On this episode of Menttium Matters Podcast, Adam Dill broke down a common leadership challenge and provided a holistic perspective on what Executive Presence is and tips on how to lead with authenticity, decisiveness, and most importantly influence and inspire the people around us. Click to listen to practical tips on being an effective leader and influencing change, even if you are a self proclaimed introvert.
Cummings-Krueger: Welcome everyone to Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. For today’s episode, we are going to focus on a skill which is highly valued and yet often misunderstood, executive presence. With a typically murky definition and secret code reputation, it is a topic that benefits by shining a light on it. We are going to discuss what executive presence is, and how we can strengthen our ability to project it. For those of you who attended our recent business education webinar which focused on this topic, you will be delighted to recognize the return of one of our voices of experience, Adam Dill. Today Adam’s going to build upon that conversation, I will also ask him a few other questions to take advantage of his wealth of experience and perspective.
But before we hear from Adam, let me share with you just a little of his background. Adam right now is the chief customer officer at Wicked Foods. Across his career as a sales executive, he has gained broad and extensive experience within the consumer-packaged goods industry. Prior to joining Wicked Foods in 2020, he held twenty different roles during his 25 years at General Mills, including his final role of vice president trade and strategic capabilities, and being a corporate officer in his final four leadership roles. Adam received his BSBA degree in marketing sales and sales management at Bowling Green State University. He holds a master’s degree in theological studies from Bethel Seminary and he received his MBA from the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management.
Adam resides in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota with his wife and two daughters, and he is a valued partner to Menttium, who is currently mentoring his fourth mentee. Welcome Adam.
Dill: Thank you so much.
Cummings-Krueger: I would like to start the conversation off by focusing on this area that you do have a great deal of passion and experience in, and that is supporting the development of executive presence. In discussing this with you earlier, I appreciated your holistic perspective of seeing it as the result of the journey that we each need to take to learn who we are and what we value. Since for many of us, executive presence tends to be abstractly defined, would you share how you define executive presence?
Dill: Sure. As I look at executive presence, I really define it as how others experience you. The impact of your message, of your person when you walk into a room, how are people experiencing you and what impact you have on them. We used to use the term a lot, the soft skills of leaders. So, how do you communicate with other people? Do people enjoy being with you? Are others drawn to you? Do you generate confidence from others in you? That’s how I really look at it. It is your impact that you are having. I know there are much wiser people with deeper definitions of what it is, but in everything I have read, done, and seen, it comes down to your impact that you’re having on others.
Cummings-Krueger: Yes, absolutely. Would you share with us some experience that you have had around this executive presence as a leader and as a colleague? I know those personal stories are always helpful for us to hear.
Dill: Before I do, I think the important thing for people to know is that executive presence is a skill, so you can learn it. It is not a trait you’re born with, so anyone and everyone can develop their skills and executive presence, which leads to my story. My first experience with it was I was assigned an executive coach early in my career. The first meeting with her is her asking me questions. As we dialogue, and after about 30 minutes she stops and says, great, I want to show you a video. The video was of me during that time, and I didn’t know I was being recorded. She goes, Adam, I know you are friendly, happy, and easy to get along with. But if I didn’t know you, you would scare the living daylights out of me, because when you’re serious, your face frowns, you’re not a small man, you have a deep voice, you can be intimidating. So, if I didn’t know you, I would be really scared of you.
For me, that was the first kind of aha moment of wow, what impact am I really having on others? In my mind, I had this belief of I am funny, happy, and easy to get along with, and people enjoy being with me. Then to watch this video of a serious, grumpy looking person, there is such a disconnect of my intent to my delivery. Through that process, I had to learn some things about myself and the impact I am having. In one area, one of the things I have always done since then, especially when I’m meeting people for the first time in my office, I would always make sure I was leaning forward. I made sure I had a smile on my face, being intentional that my body matched the message I wanted to be coming across there.
I have one other story I would share. My manager at the time, amazing gentleman, really invested in me, which I appreciate greatly. I was at that stage in my career where they were going to determine, do you go higher up or go out. I was struggling a lot at that point in my career with office politics. I had this belief of I didn’t want to play in the politics, I didn’t want to be there. I always joked that our head of sales at the time could start a meeting and say the sky is purple today and everyone around the table would agree and say the sky’s purple. And you’re like, wait, the sky’s blue. But why would I say the sky’s blue? I will just get yelled at, but I don’t think it is purple, so I just won’t say anything.
His point to me was, if you don’t engage and participate, people assume you don’t care. If you want to keep moving and have that impact, you must vote in every meeting. Even if it is, I’m not sure, give me some time to think about it, but at least they know you’re engaged, you’re part of the process, you’re in there doing it. It is a little thing, but it was important for me to show the leaders; I am in this, I am a part of it, I am participating, and I have presence in the meeting. Versus using the excuse of I don’t want to play politics and I will just sit in the back of the room and let things happen the way they will.
Cummings-Krueger: Those are powerful examples of the power of external feedback. Having a video of yourself, not knowing that you are being recorded and then being able to see that, but also that feedback that you had from what sounds like a mentor. It sounds like it shifted your perspective and your intentionality around it.
Dill: That example of my facial expressions changed me as a leader. Whenever I joined a new team, I would go through, here is who I am, who I am as a leader, and some of the things you need to know about me. If I am thinking hard, I look mad. So, if you think I am mad or you’re worried, please just ask me. I guarantee it is just me processing a problem. Just being able to say that upfront with a team, it relaxed them a little bit and usually they end up making fun of me down the road.
If we were working on something, they are like, wow, you look mad, you must be thinking hard. So just that self-awareness to be able to share it with others because I know if I am thinking hard, no matter how hard I try, I’m going to look intense and mad. Just giving that to others to know there is a freedom to that. The impact I was having on my team, they knew right away, he is in this work and the problem with us, not, he is mad that we’re having him work the problem.
Cummings-Krueger: That is a great example of that clear communication so that people do not misunderstand, which I think is even more important of course in our virtual world these days. I love that you shared that, and it is also an opportunity to show vulnerability. I know that whenever a leader is showing some vulnerability, there is always a stronger connection made within the group. Do you find that to be true?
Dill: Personally, I do. It goes back to when we had talked earlier, one of the things I really believe in as a leader is part of your own self-awareness and learning about yourself and understanding what your own goals are. How do you want your impact to be? What legacy do you want to leave? For me, one of the important things as a leader was my family’s important to me. If I were not willing to be vulnerable and talk about the struggles I had with our family, that we are going through the good times, the bad, there would be a disconnect there of, he says his families important. It is interesting though; we have never heard anything about them. As a leader to say, I really care about you as a person, and I want to help you succeed. But if I am not willing to admit where I am wrong, where I struggle, if I am not willing to be vulnerable, it feels false to the people you’re trying to convince to trust you and to help develop them.
Vulnerability is super important to be able to show our humanity. Especially in leadership roles, no matter how high you get in an organization. You would like to think, I’m just one of the people, we can just be whatever. What you realize is people are watching everything you do, everything you say. Because of a title, it has a bigger impact on people. For someone with a title to be vulnerable and admit a mistake or an area they are struggling in, or just my face looks mad when I’m thinking. It enables people to realize I don’t have to be perfect or try to hide. I can ask for help. I can be vulnerable when I don’t get what this project is, or I am struggling on it. It just changes the dynamic of the work group.
Cummings-Krueger: Definitely. Looking at this from the mentor perspective, because I know this is an area you have a lot of experience in with executive presence, and you also really enjoy supporting that. What have you found both of course, with your Menttium mentees, but we know our mentors when they come to us, they have already been mentoring for years, wherever they are. What have been some of the best practices or things that you find most helpful when you are supporting a mentee and mentoring them through this?
Dill: To be honest, it goes back to that question I asked earlier. What legacy do you want to leave or what do you want to be known for as a leader? Because that is going to help you decide and figure out the leader you’re going to be and where you’re going to be intentional in these areas of executive presence to have the impact you want to have. Depending on those answers, I would tell you there’s many different ways you might go about it, right? There is no one size fits all in executive presence. It must be genuine to the person because the minute a person tries to be someone else, or tries to use someone else’s leadership style or approach, it feels fake, and people see right through it. With vulnerability, it is being genuine to who you are.
The first thing I do with my mentees is talk about what is important to you. What are your priorities? If you think about 20 years in the future, what is the legacy you want to leave as a leader in the organization? Because depending on that, that is where we will decide what areas do you want to work on. What does that mean for your communication? What does that mean for how you show up and how you use your body language. The most important part is people understand what is important for them, what they care about, what they want to prioritize, because that is going to enable them to spend the time in the areas to really improve and build those executive presence skills.
Cummings-Krueger: We certainly see this with all the mentees that we work with, the pace of life has reached a point where we really must remember to pause and take a step back and think about what is it that we value. Oftentimes it is very easy to not do that step.
Dill: Yes, for sure. An interesting one about executive presence is usually appearance. Appearance is a topic that comes up and it is not how good you look, but it is how you present yourself in the workplace. I had a mentee once and he was a t-shirt, flip flops, shorts person. Really relaxed, he was a great guy. But what I told him was, you’re trying to work at one of the major consulting firms. They are suits and ties, right? There is a point where you must understand your values. So, for him, if your value is I want to be me and I must be relaxed, well then you might want to pick a different environment.
It is not saying that the consulting environment is wrong, it is just probably not the right environment for you. Often, I see younger professionals in a certain work environment, and they are like, I just must mold to this work environment. Which depending on where it is in your values and priorities, it may be fine. But if it is really against that, I challenge you to think about is it the right environment where I can have true executive presence? Because I want to be authentic and true to who I am. If I can’t be authentic and true to who I am, my executive presence is not going to be good.
Helping people understand there’s multiple parts of the equation and you have control over those things and where you have a non-negotiable. Personally, I don’t like wearing ties. I would have a hard time being in the environment that requires me to wear a tie every day, but I also know sometimes at board meetings, funerals, or weddings, I must wear a tie. I am okay with that because I don’t feel like I am compromising who I am, but I am also not signing up for a job where I must wear a tie five days a week. If you have done the work about what is important for you, it helps you to start evaluating those different environments and where you will leverage your executive presence to really drive that impact.
Cummings-Krueger: You mentioned something a couple minutes ago that I want to ask a little more about. It is another perspective of yours that you shared with me earlier, your observations of how attitudes have evolved over the course of your career when it comes to that balancing act between work and life. What has been your personal experience with this?
Dill: That’s a great question. I am a Gen Xer, I’m in my fifties. I had a father who worked at the same company his whole career, and the company came first. My dad was an amazing man, loved his family, but in that generation, it was company first. When I started working, that was still the mentality, but I was fortunate enough to have an executive at General Mills, who always said, “family first, General Mills second, except sometimes.
I also think, obviously more women are in the workforce. I think men’s roles in their families have been able to change and evolve. I got to be in the room with the birth of both my daughters; my dad was in a lunchroom when my brother and I were born. Because of this, I do think there is this, how do you find that work-life balance. Personally, I hate the word balance because that implies 50/50 and we all know in life it is never 50/50.
Sometimes family is going to need more, sometimes work is going to need more. But for me, what I am really impressed with the generation behind Ys and Zs is they have made a choice of what is important for them on the life side of the equation, and they are going to make the work part fit. Where my generation, we had to pick the work part first and then we will make the life side fit, or the life decisions became second. I am impressed that they have taken the time to go, what is important for me and in my life, I want to do this. Because of that, here is where I want to live, or here is the job I want to do, or I really don’t need to make a lot of money, I just need to make enough money that will support my hobby of doing whatever that thing might be.
Our generation could take some lessons from that of remembering that balance of work is a task, family is about relationships, so how do I truly invest in the relationships in my family and use work as work? That whole work to live, don’t live to work mindset is important when you think about the whole family life balance, for lack of a better word.
Cummings-Krueger: I completely agree with everything that you said, and it is always helpful to look and appreciate the differences with all kinds of cultures, and that includes generational cultures. I appreciated how you were aware and empathetic. It is easy for judgements to be made about different generations, and we have many generations in the workforce right now. I think having that eye towards appreciating the value system, which is more prevalent with the younger generations, I thought that was interesting.
Dill: I think the other piece, the part I have had to learn, and I am still learning it is I always would say, I am working for my family. They are my priority and the reason I work hard or do the jobs I do or travel for work was to be able to provide for them, which is true. That is why you work, right? But in that, the balance got out of whack of, I must do this work thing because if I don’t do that, people are going to be disappointed in me at work. I am going to be a failure there. Versus if I said what is important to me, it is my family. It is easy to tell someone, you’re my priority. But a family wants to feel and see that you are their priority. It is easy to go, hey girls, you’re my priority, but I’m going on these three trips, I will see you on Sunday. Versus, wow, your school play is Thursday night and you have been working so hard on it. I’m either not doing the trip or coming home early so I can be there, so my actions match that you’re my priority.
That took me a lot of years to figure out, because I think early in my career I was stuck in that mindset of, I am doing this, and I want the approval of my bosses. I want them to know I am committed. I must keep doing this to be able to provide for my family. That is a false assumption a lot of us get into. What ends up happening is we shift too much of focusing on the work piece because it is measurable. Other people give us clear feedback versus the family piece where we really want to invest most of our time and our energy because those are the people, we care for the most in our lives.
Making sure we understand there is always going to be tension between that work life and family life, but how do you make sure the tension doesn’t become destructive? So, you’re making those choices. Where you think your biggest priority and what is most important to you, that is they feel it, it is not just, I’m saying it. I say all that because depending on where people are in their lives, that career thing may be the most important thing for them. They have decided other choices than I made of having a family. So, I’m not saying it must be family over work, but I am saying how are you intentional on understanding what is your priority and what is important, and then make sure your actions and your time reflect that priority.
Cummings-Krueger: It also occurs to me, not only has this been a personal journey for you, but as a leader and much of your career as senior leader, I imagine it has an impact as a role model as well.
Dill: Oh, for sure. I will tell you I was blessed working at General Mills because the culture when I was there, we called it a family culture. They are not your family, but they are the people you spend a ton of time with. Throughout my career, whenever I saw someone experience a family emergency, people just came out of the woodwork and it was, you must go help your family. We will figure out the work thing. My learning was why wait for an emergency? Why do I have to wait for an emergency to prioritize my family?
If I can live that out and demonstrate it where I can deliver on my work commitments, I can deliver as a leader, I can achieve what needs to be achieved, but I can also prioritize my family and have some non-negotiables about when I’m going to be home and what time I’m coming in so I can have breakfast with my girls. That shows others that he says his family is important, and I see him live it out. So, when I come to him and say, my daughter has a dance recital at two o’clock on Thursday, I want to go. I would be like, yes, you need to be there.
They weren’t anxious and concerned with, how am I going to cover this? Are they going to be mad? Am I going to get fired? It is no, and I think most people would say, hopefully they have experienced when there’s needs like that, where they work usually goes, go take care of your dad who is in the hospital, or your child who is sick. But why wait for those things? How do we be intentional and have priorities to do it every day?
Cummings-Krueger: One other perspective I would love to ask you to share a little bit on, because you had a more unique childhood, you moved every four years, and it is just an interesting perspective. Would you share how that experience impacted your career?
Dill: Usually when I say that people ask, was your dad was in the military? And I go, no commercial insurance. I have no idea why we moved like we did. As I grew up, dad would get promoted and we would move. The interesting thing is that was the assumption I had because that is what my life experience was. When I joined General Mills and they were like, okay, we want you to move here. I was like, all right, that is what you just do. What I will tell you, the good of that was it really taught me how to embrace going to new places, embrace change, because every four years there was change. I learned how to adapt, how to get involved in new places, how to meet people.
Even though I am truly an introvert, I can fake the Myers-Briggs to giving me an E at the beginning because I was well trained as a child. I learned how to do that, how to make friends, how to make connections, how to get involved in new places. The advantage for me, I believe with General Mills especially, is I was willing to go to those different places, so it opened career opportunities that maybe some of my peers did not get because they knew we can ask Adam to move there, and he will do it. Which shame on me. I should have fought a little harder on some to make them question that, but I think it did offer up some opportunities. For example, one of the best opportunities I had at General Mills was being sent to Canada for three years to help create a trade marketing organization up there. I made the shortlist because of my experience, but also because they knew I had a willingness to move and try new things. I would say that has been a positive for me.
I will say, because when we talked about this before, I had been reflecting on it. The negative, and it is what we were talking about earlier, as a child what I heard was, work’s the number one priority. If work said move, we moved. It was never work, said move and we debated it and had a family discussion. I can vividly remember a few times we would get called, my brother and I to the kitchen table and my dad would say, we are moving to Connecticut. This is when we are doing it, it was never a dialogue of, should we do this? How do you feel about it? What impact is it going to have on you? That also cemented that belief that work was most important, that I had to work hard through my adult life to break in that.
I see it with my girls. My oldest, Olivia, we moved ten times with General Mills. When she turned ten, she had already lived in five houses and my wife and I just said, okay, we must be done. We must give her some stability. That is just not fair. So, the last seven years we have been intentional of how we stay in Minneapolis. This is what is important for our family, and here is why. Which is very freeing for me as I talk with General Mills or with other jobs, to be able to have that conversation. I am not leaving Minneapolis; it is not an option. I can work remote, I can travel. It just helped being clear on that priority of what opportunities I would even consider because my wife and I knew it is so important for our daughters now to have some stability versus moving them too often, which we were doing with my oldest at the time.
Cummings-Krueger: What a great contrast. What an evolution for you really.
Dill: Yes. I fortunately married a family therapist. My wife Susie is from Minnesota and a therapist, so I have grown a lot as an adult. To be honest, I give her tons of credit, she has made me a better leader because she created empathy in me and awareness of my feelings and awareness of when I’m feeling certain things in meetings, what is that? Why am I feeling that way? Versus in the past, going on attack or trying to make my point. To be able to stop long enough to understand, you’re frustrated because of this reason or that reason and it enabled me to be more impactful, even as a leader overall. So, I must give her tons of credit.
Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. A real mentoring mentality I would say.
Dill: Yes, she mentors me frequently.
Cummings-Krueger: I want to end with a couple questions that I find oftentimes are just helpful to hear from. We have talked a lot about different habits you have created things you have learned. Anything else when you think about what led to your success?
Dill: Yes, as I thought about it, there is really three things I would say. The first was being open to learning. I have seen that I have grown the most when I have taken the time to learn. That might just be a podcast every day driving in and from work or taking some classes or attending something online. But it is so important that what you’re putting in your mind is what you think about. For me, especially as I was really trying to build myself as a leader and learn those skill sets, to listen to those leadership podcasts, the trainings, the development things. It is super important always to have that mindset of learning, so I think that’s number one.
The second one is being intentional. So even that example I shared about my face. When I meet someone new, being intentional to realize, this is their first-time meeting, make sure you’re smiling, lean forward. Some people may make fun of me about this, but in my last role at General Mills, I had a team of about a hundred people. A lot of them were young, right out of college people, and I knew my title could intimidate them. I would intentionally walk different pathways to the bathroom when I left my office to enable me to say hi and engage with the different people on the team. It was a very intentional mindset of, I am heading back to the office from a meeting. Take a different path. How do you say hi to them? How do you engage them? So, in different ways of being intentional, I think across the board is super important.
Then the last one is a common one, but one that I learned from my father in his career was how do you treat everyone with respect? It doesn’t matter their title or their job; they are people, they are just as important as you are. So, how do you have the same respect? No matter who it is in the organization, what they do versus the CEO. I think that has been an important trait that others, especially as a leader, see and value that they know you value them no matter what their title is or what their role is.
Cummings-Krueger: Absolutely. My final question for you is, do you have a favorite quote?
Dill: This was a hard one. I was trying to think through, I don’t know if I have a quote, but I do have a motto that always stuck with me, and it came from a friend of mine in high school. His mom had this by their front door. It was a family of eight boys, which she knew was just a ton of fun. By her front door, she had a sign that said, return with honor. I always found that to be a good reminder when you leave the house, no matter what you’re doing in the world, how do you do it in a way with honor? When you come home at night or you run into someone that their experience with you may not always be easy, right? It could be very tough and difficult, but even those moments, did you do it in a way that you can feel proud of, that you did the best you could, and that you can come home, head held high and know I did the best I possibly could. Yes, I made mistakes, but at the end of the day, if it became an article in the Wall Street Journal, I would have nothing to be ashamed of. That is the motto I have tried to live by in my life and not always getting it right. But it is a good reminder every day of as you go in the world, how do you have a positive impact in it and try to do it with as much grace as possible with those you’re interacting with.
Cummings-Krueger: I love that. Thank you for sharing that. And thank you so much for sharing all your stories today and your perspective Adam. Here at Menttium, we have seen different evolutions of areas of focus that our mentees value. I will say one of the most common areas of interest throughout all our 32 years is we have continued to see how executive presence is one of the top three continued areas. I know that perspective and how you approached it is going to be excellent fodder for our participants.
Dill: Thank you so much. It is such an honor to be a part of Menttium and my opportunity to work with a mentee is always rewarding for me every year, so I appreciate the impact you are all having on our community as a whole and really helping people grow as leaders. I am honored to have a chance to share a few thoughts that I have on it.
Cummings-Krueger: Thank you and spoken like a mentor. Thank you so much.
I also want to thank all our listeners for joining this Menttium Matters podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please feel free to share it with friends and colleagues, and if you’re interested in additional resources, you can find our show notes on the Menttium website.
We look forward to having you join us for our next interesting episode.
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