Self-Managing Your Personal Presence in the Boardroom

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We can’t solve all problems or answer all questions about how to self-manage emotions and cultivate leadership presence in one brief article. But I do examine some important basics, and I offer 5 practical tips cultivating your own practice of leadership presence.  

The Situation

Join me in an act of imagination: It’s your turn on the agenda. Others have run over and time is short. Your anxiety level is high. It shouldn’t be. After all, you know the business and your material. You’re articulate and able to hit a curve ball in most situations. But this is critical. You’re facing board directors. You don’t get these opportunities often to interact with them, to demonstrate your competence.

Upon reflection, you know that you worry too much. You’ll usually do better than you thought you might have. But you’ve also known what it’s like to hesitate too long, momentarily freeze, and be at a loss for words. It’s an issue you must resolve. Having confidence and dealing with these moments is important. Your career trajectory is on the rise. You want to be a C-level executive.

The Issue

Note that this issue is not about preparing for the board meeting (or any other important meeting for that matter). It’s about responding in the moment to acute levels of felt stress or anxiety due to what’s happening in the room. That’s what creates the pressure. It’s real. The subjective feelings of anxiety are data; they’re telling you that there’s something to worry about. But what is it?

It could be concerns about how you’ll be seen by important others. It could be concerns over getting the message right for fear of the consequences of getting it wrong. It could be uncertainty about what to do in the shortened time available to you. Whatever it is, there’s a felt loss of control over how things may turn out, and why wouldn’t that warrant concern and make us anxious?

So, the basic question concerns how to regain a sense of control, i.e., an internal locus of control versus feeling controlled by the situation. The sense of control is not contingent solely upon what’s happening out there, in the room. Locus of control is psychological term. It refers to how our ways thinking, feeling, and behaving contribute to a sense of being in control.

But the control we’re speaking of is hardly ever absolute. Rather, we must usually be willing to settle for is a sense that we can influence what happens in the situation. And this influence begins with what’s going on in our own mind and our own relationships to the events and people and proceedings in the room. So, with those qualifications in mind, let’s consider how might we regain control.

A Solution Strategy

If the agenda is coming around to you and you are feeling acute anxiety when it arrives, part of what your anxiety may be telling you is “It’s your turn to lead and you’re not ready, you’re not positioned to lead.” So, how do you get yourself positioned to take the lead? What must you do to claim leadership and play this role, at this time, under these circumstances?

Here’s a step-wise behavioral strategy for claiming your leadership role and asserting your presence in the boardroom:[1]

Notice – This kind of situationally contingent anxiety seldom arises without some notice. Our feelings parallel our expectations in this regard.[2] A meeting agenda and purpose is set, players convene around the table, and the process proceeds. Things proceed on-track or go off-track, on time or with fruitless or time-consuming digressions. And on each occasion that we diverge from our purpose or mismanage our time, worries arise. Absent a course-correcting intervention, these worries grow. The sooner we notice these feelings, the sooner we can begin adaptively coping with them.

Breathe – The starting point of self-management is turning attention to our breath. Worries constrict us. Breathing quickens, becomes shallow. Our body tenses. Thinking narrows, is less flexible. Emotions and mood turn negative and reactive. But by bringing attention to breath and upright posture, we stop this spiral. Opening our chest and shoulders, we allow a fuller, deeper in-breath. Then following the out-breath all the way out and to a pause, another now-moment begins. Mind and body are calmed, mind is more available for the purposes at hand, i.e., connecting with the present and finding a path forward. 

Reframe – And this is where you slow down to speed up – breathing makes this paradoxical action and its transformational effects possible. Now, it’s time to speak what you experience: Thank your colleague for the hand-off. Share your impressions of where you’ve been, where you are, and where you might go next to realize your shared purposes in this meeting. Watch, listen, and adaptively respond by proposing and then pursuing next steps. Your reframe is not merely cognitive; it’s also attitudinal and motivational – “Let’s get on with it. Let’s get something important done.” But without a frantic rush.

Practical Tips for Acquiring Competence

  1. Begin by experimenting with this 3-step intervention in lower-risk situations. You can try it at home, and you can try it in lower-level meetings at work – it will be helpful in these places too.
  2. Learn some simple mindfulness methods like the 3-minute breathing space. You’ll discover that even a 1-minute breathing intervention can help you position yourself to “take the lead.”
  3. Treat your anxiety as a friend and source of information. You need not remain anxious to use your feelings as cue for turning to your breath, adaptively regaining your internal locus of control.
  4. If your baseline level of anxiety is a bit elevated as a function of temperament or personality, try using the 3-minute breathing space 4-5 times per day to arrest any growing spirals of anxiety.
  5. To further cultivate skills of self-management that promote effective leadership presence, consider a psychologically-based coaching engagement to tailor and sustain your adaptive growth.

[1] This three-step strategy is illustrative. It addresses the basics of how an individual leader might handle this issue. In a personal coaching relationship, we can always do more to tailor strategies to the person and situation.

[2] If one is more anxious by disposition and/or has acquired a chronic anticipatory anxiety about speaking and performing in a boardroom, he/she may need a bit more individual help to tamp down these dispositional tendencies. That’s not the sort of situationally contingent anxiety I’m intending to address in this article.