presence, your signature voice, is a lifelong journey. Writing a book with someone else, even someone that you know, respect and trust as well as I do Amy, can be an awesome experience as well as quite a challenging one. At times, it felt as though we were the protagonists as we struggled with making sure our individual voices were heard in the book while still honoring and respecting what we each brought to the table. We often found ourselves applying the exact frameworks we were writing about to ourselves! The experience made us that much stronger as a team and partnership. And it certainly enabled us to empathize and relate even more with our clients and all those individuals who would be reading the book one day.
Morris: What are the defining characteristics of a “Signature Voice”?
Wilkins: Having a signature voice is about having a presence that is unique and authentic to you and yet connects well with those around you. Imagine a real signature – – it makes an impact, an impression on paper. Likewise, your presence needs to make an impact. What makes your signature voice more distinct than any other voice is that it conveys a presence that not only gives voice to your ideas, thoughts, and vision but also gives a voice to others. That, in a nutshell, is a presence that others will remember, follow and trust.
Morris: Please explain the significance of each of the four presence quadrants.
Su: The four presence quadrants offer a concrete and practical way to diagnose and understand one’s presence and its impact.
In the Signature Voice quadrant, as Muriel describes above, we convey a presence that gives both voice to our ideas, thoughts, and vision but also gives a voice to others such that others follow or trust. It’s like a tennis player who has a strong forehand and strong backhand and can use them both fluidly in concert to play the game effectively.
When we have moved to the Supportive Voice quadrant, we have lost awareness or strength of our own voice in the situation and have over-weighted the demands, requests, or agenda of others. It’s like playing tennis with only your backhand. When we operate here for too long on auto-pilot, we can become resentful, overwhelmed or burnt out. We advise folks who experience being in the supportive voice quadrant to maintain their strengths in attuning to others, listening, or facilitating but to remember to not compromise who they are, their voice, and value they bring to the table.
In the Driving Voice quadrant, the opposite occurs. We lose awareness or strength of giving voice to others and our demands, requests, or agenda are at the forefront. It’s like playing tennis, now, with only your forehand. Our presence goes from being appropriately assertive to unnecessarily aggressive, bulldozing our way through others or potentially leaving a trail behind us. We advise folks who experience being in the driving voice quadrant to maintain their incredible strengths in driving results, vision, and advocacy but to remember to engage, empower, and motivate others along the way as well.
We’ve all had situations where we experienced being in the Passive Voice quadrant. These are cases whereby the backhand and forehand are both unclear and not strong. Others see our presence and describe it in a variety of ways: passive, passive aggressive, disengaged. We advise folks who experience being in the passive voice quadrant to choose either “voice for self” or “voice for others” first as a way back to Signature Voice.
Morris: Please explain the ACE acronym and the significance of each component.
Wilkins: Much like an athlete preparing for a competition by training his mind, skill, and body, developing your leadership presence and your Signature Voice is based on conditioning your assumptions, your communication strategies, and your energy. We call this ACE conditioning:
A stands for the assumptions you make and the mind-set you bring to your interactions with others. This is the mental conditioning that helps you develop the right mind-set to put your best presence forward in any given situation. The assumptions you hold about yourself, about others, and about the situation you are facing have the power to either set you up for success or to undermine your best efforts.
C stands for communication strategies —- the techniques and tools you use to engage, influence and inspire others. The fundamental communication skills of listening, framing the context, conveying your point with clarity all help you say what you mean with confidence and impact. Through communication, you are able to challenge, inspire, collaborate with, and influence others.
E stands for your energy. This is the physical conditioning that helps you manage the impact of your nonverbal cues and emotions on others. Whether or not you realize it, you have a physical presence that sends strong clues and signals to others.
The Signature Voice and ACE frameworks together presents an integrated way of working on leadership presence that addresses the whole person and leads to sustainable authentic change.
Morris: How best to determine one’s baseline ACE?
Wilkins: Everyone has a baseline ACE—the place you start from when you begin to condition yourself for Signature Voice. To determine your baseline, do an initial assessment and then create a vision of where you want to be. Start by thinking of a specific situation when your presence was not at its best. Now, describe your presence at the time in terms of ACE starting with your Assumptions: What were you thinking and feeling about the situation? What did you do to prepare? What did you think about the person you were interacting with? What did you presume your role was?
Then think about your Communications strategies: What did you say? Did you listen and ask questions? Did you advocate for your or your function’s agenda? Lastly, reflect on your Energy: How did you physically show up in the situation? What was your body language saying? What tone did you set? If you’re unclear, ask for feedback on these elements. By organizing your self-assessment and feedback in this way, you are able to create a clear path forward by focusing on the skills you need to increase your presence.
Morris: You recommend several communication strategies in Chapter Four. Which of them seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?
Su: One of the most difficult strategies to master and yet yields high impact is framing. Framing is the context or lens through which you want to convey a message and makes it relevant for those you are communicating with. It’s like having a picture in your home – the frame you choose for the picture will accent very different parts of the art.
There are three things that make framing particularly difficult to master. First, we often misunderstand framing to mean “spin.” Spin is manipulating or sugarcoating a message. What we are suggesting here is to consider the frame that helps to focus people on the key issues and helps to simplify complexity.
Second, we often don’t take the time to really put ourselves in others’ shoes and consider their perspective. Framing requires us to take that extra step to consider what is meaningful or relevant about our data, message, or work for the other person.
Finally, there are many types of frames to choose from – a strategic frame, outcomes frame, metaphor frame just to name a few and picking the right one for the situation or audience can be a challenge.
The best frames keep in mind our message and vision (a voice for self) and make it relevant and salient for others (a voice for others) creating a bridge between ourselves and others effectively.
Morris: Extensive research by highly reputable firms suggests that, during face-to-face communication, more than 80% of impact is determined by tone of voice and body language; less than 20% (on average about 15%) by what is said. How to explain this?
Su: The research does bear out across studies that our non-verbal communication has greater impact than what we say. We are wired as humans, since a young age, to attune to non-verbal communication to understand the message. From the time my son was a toddler, he knew the difference between “come here” (with a loving tone) and “come here!” (with a scolding tone).
We continue through adulthood in picking up cues from others and what their bodies – eye contact, posture, gestures, tone, or volume suggest. In fact, when we have a message that doesn’t match what our non-verbals are saying, people tend to believe the body as the “body doesn’t lie”. It’s important, therefore, to understand what we “telegraph” out to others through our non-verbal communication and energy and the impact it has.
And, it’s equally important to understand what our bodies are telling us. Knowing things like we are getting impatient when we suddenly hear ourselves speaking louder or faster can help to keep a meeting going wrong get back on track and course correct.
Morris: How to best shape the consideration about presence in one’s organization?
Su: Organizations can begin by helping their folks understand why having an effective presence is important especially as one transitions into broader and bigger roles. At a certain point, technical or functional skill alone is not enough to get the job done – working well with others, leading teams, and influencing laterally or even globally across an organization are all requirements in today’s more matrixed, complex world.
Organizations can help to shape the discussion about presence, by not making it just about the superficial pieces of your appearance or making it one-dimensional. Our hope is that folks recognize that presence embodies the full person – their mindset, their communication skill, and their physical energy – and should be approached in this integrated way.
Additionally, organizations can go a long way to building their leadership bench by not dismissing folks who may be “diamonds in the rough” and assuming that you’re either born with presence or you are not. An authentic, connected presence is something we believe all people have the potential for.
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Amy and Muriel cordially invite you to check out the resources at these websites:
Isis Associates home page
Amy’s Amazon page
Muriel’s Amazon page
Their HBR blog