The Importance of Managerial “Presence” in Getting the Right Results

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Aug 16, 2012

By Dick Martin

Bob Selander, the chairman and former CEO of MasterCard International, says one of the things he looks for in managers is “an ability to see things from others’ point of view.”

He calls that talent “presence,” but as he explains it, it is clear he’s talking about a particular application of empathy.

“Presence is being able to deal with different constituencies in an appropriate way,” he says. “It’s not just the ability to capture an audience’s attention, but the ability to get the right results.”

The changing role of managers

Selander is an easygoing though demanding and no-nonsense executive; he is hard to rattle (even when, in the middle of a board meeting, he gets a phone call from his doctor telling him he has prostate cancer). The local paper where he lives once wrote that “with mature good looks … [Selander] could probably moonlight as a model for a clothing catalog, stacking firewood or patting a golden retriever.” But Selander admits that he ­didn’t always have “presence.”

“Earlier in my career, I was comfortable dealing [with people] one-on-one or in small groups,” he remembers, “but when I got up in front of an audience of, say, 500 people, it was a real challenge.” But then the bank he had joined just out of college began a serious push into markets outside the United States.

Over the next 20 years, that bank would become Citigroup, and Selander would find himself living and working in five countries on three continents. And as the bank grew, he not only lived in different places, he worked in a broad range of jobs, from overseeing the bank’s consumer banking and retail brokerages, to running its credit card business and leading the development of new banking technologies. Besides discovering that jet lag was a big part of his job, he gained insight into the ways different people think.

Salespeople have long realized that meeting their quota often depended on understanding customers emotionally, as well as intellectually. Knowing what really motivates a customer — including outside interests, personal history, and family — can give a salesperson a real edge.

The same principle applies to all managers: As they progress in their careers, they have to interact with a larger circle of stakeholders, from customers and shareowners to suppliers, employees, community leaders, and members of Congress — not to mention all the people on the organization chart above, below, and to the sides of them who can influence their success.

Knowing what matters to people

In the course of his career, Selander has learned that each of these people responds to the same facts and data in different ways. “Presence means being able to take that into account,” he says. “It’s a combination of not only how you convey things, but what you convey. Presence is learning to deal with different people in a way that allows them to get what they need out of the interaction, while getting the results that you’d like.”

Dwight Eisenhower is supposed to have said that “leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Presence would seem to be a prerequisite for that kind of leadership, whether you are planning the D-Day invasion or leading a company that processes 22 billion transactions worth more than $2 trillion every year.

To know what matters to people, you have to be present in the sense of being attentive.

Attentiveness is about more than being a good listener or being able to read body language, though those skills are also critical. It is being able to put yourself in other people’s positions, to feel what they feel, to make an emotional connection.

It ­doesn’t mean adopting other people’s emotions as your own and trying to please everybody. That would be a formula for gridlock or mushy decisions. But it does mean giving appropriate weight to other people’s feelings in your decision making, realizing that people’s feelings are often the source of their motivation.

Discovering emotional linkage

Interestingly, the ad campaign that MasterCard launched not long after Selander became CEO demonstrated all those qualities. Selander wanted to distinguish MasterCard globally from its arch rivals, the much larger Visa credit card system and the more exclusive American Express card. Research in the United Kingdom, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and the United States suggested that the self-?indulgent Bonfire of the Vanities culture of the 1990s was losing steam.

“We discovered that people weren’t buying a 50-inch plasma TV simply to one-up their next-door neighbor,” Selander recalls. “They were looking for a way to have a fun, family evening on a Friday night. Watching something on the big screen in the comfort of their own home was something they could do together.”

Discovering that emotional linkage, which resonated with people around the world, ultimately led to the strategy of positioning MasterCard as the best way to pay for those purchases that matter most. And the execution of that strategy was the company’s long-running “Priceless” campaign.

The research underlying MasterCard’s ad campaign was undoubtedly expensive, but it ultimately proved priceless in its own right. And that points up another important aspect of presence. Don’t try to wing it.

“I don’t think it’s smart to walk into a room where the facts and data are not known,” Selander cautions, “so it’s important to get to that basis quickly by asking questions,” and especially if you suspect that you won’t like the answers. Selander once used his own brush with prostate cancer as an example.

“I would have preferred that it never happened. But you know what? It was a reminder that things can go bad, but also that the stuff you don’t know can hurt you. And when you find out about it, it gives you a chance to do something about it.”

That’s presence.

Excerpted from OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse World Organization, by Dick Martin. © 2012 Dick Martin. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books (; a division of American Management Association, 1601 Broadway, New York, NY 10019.