Executive Presence In A Globalized World: Bringing Your Whole Self Forward With Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt

by | May 9, 2024 | Podcasts

Speakers Who Get Results |Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt | Executive Presence

 

Cultural biases play a pivotal role in shaping how executive presence is perceived, evaluated, and rewarded within professional settings. Executive presence in one culture may be perceived differently in another. Understanding the impact of cultural biases on executive presence is essential for leaders striving to navigate diverse work environments effectively. In this episode, Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt joins our host Elizabeth Bachman as they talk about executive presence and how that’s affected by our cultural biases. Check out this episode, so you won’t miss Wendy’s insights on how to lead authentically in a globalized world.

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Executive Presence In A Globalized World: Bringing Your Whole Self Forward With Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt

Introduction

This is a show where we talk about leadership, presentation skills, and cultural issues. Now we’re talking about executive presence and how that’s affected by our cultural biases. Before I get to my very interesting guest, I’d like to invite you to see how your presentation skills are doing by taking our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where your presentation skills are strong and where perhaps a little bit of support could help you get the results you need and the recognition that you deserve.

My guest is Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt, who is a first-generation Chinese American. She says she was a third culture child because she lived in four different countries, China, Hungary, Thailand, and then America. That’s three different continents where she was other something else. She was seen as someone who didn’t belong and that’s given her an interesting perspective on the world. She draws her expertise from over thirteen years of research and cross-industry experience in companies ranging from the public sector to the Global Fortune 100.

With a Master’s Degree in Organizational Psychology specializing in leadership and evaluation, and a graduate certificate of coaching, she is now a consultant for executive women, helping them be their entire authentic selves. We had an interesting wide-ranging conversation. I know you’ll enjoy it. Onto the interview with Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt.

Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt, thank you very much for joining us.

Thank you so much. It’s my pleasure to be here.

The Dream Interview

We have a very juicy list of things to ask you, but let me start out by saying, who would be your dream interview? If you could talk to somebody who’s no longer with us, who would it be, what would you ask them, and who should be listening?

I couldn’t think of anybody in history. Most people that I admire are alive, but when I think about who would be a person I would love to talk to so I can deepen my own understanding and then when I think about a conversation that will help other people, it’s probably going to be a conversation with my grand uncle, my grandfather’s brother. The reason is that, in many ways, I consider my granduncle as a war hero. During the time of the Chinese cultural revolution or right before that, there was a Civil War, and I think a lot of people didn’t know about this, between the Communist Party and the Democratic Party.

My grand uncle, my grandfather’s brother fought for the Democratic Party. He died in battle. Because of that, my grandparents, my mother, and my maternal side of the family went through years of political persecution and their lives were extremely hard. That conversation would be very eye-opening for people because it’s a part of history that impacts us today. It’s a part of history that we can learn from because I’m seeing some signs of our social culture now that were present at that time.

For those who haven’t studied Chinese cultural history, I have to confess, I studied it once, but it was a long time ago. I had a friend who was obsessed with it in college. We learned it all then. It was fighting against Mao Zedong’s force before Mao Zedong and the communists took over.

For people who don’t know, Mao Zedong, the communist party and the party that’s present now, you could trace it back to around the ‘50s when that took over, but there was a Civil War that happened, and essentially, the other side lost and then they went to Taiwan. That’s a little bit of history of the dynamic between China and Taiwan, and the reason why China does not want to claim Taiwan as an independent country. It is because of that past.

Your mother’s family being persecuted is classic tyranny, and the families are also persecuted for those who fought against the regime. I’ve been reading about Stalin and you know that happened in Stalinist Russia.

We could go on and on. It’d probably be a different show on the cultural experiences and the historical experiences of people back then. One of the reasons I picked my granduncle is because I would love to hear more about what his dreams were. I’m sure he didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to go into battle. I’m going to take up arms and do this.” It wasn’t a spur of the moment. I would like to know what he was thinking. What was his feeling, his vision, and his dream? What did he think he was fighting for?

That conversation would at the very least honor his death and honor his contribution because as we know, his legacy was shredded because that side lost. I know it’s a very personal motivation, but it’s a conversation that could be very educational for folks to better understand not only what’s happening here in the US but also seeing the connection of what can we learn from that. We can learn a lot about what to do and not to do or what are the cultural signals to be alarmed by learning through other country’s history.

That’s fascinating and learning from history is important. I confess, in historical cycles, part of it is because I spent 30 years in the opera world where we’re dealing with scripts that were written in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Thinking about historical cycles allows me to not fall into total despair when I look at the news. It allows me to sleep at night when I think, “We’ve been here before, we survived, and we got out of it somehow.”

I like that thinking because I’ve been saying, “The pendulum is going to swing back. We get scared about the recession, the job market, or whatever it is.” We have to remember the pendulum always swings back. We’ve been here before.

We get scared about the recession, the job market, whatever it is. It’s important to remember that the pendulum always swings back. We've been here before. Click To Tweet

How Our Cultural Biases Affect Executive Presence

We have to do the work to stand up for what we believe in. We could go on about this for another couple of hours. This is probably a conversation that we do another day maybe with a bottle of wine. You are a renowned consultant, especially in women’s leadership. We are honoring Asian American Pacific Islander Month, the AAPI Month in America. There are seventeen different countries involved in this. The first question at least is executive presence and how our cultural biases affect that. You’ve lived in three different continents and four different countries. Talk to me a little bit about what you’ve seen around the world and what you see in your clients.

This is an interesting question because most days I walk around not even aware that I am an American now. That part of my life is a lot shorter than the more global side of my life where I lived in China, Hungary, Thailand, and then the US is my most recent stop. It’s interesting because you could split my time between comparing what generally people think about executive presence in Asia versus the Western world. It is different in every culture the behavior traits that we admire as leadership traits. I am very biased now towards the American experience because, for the most part, most of my clients are American. I do have an international client, but most of my clients are American.

I was educated in the American education system and this is the world that I grew up professionally in. My work is very biased towards the American side. I am always cognizant about how other folks look at what we do because I have international friends still. One of my best friends is a Ukrainian who is also French. She oftentimes keeps me grounded by saying, “That’s such an American thing. We wouldn’t do that here. We would do this here.” I go, “You’re right.” For example, with executive presence, what I’ve come to realize over the last couple of months is we’ve gotten a pretty good sense in the US of what executive presence is. Oftentimes, unfortunately, a lot of people still associate it with being male. There’s a lot of male characteristics that go with the executive presence.

The Components Of Executive Presence

Can you define them for us because the question I get all the time is, “What is executive presence? How do you define it?” Something we were talking about before we started the recording is it is how you are perceived and the definition is from others. It’s not something you can apply for yourself. Other people decide whether you have an executive presence or not.

The way that I’ve best come to understand executive presence and try to teach it to my clients isn’t necessarily so much about, “Let’s understand executive presence,” or what the dictionary definition is. I don’t know that we can nail that down because people are going to disagree. What I think most people may agree on are the different components that make up executive presence. For example, having deep knowledge and expertise is one of them. It’s not talked about as much because it’s considered table stakes. If you want to be considered a leader or if you want to be considered somebody with authority, it’s a given that you should be good at whatever area you have authority in.

For our international audience, how do you define table stakes?

See, I am biased towards the American culture now. It’s foundational. It’s assumed and taken for granted that that’s one of the things like a precursor characteristic.

It’s from the game of poker. Table stakes means that’s the money that you have to put out on the table to start the game. Everybody puts a certain number of chips on the table to start the game. It’s a reference to poker, so deep expertise.

A big part of it is also charisma. You could define charisma and if you study leadership from an academic perspective, you could even also study charismatic leadership. Part of it is when you think about somebody who walks in a room and all of a sudden, it seems like they’ve captivated the room. It’s hard to put a finger on that. It’s hard to find a dictionary definition, but there’s something about their energy and the way they relate to the world.

A lot of people think of executive presence as somebody who’s an extrovert. That may be the bias in our American culture that we tend to award leadership traits to ones who are the loudest and who talk the most. The executive president doesn’t necessarily assume that. You could be more soft-spoken. For example, a lot of people would agree that Steve Jobs had an executive presence and he was not the loudest speaker. He was not the most boisterous voice. He was more soft-spoken, but when he spoke, people listened.

Speakers Who Get Results |Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt | Executive Presence

Executive Presence: We tend to award leadership traits to those who are the loudest and talk the most, but executive presence doesn’t necessarily require that. You can be more soft-spoken.

 

Part of it is that he was articulate with his message. He knew what he stood for. He believed it. This confidence piece is another element, for international folks, of table stakes. I heard a researcher give the best definition of confidence that I’ve heard, which is it starts with you believing in yourself. If you believe, for example, that the next thing that’s going to come out of your mouth is true, you will say it with more conviction. If you thought, “I’m going to say this thing or I’m going to ask this question, but am I going to get dinged for it? Am I going to get laughed at?” If you truly believe in the validity of your experience and then you act upon that, that is what confidence is.

I would call that being grounded in your authentic self. Authentic is another word that is overused and often people don’t know what it means, but being grounded in your own values.

I love that you brought up authenticity because that’s the next component I was going to talk about. Executive presence isn’t putting on a clown suit and saying, “Here, I’m an executive. Here, I’m a leader, she’ll listen to me.” There’s that authenticity that you talked about which is being very grounded in your values. The thing is authenticity is also one of those characteristics where, as humans, we can pick that up right away. When we talk to someone, we can get that feeling right away, “Is this person genuine? Is this person acting in a way where if I wasn’t in the room, they would also be this way?” I like to look at authenticity as also an element, as a congruence between your words, thoughts, and actions.

Authenticity is a congruence of your words, your thoughts, and your actions. Click To Tweet

Do you have more here? I have another question.

Go ahead. This is a good place for you to pop in questions.

The Image In My Head

Often lack of executive presence is an excuse to not give somebody a promotion, “She doesn’t have the executive presence because she doesn’t look like us.” Where does this come in when you are a person of color?

When people get the “I don’t think you have executive presence,” that usually translates to “You don’t look like the leader that I would imagine a leader would look like.” That’s to the earlier point of how executive presence looks different across cultures. Unfortunately, in many parts of Asia, and I wouldn’t say all of Asia, when they think of somebody with a strong executive presence, they’re probably often thinking about a White man who’s a corporate leader.

Certainly, when I was growing up, that was the ideal image of executive presence. Take it for whatever, as a kid, the idea of the big, tall, White man in a powerful suit who can talk with conviction was the executive and the ultimate leader. When you come to the US, that definition is a little more flexible. You have folks like what you were talking about Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Brené Brown.

A lot of people look at them and they have some magic about them that when you look at them you know that you can trust them. When they talk, you are sucked in and captivated. It’s different across cultures. When people think about who a leader is, they still have a prototype in their head of who that is. If you don’t fit that prototype, it’s almost an experience of cognitive dissonance. I don’t know if folks are familiar enough with psychology to know what that term is.

That means when you experience something that goes against a belief system or a value system, and now your psyche is at odds because it’s trying to reconcile a belief and seeing something contradictory to it. I think that’s what people experience. They can’t put their finger on it. If you ask them, “Tell us the truth, what is it about this person who may not have executive presence?” The truth maybe is they don’t look like a leader.

 It means, “They don’t look the image I have in my head for a leader.” What can we do about it?

I think about this question often of, “What can you do about it?” because I serve women. Even as somebody who serves women, I still need to be attuned to the balance of what I tell my female clients that they need to do differently versus taking that ownership away from them and saying, “This is not your accountability.” We also ask a lot of women, anything that happens at work. There’s some systemic maybe discrimination around how women are perceived. Here’s what you can do, women, to combat that. We put a lot on women to do something to try to change the system, but I think that’s backward. If there’s something in the system that does not allow women to succeed or thrive in it, then we need to look through the system.

That’s not the women’s accountability. What I do want my women clients and any woman or anybody tuning in is when we ask the question, “What can you do about it?” We have to be clear of, “What are we asking here? Where are we asking the solution to come from?” Women can’t change other people’s perceptions as much as anyone can change anyone’s perception. You can influence the relationships you create with others. You can influence the experience you create for other people to be in your presence.

Speakers Who Get Results |Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt | Executive Presence

Executive Presence: While we can’t control how others perceive us, we can influence the relationships we build and the experiences we create for them

 

What I talk to my women clients about is regardless of whether you’re in a situation where you’re hitting a ceiling or any other roadblock or maybe you are in a system that lets you thrive, you still want to be thinking about the leader that you want to be. There’s a lot that’s being asked of leaders and that’s why they say leadership isn’t for the faint of heart.

As a leader, you do have to think about your brand and how you bring people into a relationship with you. You have to think about the experience of what it’s like for others to be in your presence and what are people saying about you when you’re not in the room. This is not the same as trying to do reputation management or trying to do any PR damage. You have to do that to some extent as individuals and maybe even as public figures. It’s more of how are you instilling trust in others. How are you connecting with people as people? When people trust you, I think they’ll trust you as a leader.

To me, it’s more about teaching women how to be good leaders in general rather than challenging them to change the system by being different. I want to encourage women to say whatever you think the system’s asking you to do, you need to first ask yourself, “Is that what I want?” Whichever system they’re in, if they’re saying, “To be an executive, you need to dress like an executive. You need to be in a power suit, you need to do this or that.”

If that is the requirement to create that perception, I would say as a woman, whoever is in that position to say, “Does it sound like something you would want to do?” Some people say, “That’s a great challenge. I would love to dress in power suits. That’s something I love doing. That’s how I can lean in.” Some people say, “It doesn’t feel like me. I’m more this way. That’s not a fit.” You have to ask yourself, is that what you want? Whether it is a fit or not, how do you want to authentically and intentionally express who you are?

You Are More Than Your Career

I’ve heard you say, “You are more than your career.” That’d be a good place to add that piece, “Being authentically who you are.”

I love that you brought that up because I think what’s missing when we talk about leadership in the workplace is recognizing the person as a whole person. However you show up at work, you are still you. You may have had a bad night the previous night, maybe your kid is sick, or maybe you had a fight with your partner. Whatever experiences you have, you are still bringing it into work. You may not just be expressing those emotions. You may not be talking about it. The thing is if those experiences are impacting you, you are still bringing them into work. I heard a leader once say recently that she’s trying to work on building a team and she wants people to bring their best selves to work. She quickly gave the caveat, “Not their whole selves, because I don’t need that here. I need their best selves.”

I thought, “How interesting because you can’t necessarily carve out the best part of yourself and say, ‘The rest of me can be left behind.’” We humans don’t work that way. We don’t expect people outside the corporate workspace to do it, but we somehow expect a lot of corporate leaders to show up that way. To me, authenticity is maybe coming to work and if you’re having a hard day, that vulnerability and authenticity may be, “I’m having a little bit of a hard day today. If I am slow to respond or if I seem distracted, know that I’m still listening, but that I’m going through a hard day today.”

That is being authentic because you are not only acknowledging yourself, but you are letting others into the world too of who you are. I know the question started with being more than your career. To me, it’s recognizing your humanness before even thinking about your career. I think we put our career as this thing that we can wrap ourselves around rather than as an experience we walk through life.

Being more than your career means recognizing your humaneness before even thinking about your career. Click To Tweet

It’s like a suit you put on and take off. A lot of people find that trying to be different people at work than they are at home. Granted some things are appropriate and some things are not, but being your whole self, in some ways, feels like a very American feeling, but it’s also a very healthy feeling.

We had this conversation and there are a lot of jokes about the American experience and about being American in different places that you may visit. What I can credit to the American culture is that we have a lot of language around respecting the authentic self in talking about the whole person. We have a lot of language. We have a huge platform to talk about that now with mental health too. I think that’s healthy.

This all goes back to the original question, “What does it mean to be bigger than your career?” I think our career is not our life. This can be a grounding reality for women out there who are frustrated with their careers. It is to take a moment and check and do an inventory of the things in your life that you take priority on that are most meaningful to you. You realize that the energy you’re putting into your career may not be the place where you want to spend your energy.

I want to be careful here because I don’t want this to become a sound bite where I’m saying that women don’t need to spend energy on their careers. What I’m trying to say is if you’re finding that your life energy has been putting your career and you’re struggling, I want you to take a step back and recognize that you are more than your career. You have this whole life, whatever may be filled in your life.

You can try to take perspective and say, “Is this the path that I’m walking towards with all this resistance, with all these obstacles? Is this still the right path? If it is, am I going down the path the right way? Are there things that I have overlooked? Do I need more friends? Do I need more partners? Do I need a mentor? Do I need to walk this path in a different company?” It’s about not locking yourself into any one career plan that doesn’t serve you. My message is that your career is yours and you are bigger than your career because your career is something that you can action, but it shouldn’t action on you.

Supporting Women Of Color

We’re close to the end of our time, but I wanted to ask you a couple of things, especially as a woman of color, how we can support more women of color. You mentioned that you’ve been betrayed by women of color, but now you can see why that happened. Can you talk about that a little bit?

It’s interesting because when people hear those stories of me having felt betrayed by a lot of women and by other women of color, they might ask, “Why is that your mission then? Why is it your mission then to continue to serve women rather than saying, ‘I serve both men and women?’” it’s not that I reject male clients because I still I do have a male client, but my mission to help women is to help them realize that they can be self-empowered and that they don’t necessarily need to fit into any mold to feel like they’re successful.

The reason why I think I’ve had those experiences of betrayal by other women or women of color is usually what I call the Queen Bee Effect. It’s where a lot of these women have crawled through nails and glass to get to where they are. They grew up professionally in a time where they were maybe the only woman in the room or maybe the only whatever, fill in the blank in the room. To rise up, they probably had to adopt behaviors that weren’t authentic to them. They probably had to show up in a way that didn’t feel congruent with who they are, but it was hard and they kept their head down and worked hard and got there.

Once they got to the top, suddenly the scarcity mindset took over and they said, “I worked my entire life for this. No one’s going to jeopardize this.” A lot of this is unconscious. I don’t think any woman is maliciously doing that. Most of them I don’t think are in that position, but there’s this unconscious scarcity mindset that comes in and says, “These women that are coming up behind me better not take this away from me.”

There’s only room for many. There’s only room for one for instance.

There’s this mentality, and I’ve heard some women leaders say this, “It was this hard for me. It was so hard for me. Why should it be easier for you?”

Men and women say that.

To answer the question of how can we support Asian-American women and Asian-American leaders, first, there’s a level of awareness to adopt and nurture. We’re not all the same. When we even say the umbrella Asian-American or Asian American and Pacific Islander, that’s still a pretty big umbrella. The Chinese culture is vastly different from the Korean and Japanese cultures. They’re right next to us, just a short flight, then you go down south a little bit, and then Thai culture in Thailand is vastly different. They’re right next to other Southeast Asian and Southern Asian countries like India, Myanmar, Burma, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. They’re all clustered in that South region and they’re all different.

When we say Asian-American, we have to remember that that’s a shortcut to say people from generally that continent, part of that support comes in honoring that we’re different when people say Asian-American, but then they often miss a lot of the Indians out of that group. I don’t think that’s fair to them either. There’s an element of let’s not generalize us as Asian-Americans. Understand us as we have our own unique culture and we’re individuals at the end of the day. I think there’s another element of if somebody is who has grown up here or who only has moved here as an adult.

Here being in America.

For an international audience, whether you grew up in the US or maybe you moved to the US as an adult, be cognizant that there may be cultural nuances. I didn’t grow up in the US. I grew up in Hungary and there are still parts of my behavior that seem very Chinese, then there are parts of me where my family who are living in China would say, “You are so not Chinese.” There are different degrees of how much of the culture they’ve brought in.

Be cognizant that some of the behaviors may be cultural in nature and you can be curious. What I mean by that is, for example, what I’ve often heard when I lived overseas was Asians don’t speak up. It’s hard to work with a lot of Asian teams because they don’t ever say anything. They’re quiet in meetings. Because in their culture, you defer to the leader and you don’t say anything until you get permission to speak.

Being cognizant that they may or may not, they are still bringing some of their cultural upbringings, whether they grew up or not here in the US. Part of it is recognizing that. Curiosity is going a long way. When we talk about Asian American experience and women of color experiences, it becomes easy for people, especially Americans here to feel like they have to walk on eggshells around us when they ask us questions. I don’t represent everybody in my group, but I appreciate it when someone is curious about my culture and my background, and asks about it. I don’t take offense to it.

To me, it speaks, “You’re genuinely curious.” If someone says, “Can I ask about your background? How do you do this? How do you do that?” I appreciate that because that to me says that you are curious enough and you took the courage in time of your day to understand a little bit about me that you wouldn’t have otherwise. When it comes to leadership, there’s a little bit of we need to change some of the system of how the system works, of how they incorporate different people into leadership, then there’s the human aspect of how people behave in a corporate culture.

When it comes to leadership, I’ll bucket that under unconscious bias. Whatever idea of a leader you have in your head, I want you to continuously challenge yourself and think about all the leaders that you have maybe admired or continue to admire today in the community who may not look like the prototypical executive leader, but as somebody you honor and respect and they’re a leader in a different way maybe.

Speakers Who Get Results |Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt | Executive Presence

Executive Presence: Challenge your preconceived notions of leadership. Look around your community and consider the leaders you admire, past and present. They may not fit the mold of a typical executive, but they’ve earned your respect and admiration nonetheless.

 

Closing

That is a great line to finish on. Wendy, thank you very much for joining us on the show. It’s been a delight. When I get back to America, you and I are going to sit down and have this historical conversation over a bottle of wine. If you enjoyed this conversation, please subscribe to us on YouTube. Tell your friends and leave us a good review on Apple Podcasts. That’s the one that counts. Tell everybody so that we can have more great guests like Wendy Kleinfeldt on the show. I will see you on the next one.

 

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About Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt

Speakers Who Get Results |Wendy Wang Kleinfeldt | Executive PresenceI am a first-generation Chinese American who was also a third-culture child, having lived in 4 countries, over 3 continents.
I draw my expertise from over 13 years of research and cross-industry experience in companies ranging from the public sector to global Fortune 100.
I have a master’s degree in organizational psychology (specializing in leadership) and evaluation, and a graduate certificate in coaching.