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Use Affirmations in Your Exec Suite to Boost Capacity for Success

Yes your team is full of accomplished C-suite leaders. Do it anyway.


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Shane Kinkennon

a year ago | 4 min read

During a recent day spent with one of my CEO clients, the cofounder and longtime leader of a fast-growing healthcare-technology company, I observed a vivid example of the power of a clever, wildly useful tool for boosting capacity in fellow leaders.

My client and his CFO were meeting to consider a provocative new finance strategy. I sat across the room listening as they walked through the ins, outs and technical details of what the company might do.

And then unexpectedly, for a brief moment, the nature of the conversation changed. Unprompted, the CFO said casually to his boss, “You know that I’ve never run a finance strategy of exactly this type.” (I’ve removed a bit of detail for confidentiality.) The comment came and went, and they were immediately back to the substance of the topic at hand.

What might the CEO have done other than keep the conversation clipping along? He might have noticed the subtle but golden opportunity to deploy a powerful conversational device for boosting a follower’s capacity for success. It was an opportunity to remind his talented CFO that he (the CFO) is exactly the right person for the consequential task at hand, and the goal would assuredly be achieved.

The affirmation

The specific conversational device that was in order is the affirmation. An affirmation highlights the positive — the strength — in what you just heard or observed.

It comes from behavioral science and motivational interviewing, which studies show is highly effective for helping people explore and embrace change. It has real utility in the CEO’s or other executive leader’s toolkit. Affirmations build confidence in the receiver, they boost resolve, and they strengthen team bonds.

Saying something positive sounds easy enough, yet doing so in the form of an affirmation requires real intention. The affirmation requires noticing when an opportunity arises to make absolutely sure that the thinker (in this case the CFO) is fully aware of the great thing you just heard or observed from them, and being in ready position to do something about it.

Saying something positive sounds easy enough, yet doing so in the form of an affirmation requires real intention. The affirmation requires noticing when an opportunity arises to make absolutely sure that the thinker (in this case the CFO) is fully aware of the great thing you just heard or observed from them, and being in ready position to do something about it.

It requires such readiness even in the face of exceedingly worthwhile “distractions” such as strategy, planning, results measurement, and pursuit and retention of key customers. It requires recognizing that the people part of leadership is what is most important, in the end. It’s worth budgeting attention accordingly.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “A good leader inspires people to have confidence in the leader. A great leader inspires people to have confidence in themselves.”

If you want your business to achieve competitive advantage, your most crucial, lasting task is motivating your people to greatness. In that regard, about the wisest thing you can do is seize absolutely every opportunity to remind your followers of how immensely capable they are.

The opening the CFO presented

When my client’s CFO said what he did in that meeting, what he exhibited was vulnerability-based trust, an essential building block of an effective team. He volunteered to name a risk, however minor, even at (potentially) his own expense.

His observation was not only factual but aware and humble. It was a display of servant leadership. Any great CEO would say it’s the exact sort of behavior you want to be surrounded by.

In no way was the finance chief’s comment mining for a response. He was merely being transparent. Yet for the CEO, it was an opportunity to momentarily elevate the conversation out of the technical realm and into the people-leadership realm and say, “You’re humble. If we decide together to pursue this strategy, we’re in great hands with you.”

And then get right back to the discussion at hand. It was a prime moment to do what world-renowned adventure racer Robin Benincasa says: “You don’t inspire your teammates by showing them how amazing you are. You inspire them by showing them how amazing they are.”

The key: listening with intention

My CEO client did not notice that affirmation opportunity despite being a generous, good-hearted leader who cares deeply for his people. The reason is he was so engrossed in the technical content of the discussion that he momentarily suspended his focus on the ultimately important human element. It’s a temptation to which executive leaders routinely fall prey, getting lost in the complexity at the expense of the people connection.

The essential requirement, of course, is listening. If you want to incorporate affirmations into your C-suite repertoire, then you must listen with a different kind of alertness. You listen not merely for strategic alignment and technical detail but with emotional intelligence.

You show up to every conversation with genuine inquisitiveness for little moments that may pop up. Such a level of intensive listening, one that relies on sophisticated soft skills, may feel strained at first.

That’s OK; it’s worth the practice. Your goal is to reliably detect every opportunity, however minor, to inspire your people — even successful fellow C-suite leaders — to be as great as they possibly can be precisely when your business needs them most.

Pro tip

When an opportunity arises to offer an affirmation, put it forth as an objective observation rather than an “I think…” statement.

So, rather than saying, “I think you’re ready to take this on,” simply say, “You are ready.” It’s a subtle detail, but by avoiding the natural tendency to start with “I think…” or “I believe…,” you avoid risk of sounding like your words are more about you and what you think than about the strengths of the fellow leader you seek to embolden.

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Shane Kinkennon

Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.


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