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Kristi Hedges: An interview by Bob Morris

Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author. In her 20-year career working with leaders to help them communicate more effectively she’s encountered every personality type imaginable, yet remains more than a little passionate that anyone can learn presence. Her workshops and leadership coaching programs have been utilized by CEOs and teams of all sizes in companies spanning the Fortune 500, government, non-profit and privately held businesses. She runs her own coaching practice, The Hedges Company, and is a founding partner in the leadership development firm, Element North.

Kristi blogs on leadership for, created and penned “The Leadership Factor” column for She’s been featured in publications such as Washington Post, Reuters,, and She’s been honored as one of the “50 Women Who Mean Business in Washington, D.C.” and as an owner of a top 25 Largest Women-Owned Businesses by the Washington Business Journal.

Prior to becoming a leadership coach, Kristi co-founded and ran one of the first technology communications firms in the Washington, D.C. area for a decade before successfully selling her interest. Her career highlights also include working for a national news outlet, and as a political consultant for dozens of electoral campaigns from U.S. President to statewide offices.

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Morris: Was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) years ago that set you on the career course that you continue to follow? Please explain.

Hedges: I’m not sure there was one point, but rather many that directed me in my career. As an entrepreneur, leadership was my constant puzzle that was always studied, toyed with, improved, and yet unsolved. It became my passion, and that led me to become a leadership coach after I sold my interest in my last company.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education proven invaluable to what you have accomplished thus far?

Hedges: I have two degrees in communications, and my masters is in political communication and persuasion. They’ve both influenced my career, but as I wrote The Power of Presence, I realized that my graduate research provided a framework for many of the ideas I had about interpersonal communication and influence. In a way they were so embedded in my strategies, I had forgotten they were there.

Morris: What do you know now about the business world that you wish you knew when you completed your formal education and first went to work full-time?

Hedges: I wish I’d had a better sense of when to push and when to let things play out. I was very ambitious, impatient and worked my tail off — but I lacked perspective. I often underestimated how much time it takes to get the big picture. I knew the power of relationships, but I wish I would have developed deeper ones and asked for mentorship.

Morris: Opinions are divided (sometimes sharply divided) on the importance of charisma to effective leadership. What do you think?

Hedges: I actually hate the topic of charisma in leadership! I just don’t find it helpful. It makes those who don’t consider themselves charismatic (and frankly, few do) feel powerless to become stronger leaders. If you need to have this innate quality, why bother trying?

Jim Collins introduced the “hedgehog” style of leadership in Good to Great, as the most successful one. I agree with him. Great leaders can be charismatic, but it’s not a requirement.

Morris: However different the greatest leaders throughout history may be in most respects, what do all of them share in common in terms of their presence?

Hedges: Great leaders care deeply about the larger cause, whether it’s saving the environment or launching a company. They are passionate and know how to communicate their commitment to others. In my opinion, there is no substitute for a fire in the belly.

Morris: I don’t know about you but most (if not all) of the most valuable life lessons I have learned were from failure, not success. You have observed a countless number of people who do or don’t possess highly-developed personal presence. Here’s a two-part question. First, what are the most valuable lessons to be learned from those who do?

Hedges: People with great presence have an ability to relate to others. There’s an openness there, an authentic connection, and trustworthiness. They make others feel “more than” rather than diminished, even from a short conversation.

Morris: From those who do not possess a highly-developed personal presence?

Hedges: Many times a weak presence comes from being overly guarded or perfectionistic. If we don’t know someone or they’re intimidating, we can’t relate. To have presence, you need to blend your competency with your humanity. You can be powerful and still be a real person.

Morris: I have never been physically present in an audience to which Steve Jobs spoke but I have probably seen most (if not all) of the films of him in action. In your opinion, why was he an “insanely great” public speaker?

Hedges: Steve Jobs staged every speech down to the smallest detail. He was meticulous about how he communicated. Anyone who takes their communication that seriously is going to be good. However, Jobs’ greatness came from his authentic passion for Apple products. He knew how to use his own excitement to tap into the energy of others. He also knew that speeches should be about an experience, not words on a screen. He make the audience part of the conversation, not merely observers.

Morris: Through your association with The Hedges Company and Element North, you have helped numerous companies to improve their leadership development programs. Presumably you begin each new relationship with a situation analysis. What are you most eager to learn that you did not already know? Why?

Hedges: I always start with gathering the impression of leadership from the broader company. Leaders set the tone and cement the culture. If they are seen as uncaring or incompetent, that has to be addressed first. No leadership program will work if there’s a fundamental problem at the top. It’s always interesting to juxtapose those findings against what a company’s leadership believes their impression to be. If there’s a disconnect, that’s a red flag.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Power of Presence. When and why did you decide to write it?

Hedges: I had been advising around the issue of presence throughout my career but from different angles. My career includes campaign politics, public relations and leadership development. I ran my own company for more than a decade and used many of my own strategies personally so I knew what worked, and what was hard no matter what you tried. My coaching clients often asked for a resource so they could refer back to it, and I decided to share my experiences in a book.

Morris: What is intentional presence? What isn’t it

Hedges: Intentional presence is being conscious of the narratives you carry in your head, and making sure they are aligned with your goal rather than being destructive deterrents. For example, if you want to be a forceful presence in meetings, having a latent intention of “I’m not taken seriously” will be a derailer. Instead, determine how you want to show up, and develop an intention that aligns your thoughts with your actions. In this example, it might be “I have an informed perspective to share.”

Morris: When did you first realize the potential power of intentional presence?

Hedges: I learned it during my training as a coach at Georgetown University. Coaches are attuned to the intentions of others, and learn how to identify their own. It’s part of being a capable coach.

Oddly enough, my first personal lesson with intentional presence came when I examined why I was such a poor golfer. I realized my competitiveness was creating an intention of “Don’t embarrass yourself.” You can guess what happened when I got on the course.

Morris: What about [begin] unintentional [end] presence?

Hedges: Most of us walk around with an unintentional presence. We may have a general concept of how we want to come across, but in the moment our ingrained thoughts easily take over. Only by stopping to notice what those thoughts are, and replacing them with a helpful intention, can you take control of that narrative.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read The Power of Presence, it has a number of especially intriguing titles. Briefly, please explain a few of them. First, “Your Actions Are Speaking So Loudly I Can Hardly Hear What You’re Saying.”

Hedges: When it comes to how others perceive us, our actions speak volumes. They are the proof behind what we say. However, when we practice for an important conversation, we practice words if anything at all. This is a huge oversight. We’ll be received with greater clarity if we practice how to have the conversation as well as consider what actions we should perform during and after it to underscore our goal. Words matter, but they are only part of the story.

Think of the example of a new corporate initiative. It can be rolled out with much fanfare and thoughtful message points. Employees though, look at the spokesperson to decipher how serious she is during the announcement. Afterwards, they look to see what actions or follow up are occurring. Only if they see real movement will they personally invest.

Morris: Also, “Go Ahead, Trip Over Your Owen Perfectionism”

Hedges: We spend an inordinate amount of time in our professional lives attempting to display a perfect image. We want to have the right answer, project equanimity, show strength under pressure, and minimize our weaker points. Ironically, however, rather than bringing people closer to us, perfection is alienating. Leaders who have a constant game face are intimidating. We can’t relate.

Connection is formed through showing competency alongside vulnerability. It’s important to let others know your struggles and to see your humanity as a leader. You can often inspire greater followership by using times you tripped up as examples to learn from. Plus, they make you a real person.

Morris: Next, “Trust: The Ultimate Gatekeeper”

Hedges: I spend the second part of the book talking about how to build personal connections with others that inspire followership. Trust is the gatekeeper to that connection. Without it, we don’t invest. Period. When leaders without trust talk to us, it’s like hearing the teacher on Charlie Brown. They may be stating words, but we’re listening to ourselves interpret their motives instead. If leaders want people to come towards them, they need to cultivate trust first.

Morris: Finally, “Strategic Shock Value and Other Ways to Create Shining Moments”

Hedges: To be a leader means you are visible. This can be through an official platform such as your job, or one that’s assumed if you stand out as a leader among equals. If you want to be seen as someone with presence, you must create those moments where you can get noticed for your ideas. I use the notion of strategic shock value because those with presence often are able to say what’s unsaid, or be bold enough to issue an opinion that rocks the boat. Part of having presence is being interesting. All professionals can look for time to elevate their platform even during their workdays. Meetings are a prime example of this. You don’t need to be the CEO to find a platform to elevate your visibility.

Morris: Which “pregame rituals,” by what repeatable process, can someone prepare for a high-pressure situation such a presentation to a large audience? Is there a “zone” for such situations as there is in competitive sports?

Hedges: Pregame rituals are similar to those that athletes use to prepare. It’s a repeatable process that calms nerves, increases focus, and puts you in the frame of mind that you want to convey. Everyone’s pregame ritual is unique.

In the book, I used the example of how I prepared for business development meetings. I never wanted to go in conveying nerves or anxiety, so I would use the car ride over with my team to play music, tell jokes, or bond. That way when we walked in, we would be laughing and full of energy. It created a great impression and showed the energy we would bring to the account.

Morris: I think your discussion of different types of [begin italics] empathic leaders [end italics] is really quite clever. For those who have not as yet read the book, please explain briefly the defining characteristics of these five. First, The Coach

Hedges: First let me point out that the reason I painted different portraits of empathetic leaders was to point out that they often come in shapes far from the prototypical “group hugger.” There’s not one way to be empathetic, so readers may be closer to that ideal than they realize.

The coach, as the name implies, operates like a sports coach. She shows empathy by a mixture of tough love and strong support, and pushes you because she sees the best in you.

Morris: Next, The Mentor

Hedges: The mentor makes you feel that your success is always top of mind, and that he has your back to guide you along in your career. He’ll act as a confidante as you hash through ideas and won’t hold it against you as you iterate. He’s done well and operates from a point of helping others do the same.

Morris: Next, The Truth Teller

Hedges: Truth tellers believe that you treat employees as adults and free agents who have a right to hear it straight. She doesn’t sugar coat as a matter of principle, and can be counted on to let you know what you’re doing well and where you can improve. You always know where you stand.

Morris:  Next, The Buddy

Hedges: The buddy eschews hierarchy as a structural imperative. He wants to be considered a colleague first and foremost and as someone who stays in the trenches. He frequently socializes with the team and can easily approach others with feedback as part of daily interactions.

Morris: Finally The Relater

Hedges: Relators have an intuitive ability to grasp the emotions of others. Whether from personal experience or keen observational skills, they tap into the hopes and fears of those around them and relate what they see to their own experience. They are self-revealing through shared stories. Even if you don’t know them personally, you feel that they get you in the abstract, and you know what they’re about.

Morris: Thomas Edison once observed, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” You have much of great value to say about visions and visionaries, especially in Chapter 10. In your opinion, what is the best process by which to complete the transition from having a vision and making it a reality?

Hedges: Developing the vision is usually the most fun part, and frequently leaders take the “let it be said; let it be done” approach. We know from experience though, that for a vision to stick it must be kept active, shared frequently, and internalized by the wider group. This requires having a process for keeping it alive and relevant, including a communications plan. For many leaders this feels like hard work! It is, and it’s critical work too.

Morris: Why do you attach so much importance to making declarations?

Hedges: Declarations are the act of saying “I (or We) will do X.” We all have the ability to make them — leaders and non-leaders alike. Most don’t. Instead we make watered down declarations that hedge our bets, such as “If everything goes well, we may do X.” Not too inspiring, right?

When people make bold declarations they increase their presence and stature. Others orient themselves differently around them. They inspire us. We’re rooting for them to succeed.

Morris: What is the relevance of possessing intentional presence to productive participation in social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, MySpace, Ning, Google Plus+, and Tagged?

Hedges: Your presence on social media should match — and not conflict with — your offline presence. Social media is still the wild west of presence, and there’s confusion galore. People aren’t sure how personal to be in a relaxed medium, and may feel there’s an anonymity that’s actually not there at all.

My general rule is if you wouldn’t say it offline, don’t say it online. And if you’re worried your colleagues may see it and feel differently about you, don’t put it on social media. Be intentional about the brand you communicate in all aspects.

Morris: Again, for those who have not as yet read the book, how can the I-Presence Prep Guide (in Chapter 11) help your reader to bring all of the key components together (i.e. intention, physicality, language, and connection) to create “presence in a pinch”?

Hedges: I put that in the book to create a reference guide for readers. I knew that when there was an actual event on hand, it may be hard to remember what was read months or years ago. This is something that can be pulled out as an in-the-moment guide to prepare, and show, your strongest presence.

Morris: You conclude the book with six specific “pieces of advice” that, hopefully, will help your reader to “hang in there” while attempting to strengthen personal presence. Which of the six do most people seem to have the greatest difficulty following? Why?

Hedges: One of my pieces of advice is to “Take it easy on yourself.” Undoubtedly this is simpler to advise than do, but it matters on many levels. We all want to do well, and be successful. Because presence can feel so personal, our expectations for ourselves are very high. But getting there is going to entail some failures and mistakes. Our presence increases when we embrace our weaknesses as learning experiences, and get back up to fight another day. Plus, we notice far more about our own mistakes than others do. It’s important to give our best effort, and to recognize what is, as my 6-year-old says, one of the “Oh Wells” of life.

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Kristi Hedges cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

You can also follow her on Twitter @kristihedges.


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