Q & A with Debra Benton, author of THE VIRTUAL EXECUTIVE

By Mark Fortier, Contributor, US Daily Review

Mark Fortier:  Why did you write The Virtual Executive?

Debra Benton:  Clients starting telling me, “what you teach is great for helping me establish a presence that is memorable, trusted and confident in-person but I don’t work face to face today.” Their sales force is remote, their boss is in a different city, and they do meetings via video conference.  “So how do we create that same effective presence when they can’t see us?  How do we shake hands over the phone? How do we build trust when they can’t look us in the eyes?”  The Virtual Executive helps translate what I’ve been successfully  teaching offline to what works online.

MF: What qualifies you to effectively counsel and train virtual executives?

DB:  Well, first, a virtual executive is still a real live person – not an automaton – and my entire career has centered around improving real-life interpersonal work relationships.  My interest started in the late ’70’s when I was fired from a significant job because I lacked ‘people skills and didn’t get along well with the good ol’ boys as my boss told me.  Like a lot of people who fail in something I spent  much of my life overcompensating,  but later I set out to research what exactly do “people skills” involve (is this what you meant?).

After over 2,000 interviews, I came up with a body of knowledge — I call it a “secret sauce” of traits, talents, and nuance — that I started using myself and found that I could teach to others.  Little things to tweak that help how you think and behave.  I learned for myself and started presenting in speeches and coaching on how to be true to yourself but still present yourself in a way that people are receptive to you. I’ve worked in 18 different countries and with clients from the Washington Beltway to Hollywood; the U.S. Border Patrol to NASA, helping them dissect, decode and deconstruct what it takes to experience an elevated presence wherever you want to be in the world.  As one client remarked, “You don’t just research this subject, you marinate in it.”

MF:  What traps or pitfalls should virtual executives beware of when working remotely?

DB:  Thinking they can get away with sloppy thinking, writing, responding, dress, planning, integrity, disposition,  etc. — because no one sees.  Wrong. Everything that goes on behind a monitor can be sensed, felt, surmised by the other person. If a plant responds to someone’s attitude (as Prince Charles believes), a horse can sense fear running down the reins,  a dog can feel your attitude towards it — then a fellow human being can perceive it even if only through electronics. So,  we can’t assume  we can get away with lower performance or less effort because we’re not always face to face.

MF:  Which channels do you discuss and how can we sharpen our presence/skills to operate in these modes? 

DB:  My book covers the four main modes of communication: voice, video, written, and social media.  To sharpen your presence, smile when you are on the phone, smile when you type an email or text, smile when you are on video and network beyond the easy social media mode.

MF: Are these channels all appropriate for any virtual executive, or can some be ruled out based on a particular skill set, business objective or task at hand?

DB:  Yes, for all channels and, no, none can be ruled out regardless of your job level, skill set, business objective or task at hand.

MF:  When is it best to bypass these modes and insist on live, in-person meetings or interactions?

DB:  Anytime there is even the smallest voice in the back of your head that says, “that may not have gone like I hoped,” you may consider a live/in-person meeting.

MF:  Has the age of mobile technology enabled a new kind of executive to succeed and serve business needs in this environment?  What distinguishes such individuals?

DB:  “Winners” win regardless of technology.  It’s not the new-fangled hi-tech helmet that Tim Tebow wears to make him a good quarterback — it’s the person behind the technology. And that is true in any walk of life.

MF: Is there a danger of social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn being used as substitutes for traditional in-person networking?  Or have they elevated the impact of fewer and more meaningful in-person meetings?

DB:  Absolutely. Many more people log onto Facebook every day than pick up the phone or send a note to network with someone.  It’s easy, painless, overused, and does not allow  you to stand out from the crowd.  I’m all for using every LinkedIn networking tool available to you as long as you simultaneously put yourself out there in person.

MF: Do appearances matter more or less for virtual professionals?  What kinds of special steps/preparation can help project our best image on Skype calls or video chats?

DB: First, appearances matter whether they see you or not because YOU see you. I had more than one female executive tell me  they slip on a pair of high heels before they write an email and put lipstick on before making a phone call.  One male executive says he brushes his teeth before he leaves a voicemail message to make it cleaner. In the book I detail many suggestions for making a Skype or video chat better: check the lighting, check the backdrop, check the volume, your posture, clothes, hair, etc.  In other words, plan and practice before you go live.

MF: When are immediate responses not appropriate or valued (i.e., knee-jerk reactions to emails, etc)?

DB: When you’re mad, befuddled, in lust, or drunk.

MF:  How can skilled professionals get lost or off-track by working virtually?

DB:  Probably the same percent who would experience the same in person. Electronics do not make you stupid; your attitude, poor planning, or carelessness make your stupid.

MF:  How can we avoid misunderstandings and maintain our pace of correspondence in social media like Facebook and Twitter, and other written communication?  Example of an effective post, and one that is not?

DB:  Anything questionable in the least, forward to an honest, candid friend first and ask, “How does this strike you?”

MF:  What can new hires or “millennials” learn from the book, and what can seasoned professionals/boomers can learn?

DB:  Technically savvy young people will learn how to better communicate with their boss and boss’s boss plus what it takes to be a good leader, to manage others, make decisions, persuade and influence others, deal with business bullies, handle mistakes and setbacks.  Older people, seasoned in managing and leading will become more adept, comfortable, and skilled in digital communication while remaining relevant for today’s workforce.

MF:  Other thoughts on why professionals should read The Virtual Executive, and why it may be an effective management tool for those who work with a virtual workforce and/or other virtual partners?

DB:  The first rule of good leadership is to make clear what you want in your people and what you expect them to do.  The Virtual Executive becomes a two-way communication clarity tool: Millenials get well-defined expectations of behavior that will aid in their      career progression.  Boomers get taken seriously by young people who can run circles around them technologically.

Debra Benton is founder of Benton Management Resources, whose clients include GE, AT&T, American Express, Pepsi, United Airlines, Time Warner, McKinsey & Company, Verizon, Dell, Novartis, Kraft Foods, and NASA, and individuals from Hollywood to the Washington Beltway. She is the bestselling author of eight previous books including How to Think Like a CEO and Secrets of a CEO Coach.  She has been appeared on “Good Morning America”, “Today,” CNN and on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. More at: debrabenton.com.


All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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