How Acting with Power helps you succeed

Wisdom from McKinsey and Stanford on Executive Presence

Stanford MBA students and New York Stock Exchange CEO Duncan Niederauer [circa 2011]
When you walk into a board room, people see you as an Asian female. They will think, here’s someone quiet, meek, and probably won’t be opinionated.

Professor M says this to me during our first meeting at the Stanford Business School. I was a first year MBA student and Professor M recently joined as faculty at the school. Professor M spent over 30 years at McKinsey where he served on the board of directors and sat in countless board meetings for multinational corporations. As a hobby, he mentors CEOs. Lucky for me, he was assigned to be my mentor.

Professor M continues.

So what you need to do, as soon as you walk into the board room, is to find someone across the room who you know. Walk up to them, and loudly say“Hey Bill, it’s great to see you!” and then shake their hand, but also pat their back like this…

Professor M gestures a patting motion as his hand sifted up and down in air.

Early on, you’re establishing your presence in the room. So before anyone can make their judgement on you, you should break their preconceived notions.

Professor M pauses for a second, as if he’s about to disclose a profound tip. Then he goes:

But you have to do this as soon as you enter the room, before their biases sink in. If you don’t do this early, it’ll be hard to break their biases.

I think to myself, impressed by how strategically structured Prof M’s statements are — he starts with the problem, then presents solution, then describes the Why. Then added Urgency.

And in that moment, I felt extremely grateful to be privy to this conversation— this is what CEOs learn when they work with McKinsey partners, and they pay millions for this.

Become good at multiple acts

Over the next two years, I began to try various ways of acting, in order to develop my executive presence. Stanford Business School has a class called Acting with Power that teaches students how to act.

After two years as MBA students, we developed an arsenal of acts. We were adept at multiple performance styles — improv, comedy, drama, and debate.

Truly believe in your act

You might be thinking, why should I even “act” with power? I don’t want to feel like an actor in a theater, where I’m just putting on an act. I want to be me. Well, it depends on your goal. If your goal is to succeed as an executive in a corporation, then you’ll need act.

The corporation is your theater, and you’re an actor in the theater. The difference between acting in business and acting in theater is this: In theater, you live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. In business, you put on acts under real circumstances. The key to pulling off a great act to truly believe in it.

You can watch the abridged version of the Stanford Acting with Power class here:

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