The Art of Impression Management with Senior Executives

Yolanda Yu Executive Coach Career Coach Impression management

For many, interaction with senior executives can feel terrifying. When you are asked to “increase visibility by senior leaders,” it is either you are being groomed for higher positions or taking on important roles in the organization. And you do know that such interactions can be hugely beneficial for your career. But you may not feel prepared for this ordeal. “What will they think of me? What if I leave a bad impression?”

I’ve been there before. In my imagination with the same irrational fear, senior executives looked like dangerous species. And today I have coached and worked with C-Levels from listed companies and no longer feel a hint of unease about the role they hold. I have surely learned a thing or two in this journey, at least in working with my own anxiety.

They Are Human Too!

We can hold a lot of assumptions about the senior executives.

They are sharp and want to focus on strategic things. They can be impatient, quick to judge, or even abrasive.

Some of these are true – senior executives do operate with a limited attention span, and you don’t want to waste their time. But it does not automatically mean that they are all short-tempered. I have seen young professionals with 4-5 years of experience who are quick to judge and abrasive. I have also met calm, patient high achievers who lead large organizations.

Drop that stigma of senior leaders being extra-demanding. Just think of them as anyone you would interact with. If the senior executives can be demanding value from your conversation, so does an average stakeholder you work with on a day-to-day basis. But just as a Finance Director would ask for different things from you from the PR Lead, the work a C-level person does would mean they need different things from you, too.

Work on Preparation, Not Perfection

Sometimes, we feel the need to have everything ready on our fingertips, or tongue tips, with zero error or “err.” Striving for excellence and perfection is a religion in some organizations and for some leaders. The truth is, we can strive for perfection while still allowing and accepting the possibility of making mistakes. The expectation of “zero-mistake” does not do a good service to us. We freeze. We lose confidence. We forget things that we knew well. We end up disappointing not only the senior executives we want to impress but ourselves.

Remember? You are a human, too. You can only be who you are, what you know, at this current moment. The beautiful thing is that you will evolve. And if you unfortunately really bomb something and leave a negative impression on the senior leaders, it’s not the end of the world. Memory fades. Impression evolves.

You may argue that a bad impression may be carried forward and hard to counter. But by then, there is nothing you can do about a past incident that you had tried your best to avoid. You can only look forward. The good news is that impressions are NOT final. Rarely any impression is that irreversible.

Relax. Do your best. And know that it’s ok to not be perfect.

If we don’t dwell on the terrifying image of the senior leaders, or the nerve-wracking pressure of perfection, we can finally focus on our preparation.

Devil in the Details or Details the Evil?

What does my CEO want to hear? It’s often a myth and a confusing picture. They seem so unpredictable – sometimes they forbid people from going into details, and sometimes they probe into details too much. Am I supposed to talk about the big picture or details, then?

All good communications offer clarity on the big picture level while providing necessary details. You need to be both. Be clear about your point in a structured way and offer good details that aid understanding and bring colour. The same applies to the content you need to talk about. Just like in any other scenario, think about what your audiences care about and need to hear.

Despite the often-perceived competence in senior executives, being amazingly smart and sharp, they don’t know it all. And they can be poorly informed of details in your world. You are the only true expert in your own right, and you need to find a way to impart that expertise to others without providing overwhelming details. Develop an interface between both your world and their world by understanding what they know and what you know.

Work on Impact, not Impression

Don’t just rely on the company newsletter. Read business news and try to interpret the world from their lens. What do you think of a major event if you were a senior leader for your organization? What would you care?

Your true purpose is to offer insights only you can, given the unique exposure your work gave you, and the unique thinking and learning capabilities you own as a person. Your true purpose is to create a bigger impact through your sharing in the encounters with an influential person.

Watch how your self-interest in “leaving a good impression” can prevent you from connecting with your true purpose. Have confidence and conviction in the things you know.

And when you genuinely connect with your purpose, you will inspire not only possibilities to connect meaningfully but also continued dialogues and initiatives.

After all, between impact or impression, what would you want to choose?

Working Through Your Own Anxiety

Imagine you are a dancer on the stage.

There are many VIPs in the audience seat. What do you do? Do you allow the anxiety take over and you guess what the VIPs like while performing your every move? Or do you trust first, act with your expertise and authenticity?

When you fear being judged, trust first. When you fear your imperfection, dance nonetheless. Because not having that faith does not help.

Some Tactics of Impression Management

This requires a little bit of acting. You have no scripts, however. Acting is not necessarily faking. We all demonstrate different aspects of ourselves in different scenarios and with different people. Summon that part of you whom you want to attend the meeting – the humble diligent, or the charismatic changemaker.

You might think it sounds challenging. But we all do that. Think about your first date. And how you showed up at your interview or an important client meeting. It will come naturally, but good preparation helps. Breathe into your role. Stand tall, walk with your body open and relax. Dress up as your role needs. Some imitation also helps. Watch Youtube videos of how your role models speak and that can help you to get into your role.

But don’t fake it. All the skills in social interactions are not about faking who you are not. The skills are about releasing who you truly are. Have faith in your innate capability to connect with people.

Final Words

Work through your own anxieties. See the senior leaders as human and see yourself as human too. Embrace imperfection. Build the kind of connection between a human and another human. Focus on impact than impression.

portrait_Yolanda Yu_YL_r

Empowering Change From Within

Career & Leadership Coach, Start-up Mentor, and two-time Penguin Author, Yolanda has over 20 years’ corporate experience and served leadership positions in world top technology companies such as Alibaba, Visa, and Mastercard.

From software engineer to sales, headhunter, entrepreneur, to business leader in eCommerce and Fintech industries, Yolanda reinvented her career for countless times. She specializes in tailored coaching programs for professionals in the phases of career change and leadership transition.

Yolanda is particularly passionate about equipping technical leaders with leadership skills. She delivers leadership 101 courses through group coaching and 1:1 engagement.