The second topic in this year’s roundup is “Attentional Overwhelm.” Like executive presence, almost everyone I work with has to wrestle, in some way, shape or form, with the completely overwhelming stream of requests  and information coming his or her way on a daily basis.

Much of this can be attributed to omnipresent technology wreaking havoc on our brains. (For excellent coverage on this phenomenon, see Ed Hallowell’s 2005 article on “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.”)

In addition to endemic technology overwhelm, there is also a stealthy transition point in a career hallmarked by success. This largely goes unnoticed until individuals are held captive by the very thing that made them successful—saying yes. (Or, “Yes, please,” in the words of Amy Poehler).  In other words, success comes when one has been willing to stretch—to say yes—early and often. Successful individuals typically leaned in early in their careers and leaned in strong. For this, they were amply rewarded.

And then things change. And the very trait that made them successful becomes their undoing. As a result of saying yes too much, either their work or leadership suffers; or, their life as a whole starts to drain and punish rather than fuel and fulfill. When this happens, it’s critical to master two skills that assist in creating a career that is both a professionally rewarding and personally sustainable: saying ‘no’ and creating rock-solid work processes.

Mastering the No

Determining what is worthy of one’s time (your yesses) and what is not (your noes) requires fine discernment. Many struggle with saying no simply because they have very high levels of interest and enthusiasm. Some others still fear the well-known boogeyman named FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) or his evil twin sister FOBFO (Fear of Being Found Out). From fear, they say “yes” reflexively.

There is no better resource to mastering one’s noes than William Ury’s Art of a Positive No (Note: Ury is co-founder of Harvard’s Negotiation project and author of the better-known book Getting to Yes).

I won’t tax your attention spans by rehashing his points. Get the book. I use Ury’s frameworks all the time with clients as they first define their “yes” (e.g. what they are seeking to protect or change by saying no) and then create concrete strategies for saying “no.”

My single favorite strategy of Ury’s: “I have a policy.” As he so well describes, this flavor of “no” frames the limits you’re setting in terms of a broader policy of which your “no” is just one instance. It lets the requestor know this is an ongoing practice that you’ve thought through carefully and that your “no” is nothing personal. Let me give you an example of how I use this one (to protect clients’ innocence):

“Thank you so much for asking, but I currently only do volunteer work that can also involve my family.”

See how that works? I’m not turning you down when you request my time, I’m simply affirming a commitment that I’ve made to volunteerism within the context of family.  It’s a “positive no.”

Mastering Process  

Once one practices (again and again) the art of saying no, personal work processes must be mastered. Life becomes increasingly complicated as we age—i.e. if we are lucky, not only do our careers and opportunities expand, but so do our interests and commitments outside of work (to a family, for example; or to a “virtual baby”—as one of my clients brilliantly calls it—which may be a deep passion and interest outside of work that should also be honored). Simply hoping that things will fall into place or fit together doesn’t work.

David Allen, of Getting Things Done fame, is the undisputed master of systems that support executives and knowledge workers. In his work, he spells these systems out well and offers a wide range of  supports, including online webinars and in-person seminars. Highly recommended.

A dramatically simplified version of David Allen’s work, which I recommend to most of my clients (given their patience levels for a full-length book or webinars) is a very short e-book called Zen-to-Done (ZTD). ZTD was created by Leo Babauta through his Zen Habits Blog. Get it. Read it. Then apply one principle at a time and practice that single principle for a month before moving to the next. This single intervention will significantly upgrade your work processes.

Learning to say “no” with grace and ease and developing work processes are worthy goals, essential even, for the reasons described above. But, they do not happen overnight. I routinely tell people to plan on at least a year before things feel smooth and habitual for them. Once mastered, however, the rewards are great.

Next up? Final chapter in 2014 Round Up: Emotional Agility.

The first theme in the 2014 Round-Up, “Executive Presence,” is not a new topic this year (in fact, I reference it even here, in my highly sporadic blog). One’s executive presence, or lack thereof, is a combination of qualities that conveys to others that you are in charge (or can be/deserve to be). Executive presence is not a measure of performance or merit; it’s a measure of whether your performance and merit is telegraphed to others—whether your behavior and words signal that you have what it takes to make the tough decision, sit in the board room, take on the tough client, etc.

Because this area comes up so frequently in coaching, this past year I designed a new workshop (recently rolled out at Kellogg) entitled “Executive Presence: Deconstructing Gravitas.” I chose the word “deconstructing” because being told, or telling someone, that they need to “develop executive presence” is about as helpful as telling a writer that they need to “be more clear.”  The response? “Um. Ok…how do I do that?” The feedback must be deconstructed to be helpful.

The upshot? Executive presence is an equation involving credibility, ease, and ego:


Though I cannot condense hours of teaching into a simple blog post, I do want to offer a few solid resources that support exploration in each of these areas.

Credibility: I assume deep and broad experience and subject matter expertise in the executives I work with. If you (or those you are leading) do not have that—it is where you must begin.  Expertise is the entry ticket to the party–it’s what earns you the right to be concerned about communicating that expertise out. Once you have that, here are some easy-to-access resources on communicating expertise with credibility:

  • Leadership Presence by Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern has an excellent series of exercises that discuss voice, story and emotion and their role in effective presentations—(works for “ease” category as well)
  • Second City has a series of very popular classes for corporate audiences to refine their presentation skills. (note: Chicago local)
  • I frequently refer folks who need to work on this intensely to Turpin Communication, Speaker’s Choice, or the work of Rob Biesenbach.

Ease: Ease is a measure that combines the qualities of “grace under fire,” congruence, authenticity, and connection with others. There is so much interesting work in this field (and I will cover much more when discussing emotional agility in a later post). To get you started:

  • Exercise and sleep are among the most well-established interventions for overall physical and mental health—both of which are key for regulating stress, anxiety and reactivity–and developing “grace under fire.” If you need any convincing, read Spark by James Ratey, MD (Harvard). Another classic in the field is “The Making of the Corporate Athlete
  • Own the Room by Amy Jen Su and Muriel Wilkins—focuses on connection with other people and developing signature “style” with one’s presence

Ego:  Remember that Ego is the divisor in this equation. Reflect: what happens to your quotient when you divide a number by zero or a negative number? Answer: The quotient is zero or negative. We don’t want that; so, too low of an ego is a problem.

On the other hand, if you’re “over-ego’d” and have a very high number as a divisor, it cuts into your quotient as well. When working on ego issues, I like to call to mind Aristotle’s “golden mean” of “proper pride” (from book two of Nicomachean Ethics for those of you so inclined). You are going for a “+1” here—in other words, you believe you have something to bring to the table, but you also believe that others have something to bring too.

For those who need to tame outsized egos, see Robert Sutton (Stanford), The No A**holes Rule (2010) and “More Trouble than They’re Worth” (HBR 2004). I am also a huge fan of the classic Porras Article, “Level Five Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve.”

For those needing to amp up their ego from zero or a negative number, see:

My hope is that these resources are helpful to you and those you lead. Enjoy!

Next up in our 2014 Round Up: Attentional Overwhelm.

At the end of every year, I do a personal and professional step-back. Part of this process is hardwired, as I routinely do an “annual review” with clients and have led a half-day reflection retreat every December for the past five years. In order to prepare and to do those activities with integrity, I evaluate my own life and business as well.

From a business perspective, part of this process is identifying themes that have popped up again and again with clients. These, in turn, help me to see shifts in the workplace and how they are impacting the lives of executives. The topics then represent areas of additional research and teaching so I can best serve my clients.

For 2014, client engagements touched on a wide variety of topics, but three top themes appeared again and again:

1)   Executive Presence

2)   Time Management and Dealing with Overwhelm/Overload

3)   Emotional Agility

In the coming weeks, I will address each of these areas, sharing resources that my clients found helpful as they made progress in these arenas.  My hope is that this series will be helpful to you as you do your own “step back” and development planning this year.