The art of Managing Up and Executive Presence

Zoa Norman, Director of Client Success at ADP

This week we have our conversation with Zoa Norman.  Drawing on her role as the Director of Client Success at ADP, Zoa walks us through her strategies for bringing out the best in individuals and teams.  She illustrates that understanding what motivates individuals is a powerful way to create positive change and boost team performance.  Zoa also will demonstrate the art of managing up through concise communication, observing reactions, and asking for feedback.  You will also hear about the habits that have helped Zoa be successful and her advice for up-and-coming leaders.


Brown: Welcome to the Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. This is Solveig Brown, and I am thrilled to have Zoa Norman as my guest today. Zoa and I will be talking about executive presence and specific techniques that people can use to expand their executive presence. Zoa will also share some of her tips on being a better communicator and presenter, as well as advice for managing up. We will also cover many other great topics.


Before we begin, I would like to give you all a little background information on Zoa. Zoa is the director of client success at ADP, a worldwide leader in human capital management. She has held executive leadership positions for organizations ranging from fifty million to twenty-six billion in annual sales. She is an expert in strategic and collaborative leadership and has helped organizations create high performing teams, accelerate sales growth, achieve profit and revenue turnaround, and increase retention. Zoa has served on several nonprofit boards and has been a dedicated mentor for Menttium since 2005. Welcome Zoa.


Norman: Thank you so much Solveig. I am honored that you asked me to participate in this podcast because, although this has become cliché, all these topics we will be discussing today are a journey. I don’t think any of us ever arrive at that perfect place where we give ourselves a hundred percent on all those things. The key thing that I like to remember is that it is okay if we make mistakes and fail along the way. I mention that because when you are working to build skills, it is important to remember that and that failing can lead you to that next success.


Brown: That is a great place to start because like you said, it is a journey. Every day gets a little better, every day gets a little different, and that is a good reminder that you don’t learn these skills overnight. They take a lot of practice and daily practice, and you may not get them all right at once. So, thank you for that.


Zoa, you have been a longtime mentor for Menttium, and you have also given back in so many other ways through your volunteer work and your involvement on various nonprofit boards. Why are you so passionate about mentoring and giving back?


Norman: From a personal perspective, it is in my DNA. My father was a pastor and so was his father, and so I was raised with, that’s just part of what you do. You give back and you help others. I learned early on that that also gave me a sense of joy and fulfillment. That is my personal perspective on it. From a business perspective, I have learned that you hear the expression, if you can help others get what they want, you will get what you want. It is bigger than that. If I can understand what motivates people, what they are really working to do, and their skills, then as a leader I can help them be successful. Those relationships, whether it is formal mentoring or not, have been lifetime relationships and close friendships for me. When people say, what are you the proudest of? It is the career success that Rob has had or the career success that Sandy has had and that small part that I may have played in it is what drives me to get up in the morning.


Brown: That is a great perspective. I love how you talk about the joy of helping others, the joy of being able to give back, and the family messages around that. That is what you do. You help lift other people up as part of your journey. In your work mentoring, you are committed to people development and helping people realize an easier path to success. Can you tell me more about your leadership style and how you bring out the best in those around you?


Norman: Sure, and I would put this in the context of most of my roles have been turnarounds or startups. Either way, I have never been assigned to an organization or a mission where everything was going beautifully and everyone was a high performer, so that is the lens with which I come today. My perspective is that what is important to meet the goals of the organization is to understand first how each person can contribute, what are their individual skills. Typically, I have one-on-one meetings with key leaders in the organization, and then I may have some small group meetings, from two to four people. We talk about what their role is, why they like it, why they don’t like it, what their skills are and what they want to achieve and why. I will give you a couple of examples because that is easier to relate to.


This was years ago, but I was assigned to open a market for a large corporation. It was a brand-new market, and I was given a few people to help me. I fondly look back and call it the bad news bears team because most of them had been low at best performers for over five years. I met with each one of them, assessed what their skills were, and understood what they wanted. For example, one person who is in sales was never making his numbers. I learned that he had recently gotten married to a woman with a child, so they wanted to buy a home. He wanted to make sure that she did not have to work because they wanted to have another baby and he also wanted to go to our top summit recognition event within the company. It was an elite group that was awarded this, that is what he wanted. Sitting there that day listening to him, I could have laughed it off because there was nothing about his performance to date that indicated he could do that. But I understood what his skills were, what drove him, and two years later he did make that summit and received the recognition award. It was really based on recalibrating how he thought about what he was doing.


Then there was also someone that worked for me that was not performing. What I learned; he was not concerned about himself. He really cared about the team. He was the oldest child in his family, and that carried over and he was the big brother to everyone. He was able to get his performance to what was an acceptable level. He never went above that, but he never went below that. But what he did is really pull that team together so that we made our financial targets after 18 months, and this is a group of people that had never done anything like that before. It was great that we were number one in the market in the company, and it was wonderful that we made profit, revenue, client satisfaction, and client retention. But again, personally, what was gratifying was the team that we built and those relationships with people.


Brown: Yes, that is a powerful story showing how you can drive change within someone that drives change in the organization. You articulated well the value of understanding people, of talking to people, of seeing what their motivations are, seeing what their skills are, and you as their manager, coaching them and helping them figure out how they can best utilize those in the team. The stories you told are marvelous examples of how you can create tremendous success. Like in the first example, no one would have anticipated that as you told this story, which was a wild goal that person had. But lo and behold, it was achievable. It also shows the importance of not selling anyone short and bringing out the best in them so they can do their best.


Zoa, executive presence is a skill that many mentees would like to develop, and I know that you have helped countless mentees work on this skill in your mentoring partnerships with them. What techniques have you taught your mentees for how they can expand their executive presence?


Norman: First, I want to say it has dramatically changed over the past 18 months. Primarily because of the pandemic and we are all communicating on video. We don’t come across the same on video as we do in person. One of the things that I do, and this is difficult for people listening because they can’t see our verbal movement, but I have people role play with me. I reverse the role play and I play the part of how I have seen them interact and have them be the listener and observer of that. If you can ask someone that you trust, a peer, your manager, a trusted advisor outside of your organization, if you can ask them to do this with you, it is helpful.


One time when I did this really stands out to me because the CEO of this company had asked me if I would work with one of his senior vice presidents on her executive presence. I asked, can you give me any examples of what you think is difficult or what is not working? And he said, I don’t know, she is just goofy. I met with her, and the good news is she was receptive to some coaching. We did the role play and she had no idea that here was this person that was incredibly accomplished, had all this talent and knowledge, and she showed up and some of the things she would do would be slumping down in her chair and laid back, if you will. She listened and then she practiced. She had to testify in front of a government agency and believe it or not, even in that high-risk situation, she decided to try out what we had worked on, and she did.


The other thing is the art of the pause, and this is one of the single most important things you can do. I say that because I have a softer voice. You want to make sure that you speak slowly enough and articulately enough so that people think what you are saying is important. If you think it is important and you are taking those split second or longer pauses, the listeners are going to be attentive and so you have their attention. But sometimes there is a moment where you don’t know what to say. You don’t know how to respond. You think you should have the answer, and you need a little bit more brain time to come up with that.


One of the things that I find helpful is to repeat the question and say it slowly and then say, am I understanding that? If you are uncomfortable with what I am about to tell you, you can do what I first did when I started doing this and that was, I would have glasses on for this. At the time, I did not need glasses. I wore them for what I am about to tell you. But I would remove my glasses after I repeated the question, and I would put my head down for a minute, and then I would take a breath and I would respond. I still do that without the eyeglasses gesture, but it gives me that time to compose myself. Especially in situations where we are under a lot of pressure. It might be we are talking about a merger or acquisition; we are talking about something that is not going well, and opinions are quite diverse and there’s conflict. So that brings you that sense of I am the voice of reason, the voice of calm and I am going to help drive us toward change or resolution. Those are some of the things that I have found to be quite helpful.


Brown: That is great advice. I love physical cues and the art of the pause. I want to go in more depth on all of this. So, let’s go back to physical presence. You said people’s posture is important. When you slouched in your chair, your voice changed. I thought that was so interesting the way you spoke also changed because of your posture. For those of you just listening to this, I encourage you to go to the Menttium website, find the video clips of this, and you can see the visual of it as well. You are also an expert communicator, and you have talked about the art of the pause and how to give yourself time to think. Do you have tips for how someone can improve their verbal communication skills and how they can improve their presentation skills?


Norman: Yes, I have tips and some things that have worked for me and others, but I also want to say if this is the journey you are on, don’t go into it thinking you have to completely change your personality and not be authentic. I still throw in phrases from my Kansas upbringing that for a lot of people in the English-speaking world have never heard these phrases. Because I grew up in a small town in Kansas, it is a big part of me. When it makes sense, I will use one of those phrases. I only use that as an illustration so that you don’t forget you are in that conversation for a reason. It’s because you are you.


If you are struggling with getting your point across, one of the best things that you can do is join a Toastmasters group. There you get to give and receive peer feedback on your speaking and that includes your physical as well as your verbal. Another thing is Dale Carnegie has some excellent classes on confidence building, public speaking, etc. Again, it is more of a peer relationship you have with classmates, but I have seen people grow so much from both of those things. I think Dale Carnegie is a little bit more relaxed. Another thing is of course practicing in the mirror, but also asking people for feedback. After a meeting, select a few people including your boss and ask them, how did I come across? Did I make my point? Or I felt like I did a good job of articulating what we should do, but no one responded. Then three minutes later, somebody else said the exact same thing and everyone said that is a great idea, let’s do that. Why was I not heard? Do you have a sense of that? See what they say, because they noticed it, but they had the same reaction. Having that specific feedback can be helpful.


Taking that a step further and asking those same two or three people or person in the next meeting that you attend with them, let them know I am going to try some new types of communication. Would you be willing to give me feedback on whether you notice a difference from the last time we talked, was it improved, and be a bit of a guide and an advisor for me. Most people have, it is in their nature to want to help. They are also a little bit flattered that you ask them to be an expert for you and that helps tremendously.


I would end with, when I started in the industry I am currently in, it was quite different than my former industry. The dialogue in my former industry was sales and marketing people. We talked quickly; we talked fast. We said let’s do this, no let’s do this. Okay, I’m going to write it on the whiteboard. There it is, what do you think? That is what I was used to. I am now in an industry of HR and financial leaders who don’t speak like that, and I quickly learned when I took a sales role in this industry, that CFOs simply were shutting down because I was speaking so fast. Many times, especially if you are talking to a C-level person, they want a little time to process what you are saying. So I slowed my speech purposefully and that’s when I started practicing the art of the pause, and I noticed the same exact CFO or CIO reacted differently to the same words I’d said two months ago because I was speaking slowly and I was pausing both so that we could all think about our conversation, and so that they had a chance to respond. When you don’t do that, you might very well miss that brief second they need before they are going to tell you something that is a real nugget of helpful information.


Brown: Thank you for sharing that and for those specific examples of how you can continuously improve that by getting feedback from people and then how you can start looking at your own speech and noticing different reactions you get based on speed, pauses, and other things. You touched on talking to senior leadership and that is another area that many mentees are working on, which is their ability to manage up. What suggestions do you have for someone trying to learn how to manage up better?


Norman: The first thing that has been successful for me and many leaders that I interact with agree with this, open with what you want. That is your lead. You don’t need to lead up to it because you can lose your audience. So, start with, I would like to get your opinion on X, or would you be willing to X, or will you approve X? Then following that, very succinctly list your supportive argument, and I don’t mean argument, but in the real definition it is argument because you are asking them for something, or you want them to walk away with something. Most conversations at a leadership level involve some level of persuasion. So, you want to lead with what you want and then many times I will write out over and over what my points are. I continue to cross that one out. That one really works. That one really is part of this one so that I can pare that message down to three to five bullets. I would say that is critical, especially with C-level executive communication, because they do not have a lot of time and trust me, they want you to get to your point. That is key for that type of dialogue.


The other thing is you want to watch for their cues because sometimes you ask them something and you don’t realize it, but they are not comfortable with that. You don’t know it beforehand, but it could be they are just not the right person. You thought they were, but they are not the right person you should be talking to about that topic. If you sense this unease, I would take a pause and ask about it. Is this something you would prefer that I speak to someone else about, is a good question to ask. Or is this a topic that it is not a good time to discuss? Would there be a better time? Because the reason could be something confidential and they don’t want to tell you what that is. So, you don’t want to get too specific.


The other thing is when the subject that you are asking them for feedback about is yourself and your career. I will give you an example. I was talking with someone, and she is aspiring to be at the C-suite level, and currently she reports into the C-suite. She felt she was going to get the job and it was a CFO job. I asked her if she had received feedback from the current CFO or the CEO about that. I said, are you sure you have their vote? She was not sure. In having a conversation like that, you want to let that person know exactly what you want. If this job were open today, would I have your vote? When you ask a question like that again, you pause.


Now there are some executive level folks who don’t want to have that type of conversation. It is too personal for them or too pushy because it could be a conditional yes and they don’t want to be the one to deliver the feedback. Leave that space open and if you sense that, then you can go to others and say, I had a conversation with the CEO, and it was an awkward conversation. Do you have any perspective that you could share with me so that I can keep growing my skill? I mention this because of the group we are talking to. I think most of us as part of our occupation are constantly focusing on growing and developing our career. That is a frequent conversation that most of us are having in getting that feedback, am I a good fit for this role that I aspire to? If not, can you give me some ideas of what the skill gaps are, what I need to make sure that I have achieved before applying for that again. That is just a piece of it, but I also thought it was relevant given who we are talking with today.


Brown: Yes, that is relevant. Thank you for sharing that advice and for giving specific examples of questions you can ask. People get nervous in the moment. You are talking to a senior leader and then suddenly you see that cue where you have said something and you’re like, oh my gosh, what did I just say? I like how you said, just go to these questions and if you have those in your back pocket, when you get into that situation, you can easily use them, even if you are under stress.


Throughout this I have heard the theme of the importance of getting feedback. For managing up, the importance of being specific about what you want and getting to the point. So, thank you for those many helpful things in one succinct answer. Zoa, we have time for three final questions. The first one is, do you have habits that you feel have contributed to your success?


Norman: I do. They change because I am the type of person that likes new things and I love change. But the first best habit I established consciously was listening to self-development experts and the way it worked out for my schedule; it was easiest to do that either while I was getting ready in the morning or while I was on my commute. Some of my personal favorites are still Anthony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Brian Tracy, and there are different reasons for why I like all these people, including Wayne Dyer. All of them bring something to, it does not matter what is going on, even though I have listened to that recording over and over and over, wherever I am at that time, I hear something different because I am relating to it based on what is going on in my life. I started doing this because I was in a difficult position where our sales team was struggling, and I felt like I had so much negative communication coming at me that I just wanted to balance it out to be neutral. It ended up with a far greater return than that.


The other thing that is helpful is attending what are now videos, which used to be in-person conferences with these speakers. Now they are typically one to two hours max because most of us are exhausted after two hours on video. But, learning from them and listening and practicing what they are talking about. I like to do this for a number of reasons. It takes me out of my day-to-day routine, so there are no stakeholders at all involved. I have no risk, and so I can try things that are easy to try. Most of these type of webinars are structured so that you have breakout groups. I find that everyone is in the same place. We all want to learn and grow. We all want to improve our skills. So, it is a comfortable safe place to do that.


The other thing that everybody talks about and that is important, especially right now during this pandemic, with racial unrest, and all the things going on, is take care of yourself. But there is no one size fits all. We are all different. For example, jogging to me is the most tortuous thing I could imagine, but I love swimming and I love walking, it really helps clear my head. Whatever your outlet is, make sure you have one and do something every day, even if it is only for 10 or 15 minutes. I know a lot of people say, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. But there are those of us whose job does not accommodate it. As you introduced me, we are a global company and so I speak with people all over the world, which usually spans 18-hour time zones. So that does not work for me. But I decided to accommodate that I could find a break in my day where I could take a 20-minute nap. I don’t apologize or tell anybody I’m doing it. I just block my calendar that I’m busy. That is really refreshing to me, and I drink a lot of water.


The other thing is making sure I am constantly practicing these skills that we are talking about. If I feel I have not really had one of those difficult conversations in a while, evaluate is there an opportunity where that would be valuable? Then reading, and not just reading business books or self-development, but it is equally helpful to read, I like to read a fiction book once a month. The reason I say that is important is because that is something that simulates the creative juices in your brain, and that is what helps us solve problems, find difficult solutions, and move our organization forward. Another thing would be art. That also does that, whether you are an artist or not. One of the things that is popular now, I call it doodling, only it is not where we used to just doodle on our paper freeform. Now you can buy these great graphic designs and fill them in with colors. And music, whether you participate or listen. Those are also good things that help me make sure that I am always present.


Brown: Zoa, thank you for sharing. Those are all good ideas for that theme of continuous learning, continuous growth, and prioritizing taking care of yourself, prioritizing replenishing, and refreshing yourself in whatever way that might be for you and finding that personal fit that works for you. What would your advice be to up and coming leaders?


Norman: It is a great opportunity to share what my favorite boss I have ever had told me. His name was Bob Gibbs and he passed away last year, which is specifically why I said his name because I want to give him credit for what he told me. When he promoted me for the first time into a leadership role, I asked him if he had any advice for me, and he said, “just remember Zoa, not everyone is like you”. We talked about what that meant. As an individual contributor, I had been extremely competitive and a high-level performer, and my goal was to always be number one in everything. Many times, I was there, but always competing with the top five within that elite group of people. That is exactly what he meant; that is not who everyone wants to be. Not everyone is motivated to do that, and you need people that have other skills for a team to work. Look for what is the value and the contribution that each person can make and how you can work with them so that drives the overall organizational goals. You have noticed I focus a lot on people and individuals.


Sometimes if people know my background, they are surprised by that because it looks like a bunch of numbers, right? Profits increased, revenue increased, sales increased, things like that. That’s just a byproduct. The other thing is you don’t have to have consensus, but you do need buy-in. Without that, it is going to be difficult to achieve a goal. But I do think you get buy-in by understanding how each person can provide value. Finally, I always make sure that I tell people how each ask, each action that we are taking, how that fits in with the whole. One of my pet peeves is when leadership asks people to do something, and they refuse to tell them why it is important. Because that is what really drives people. Otherwise, they just feel like somebody dictated this to me, I am doing it because I have to. If you want to include them and get maximum productivity from them, you want to tell them how their role fits in.


Brown: Thanks for sharing that advice, and I can see how that advice you got early on in your career, you have continued to use that because it goes back to your answer of one of the earlier questions I asked you of how you develop people. You have figured out what they are individually good at, what motivates them. It is extraordinary how you have that follow through throughout your career of all these topics that we are talking about. So Zoa, I have time for one final question. Do you have a favorite saying, quote, or motto?


Norman: That’s a great one. Certainly, the quote from Bob Gibbs about “not everyone is like you” is probably my favorite. The other one is, I never know what someone else’s life is like right now. I say that because many times I hear people talk about a conversation they were in, and they are speaking negatively about it and how the other person came across or what they said. But you just don’t know what happened to them that day. This is a story from a Wayne Dyer talk where he said this father and five young children boarded the subway at 5:00 AM in New York. The teller of this story was on that subway. Hardly anyone was on the subway, it was a Sunday morning. The five children were unruly and disruptive, and the teller of the story talked about how it annoyed him and how frustrated he was, and he was mentally condemning the father for not being able to manage his children. The subway stopped and the father and the five children were exiting the subway and just before the father walked out, he turned and looked at the teller of the story and said, I want to tell you how much I appreciate your patience with my children and I this morning. We just left the hospital and their mother passed away.


I know that is a morbid story, but whenever I start to make a judgment about someone, and I don’t mean discussing information, but when I am forming a judgment where in my mind, I am thinking negative thoughts about that person, I am reminded of that story. It keeps me grounded that I may be having an experience with this conversation that I don’t care for, but that does not mean this person is a bad person. It does not mean anything. It just means right now in this conversation; something is not working. But it may not have anything to do with me. I realize that is not a quote, but.


Brown: No, that is a great example of the power of not making assumptions. A lot of times you think you might know what someone else is thinking or doing, but you do not know the circumstances to which any individual is responding at any time and giving that leeway for whatever that is.


Zoa, I cannot thank you enough for coming to talk to us on the Menttium Matters podcast today. Your advice has just been phenomenal. I have taken a page of notes and I can listen to this many times, but I appreciate what you said at the beginning that it is okay to fail. But the important thing is to practice and to keep making the small improvements. Keep making the incremental gestures, keep asking for feedback, keep developing, learning, growing, and keep giving back. Find that joy in helping others on your own journey. Thank you so much and thank you all for listening to this Menttium Matters podcast. We have many great episodes, and we look forward to seeing you all back next time.