Finding your own black turtleneck

Brunswick’s Jules Meadwell talks to leaders from executive coaching firm AGL. They say stop imitating Steve Jobs and start being yourself

Not everyone can be the unruffled and effective speaker that former US President Barack Obama is, or as compelling and convincing a salesman, in a black turtleneck, as Apple cofounder Steve Jobs was. Not everyone can appear as conversational and confident on social media as Elon Musk – who sounds casual even as he estimates the odds for the successful flight of a multimillion-dollar SpaceX rocket at “50-50.”

The genius behind those leaders is how much their styles are an extension of their personalities, says Aimee Heuzenroeder, an executive coach and senior associate for London-based AGL Communications Ltd. No one but Steve Jobs can be Steve Jobs – even with a black turtleneck. But like him, we can learn to feel comfortable in our own skin.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword,” says Ms. Heuzenroeder. “You want examples of exemplary and powerful communication, but the heart of our work is finding each individual’s authentic way of communicating. We’re not teaching you something; we’re exploring with you.”

That goal is what sets AGL apart from other executive consultancies, says CEO Dan Leatherdale. “What is important to us is to help people toward feeling and speaking as their true selves – to say what they mean and mean what they say.”

With a background in the arts, acting in particular, Mr. Leatherdale is driven by the power of words and stories to form connections. As an actor, he is focused on the audience’s perception.

“There’s a quote from the author Italo Calvino,” he says. “‘It’s not the voice that commands the story; it’s the ear.’ There’s a lot of carry-over from acting, regarding breathing, centering yourself, loosening tension. When people are nervous they tend to rush and emotions get lost. If the audience can see you experiencing emotion, it raises empathy and they’re much more likely to go with you on the journey.”

Most people naturally think they don’t need communications coaching, Mr. Leatherdale says. But they do see a need for leadership skills. “So we talk in terms of leadership, rather than communications. We explore constructing a personal narrative, connecting it to a personal purpose.”

Ms. Heuzenroeder, who also runs her own life and executive coaching consultancy, says that few people identify their own personal strengths and style by themselves. But she adds that even people who think of themselves a shy or introverted – “two very different things,” she says – can come to feel at ease by recognizing the constructive aspects of those traits.

“This offers a rare opportunity to put everything down, to stand back, to look at yourself and your work, to examine how you feel about it, what your relationships are, what you would like them to be. People very quickly start to enjoy it.”

Feeling exposed, people tend to appear stiff and guarded, a problem that increases with experience and responsibility. However less defensiveness allows you to be a better communicator and, paradoxically, to feel safer, she says.

“If you look at somebody like Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey, they wear their authority really, really lightly. There’s a cultural shift now, where less stiffness and guardedness have become a signal of the real power you have.”

After training, executives often say they pay more attention to others, she says. “A lot of what we do is supporting people to be curious about other people’s communication and to become skillful listeners.

“One of the simplest things is the ability to use silence. We tend to think that if we pause, people will suspect we’re lost, we don’t know what to say. But in fact, a good pause is a sign of authority – it increases the listener’s confidence in the speaker. It seems to snap everyone’s attention back to the speaker.

“When you’re in tune with your own strengths and style, and you’re aware of simple things like this, the audience really receives it. The experience can be utterly changed by little things.”