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A Crash Course in Executive Presence from Trivago CEO Axel Hefer in three steps.

It can be a challenge to define what executive presence actually is, how one person has it and another doesn’t, and especially how to achieve it.   

But you know it when you see it.  Case in point – I present exhibit A:  Trivago CEO Axel Hefer’s  recent interview with CNN.  Mr. Hefer was being called upon by anchor Richard Quest to address the damage that COVID-19 restrictions have caused Trivago and the entire travel industry when his son, Victor, decided to “join” the interview with his own pressing issue — bedtime.  Yet despite this potentially embarrassing interruption, added to the pressure of finding a silver lining in a very grim outlook for his industry, Mr. Hefer didn’t miss a beat. He radiated confidence, competence and calm leadership. He was authentic, and it was clear at that moment he was just like us — a warm human being doing his best to navigate rough waters and overcome obstacles during these unprecedented times. Let’s break down some of what we saw to better understand what executive presence is, and what Mr. Hefer was able to teach us about cultivating this elusive and invaluable quality.  

1. He acknowledged the intrusion.

The intrusion in this case was a small child, but it is an apt stand-in for any type of intrusion or challenge to an executive’s command (i.e. strong-willed stakeholders, a bubbling crisis, or even your own nerves). It can be tempting to muscle through these events hoping they resolve themselves or can be dealt with later. In reality, ignoring or combating the intrusion will likely exacerbate the situation.     Mr. Hefer takes another track.  His child wants attention, and he gives it simply and easily, without diverting from his main objective.  

2. He incorporated the intrusion.

An interruption that had the potential to derail the interview and the goals of Mr. Hefer instead became an asset.  When Mr. Hefer pulled his son onto his lap, he exhibited control of an unpredictable situation and carried on.    The result is he appears even more steadfast and trustworthy. He’s able to soothe his overtired son while helming a company that is navigating extreme adversity in the pandemic.   

3. He overcame by concentrating on what he could control.

The ultimate victory for Mr. Hefer is that despite his son’s interruption, over which he had no control, he concentrated on what he could control, which was his message to the interviewer.   This paired quite nicely with his actual message: that while we are in pandemic lockdowns, over which he has no control, he was focusing on preparation for the coming summer months when we may be free to travel and are likely to book transportation and accommodations again.  In the end, a message that could have come across as simply toeing the company line in the face of a grim reality for Trivago and the entire travel industry, ended up being a bona fide message of hope that gave us pause and every reason to find his message believable. We discovered that because of his son’s unexpected disruption, Mr. Hefer’s words had real meaning and his message was all the more credible.

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