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Common personality types of executives and how best to work with them

You can't control the personality types of executives you'll encounter, but you can control how you influence them and show your competence.

8 min read


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Almost every aspect of effective communication is about finding the common ground between you and the person you’re trying to reach. We all have our own personalities and preferred communication styles. We also tend to gravitate toward people whose style resonates with us.

But what happens when you really need to connect with an executive, and your personalities don’t match? I discuss some of the key ways you can modify your approach and get through to different personality types of executives when it matters most.

For some of my tips on communicating with various types of leaders, read on.

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1. The critical executive

This executive tends to be hypercritical of everyone and everything; nothing escapes their appraising eye (and often negative view), and nearly all are judged to be lacking in some way. It can seem like there’s no pleasing this individual, and it can be especially damaging and toxic if they take their personal criticism of you or your performance to a more public forum like a town hall or leadership team meeting.

Why are they so judgmental? It could be that they’re a perfectionist themselves, with unattainably high standards. They could feel that anything less than perfection reflects poorly on them. They could be deflecting from their own feelings, or could have picked up some toxic leadership habits earlier in life, where the only feedback they think to give is negative.

What can you do?

Whatever the reason, consider tackling their concerns head on. Book one-on-one meetings with them to address their feedback, and ask for help in defining an action plan to improve your performance. Listen quietly, calmly and without defensiveness to their complaints, and always thank them for their time, regardless of how tough the conversation is.

You may find that, when they see you as open to making changes, they are more amenable. Make sure you ask them to continue the dialogue and to share their concerns with you privately going forward. Hopefully, this will minimize nay-saying when you’re out of the room.

Regardless, the Critical Executive is probably not one you’re going to go to first when looking for an advocate for your advancement in the organization.

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2. The reserved executive

When you’re giving a presentation to a team of senior leaders, the Reserved Executive can sometimes be the most unnerving. While others, perhaps including yourself, are animated and responsive, the Reserved Executive can have a constant poker face.

No expression, no emotion. Definitely no excitement. For many high-energy personality types, the quiet reservation can be very frustrating. It feels like the harder you try, the less response you will get. So how do you connect?

What can you do?

Unlike other personality types of executives, the Reserved Executive is not going to be dazzled by an enthusiastic delivery of any report or idea. They will not be energized by an animated conversation about your accomplishments and your future at the organization.

If you’re a high-energy type, you’re going to have to tone it down and be prepared to demonstrate a long-standing reputation for thoroughness, thoughtfulness and reliability. You may well have a steadfast history, but how you present it (and yourself) in individual conversation will make a big difference.

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3. The conservative executive

This executive shares a lot in common with our Reserved Executive, with two key differences.

One, the Conservative Executive is not generally a fan of new ideas, radical approaches or unconventional problem solving — the sort of creative thinking that up-and-coming talent like yourself often leverages to get noticed. Second, the Conservative Executive has relatively low trust, especially in newer individuals. It can feel daunting when looking for a way “in.”

What can you do?

It will absolutely take more time, more calm discussion and more evidenced-based arguments to make your case and get their buy-in. Be prepared for a lot of skepticism, but don’t allow it to dim your spirit.

Try to remember that this executive is inherently mistrustful of new ideas and new people, and it’s not really personal. The exception, of course, is that once you gain their trust, you can never let them down.

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4. The energetic executive

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the Energetic Executive, with all the enthusiasm and exuberance. These executives are often energized by “what if” discussions and new ideas. Often, they have a very optimistic view of the future and of the prospects for any idea (or individual).

This can be infectious if you share a similar approach to the world, but if you’re more reserved, it might be hard to get their attention and sell them on your achievements.

What can you do?

Try to step up your energy even a few notches — as much as you can while still feeling genuine. Add a little more excitement to your presentation, or try to be a bit more animated in your hand gestures and body language. When you have an opportunity to talk to the Energetic Executive, try to focus on telling them about your biggest or most recent accomplishment.

Even if you’re someone who prefers to have all your information in perfect alignment before talking about it, consider sharing your next project or idea with them when it’s still in the early or formative stages. Take the opportunity to harness the enthusiasm they have for new thinking, and use it so that these executives associate you with cutting-edge concepts.

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5. The egotistical executive

It can be really challenging to make sure an executive knows about your accomplishments and successes when they’re only interested in talking about their own. The Egotistical Executive is so wrapped up in their own importance that it can be hard to steer the conversation to anything else.

This can be especially off-putting if you’re someone who is not overly keen on talking about themselves to start with. It’s likely the executive will take over the conversation. It can even feel like this executive is at risk for taking credit for your work.

What can you do?

When faced with an Egotistical Executive, be even more prepared with your succinct talking points about your achievements. Be sure that your list doesn’t appear to overlap or detract from anything they claim as a personal success. If you must, add in mention of their support of influence, and highlight any ways your accomplishments reflect positively on them.

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6. The jealous executive

Occasionally, you run across leaders who consider anyone and everything a threat to them and their reputation. They are incapable of being happy or genuinely supportive of others’ successes. They often seek to downplay or even undermine the talent of those around them.

Oftentimes, this jealousy is a closely guarded thing rooted in fear and insecurity, which can be devastating. They can smile and applaud outwardly but then make negative comments and damaging actions behind your back.

What can you do?

There’s little you can do with a Jealous Executive, other than wait for the rest of the organization to realize their true motivations. Over time, more people will distance themselves from such insidious and toxic behavior. In the meantime, try not to engage in their toxic mindset. Do not rely on the Jealous Executive for your career advancement or visibility needs.

You will encounter many challenging personality types of executives throughout your career. We are all human and our motivations are complex, but don’t lose heart — most leaders want to see you succeed, even if they might be too wrapped up in their own concerns to give you proper consideration.

Be sure you maintain your own professionalism, and no matter what level you are in the organization, aspire to behave as the leader you want to be, regardless of the personalities around you.

As an executive coach, Joel Garfinkle is recognized as one of the top 50 coaches in the U.S. He provides corporate trainings, webinars, and executive coaching sessions to help employees achieve higher levels of leadership. Garfinkle is the author of 11 books, including “Getting Ahead.” Subscribe to his Fulfillment at Work Newsletter which is delivered to over 10,000 people. You can view his video library of over 150+ easily actionable two-minute inspirational video clips by subscribing to his YouTube channel.

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