Seeking That Elusive “Executive Image”? Polish Up Your Interpersonal Skills

This post is part of the Executive Image series started by Daria (aka @MominManagement). I am honored that she invited me to participate along with her and five other amazing women. For more about the series, visit Daria’s website, MominManagement. 

A one-size-fits-all definition of “executive image” would be so nice. Instead we’re left to decode the shifting sands of “I’ll know it when I see it.”

We get it that executive image is hooked to  our attire and our self-confidence.  

It’s our interpersonal skills, however, that take us to the next level.  Why? Because they’re how we engage others and build the relationships we need to influence and lead, precisely what executives are expected to do. 

Be easy company. 

Interpersonal skills are what we use to connect with people. This isn’t just about the way we act in front people: It’s how we engage them. 

I was a high school teacher before I started my management career at a male-dominated, Fortune 500 energy company. Transitioning from the classroom to a cubicle was an out-of-body experience. I knew nothing about how “corporate types” conducted themselves or their business. 

What I did know was that successful school teachers relied on flexible interpersonal skills to deal with students, parents, administrators, and other teachers. That meant sensing someone’s needs, using the right language at the right time, knowing when to reach out or back off, understanding when to smile and laugh and when to be silent. 

I’d brought those skills to my corporate job, and they worked there too, loosening up coworkers and managers who wondered why their company would’ve hired a school teacher.  

I wanted to make it easy for people to talk to me. So I’d ask questions, express gratitude for their time, and invite them to my programs. Their response was great. 

And then this happened: My boss got a memo from his boss, the department manager, about a program I was working on. The last line was completely off topic. He wrote: “Does Dawn have to be friendly with everyone?” 

My boss was shocked, but our answer was the same: “Sure. Why not?” 

There’s a difference between being friendly and being friends. I opt for using interpersonal skills in ways that make us approachable and easy to do business with, even when we don’t agree. Friendship is a bonus. 

Keep your interpersonal skills polished  

Here are 10 interpersonal skills I consider most important to building an executive image no matter where you work: 

  1. Greeting people in a way that clearly shows you “see” them; shake hands when appropriate
  2. Smiling and opening up informal conversation
  3. Asking questions that start substantive dialogue
  4. Demonstrating patience and respectfulness
  5. Listening actively to all points of view
  6. Bringing people together to resolve differences and get things done
  7. Offering praise and recognition; expressing appreciation and gratitude
  8. Showcasing a consistently positive demeanor
  9. Demonstrating a sense of humor at the right time
  10. Defusing criticism and complaining 

We need to adapt our interpersonal skills to be effective with different people and situations. That means tailoring what we say and do when we’re:  

  • Attending a staff meeting or a board meeting
  • Meeting a new colleague or a vendor
  • Leading a grievance meeting or union negotiation
  • Facing our detractors or our fans
  • Delivering a presentation or attending training 

The pay off 

There is the misconception that building our executive image is about showcasing our interpersonal and other capabilities to executives. Actually, our executive brand emerges from what others say about us—our employees, coworkers, customers, and vendors.

From the beginning of my career, I simply wanted to be taken seriously and to influence decision-making. I never aspired to any position.  In time, however, I was promoted to increasingly higher level jobs, until I was a director, considered executive level. That still amazes the school teacher in me!

Along the way I tried to demonstrate my regard for the value of every person in every job. Through them I learned that “executive image” comes from the people across all levels of our companies who give voice to our authenticity. The rest takes care of itself.