At one point, I had the chance to work with a senior executive who was a rising leader, affable, smart and organizationally savvy. He also fit a profile that I will for shorthand label Frat Boy: outgoing almost to excess, happy to be outrageous, no enemy of beer and wine at company events, and largely unapologetic of any offense given.
Ed. note: The label is admittedly stereotypical and does not apply to all fraternity members. Some of my best friends were fraternity members who were mature. But we all know who I’m talking about.
He was a natural leader in the sense that people liked to follow him—even follow him around, if only to see what would happen next. As his communication advisor, I quickly learned that he provided any number of . . . challenges. And as he became more involved in areas like talent management and workforce diversity, his limitations became alarmingly real.
In one promotee reception, he acknowledged each individual with a reference to their home countries—some of which he had visited—and a joke about their backgrounds, to reassure everyone that he understood their cultural traits. Everyone forced a smile, but no one was laughing. Another time, he started a media interview by praising the appearance of the female reporter and comparing her attractiveness to, let’s just say, a comedienne not famed for her “attractiveness.” My team and I guessed that things like this used to be funny back in the old Rathskeller. Now how to get him moved forward a few decades?
This is a situation drawn in broad strokes, but ever since I encountered it, I’ve been involved in smaller-scale versions of it again and again. It’s what happens when old insensitivities meet new contexts. It’s tempting to say this is chiefly an issue with white males, though my experience is that all kinds of people have sizeable blind spots that need to be filled in.
What do you do? You find the right way to reflect back to leaders the effect of their words and actions so that they can freely choose how they’d prefer to present themselves going forward. It takes trust and confidence on the part of both coach and client.
Happily, Frat Boy also had a strong, personal commitment to self-improvement. Over time, he figured out how to self-regulate and get a feeling for his audience but not lose some of his natural roguishness. It proved to be an extremely winning combination for him personally and professionally.
Executive presentation is a pillar of strong organizational communication—whom do you know who could use some help?