Photo by Amy Hirschi on Unsplash

You want to exude executive presence and establish your credibility as a leader. You work hard delivering results. You take care of how you dress and your body posture. You practice your presentation skills. 

Still, building an executive leadership brand is not easy. Many times you are negatively surprised when you read your feedback reviews. How can you make sure the key people in your career talk about you the way you want them to?

I turned to Brenda Bence, one of the top executive coaches in the world and leadership branding expert to help me answer that question. Bence has worked with more than 700 executives globally and helped many of them improve their leadership brand. 

I was specifically interested in how what we say can unintentionally hurt our leadership brand. Bence shared with me the three most common phrases that make us look more junior than we are.

1. May I…? 

Bence argues that by asking permission, you relegate yourself to a small child. Children ask for permission. What you should do instead is to get clear on your role and responsibilities and stop asking for clearance for things that are within your scope. 

I would concur to that, and I would add that sometimes even informing your boss for things he does not need to know can make you look more junior. I was coaching a C-level client when one morning he shared with me an email from one of his direct reports. He was informing him that he would be late in the office. My client was baffled by this. “He is a senior person,” he told me. “I do not care if he is late; why does he send me this email?”

2. Let me check-in with my boss and come back to you.

When you say this phrase, you have basically said you are not the one in charge. You admit you do not call the shots.

This is very common. A client had confessed to me that he avoided many one-to-one meetings with his direct reports. The reason was that he was afraid they were going to ask him for things he did not have the power to change. 

Bence suggested what you should say if this happens: “That’s a great question. I am going to check into that and come back to you in 24 hours. How would you like me to get back to you? By phone, email or in person?” And then do come back in 24 hours.

With this answer, you look responsible and open to new ways of thinking. You also show that you are going to hold your word and people can count on you. “Simple things like that can make a world of difference in terms of your executive presence,” says Bence. 

3. I do not agree with that either, but this is what has been decided.

There are many versions of this: “I am not any happier about this than you are, but here is what we are going to have to do.” or “It is not my decision, the boss says we have to…”

By saying those things, you give up your status. It is like you are a bottom fist and there is a fist above, and you push against it. That’s not leadership behavior, argues Bence. As a leader of the organization, you need to find a way to interlock and work together with your superiors. Also, you need to align with the one voice of the organization.

Jeff Bezos would agree with Bence as he is a big advocate of “disagree and commit.” Leaders will often sabotage a company decision by sharing their disagreement with their teams. Their direct reports will not be motivated to execute the decision well, and this does not set up the company for success. In other cases, leaders will obstruct a decision by “forgetting” to communicate it to their reports.

This passive-aggressiveness does not help the company and does not enhance the leader’s brand. High-functioning leadership teams express disagreements and do not avoid conflict. They make sure everyone feels heard. But, once a decision is made, everyone commits to it and holds each other accountable. 

I work with many leaders who feel more loyal to the teams they manage rather than the leadership team they are part of. I get it. But, by enhancing your bonds and loyalty to your superiors and peers, you can acquire more influence on the direction of the company and can help your direct reports get things done more easily across the organization. Expressing your disagreement with the company line outside the decision-making room harms those bonds.

A phrase that does not make you look more junior but you may think it does

There is a phrase that you may avoid saying because you believe it will make you look bad but it will not. That phrase is “I do not know.”

In the current world, it is impossible to be an expert in everything. We are constantly bombarded with information. As a leader, you need to be able to own the concept of “I don’t know,” Bence says. You can simply say: “I don’t know. I will get back to you on that; I am curious myself, and I would like to find out.” 


Removing the three phrases above from your vocabulary can be one of the easiest changes you can make to boost your executive presence. What are the other phrases that are a no-no for you because they make you give away your power?

Caterina Kostoula is an executive coach. To receive tips on how to create meaningful impact and a fulfilling life, you can subscribe to the Leader’s Path. Connect on LinkedIn or Facebook.


  • Caterina Kostoula

    Executive Coach and Founder of The Leaderpath. Forbes, Fast Company & Thrive Global Contributor

    Caterina Kostoula is an executive coach and founder of The Leaderpath. Her mission is to coach leaders to create meaningful impact by connecting deeply to themselves and others. Prior to The Leaderpath, Caterina was a Global Business Leader at Google. She managed some of the company's largest C-level partnerships. She was also an internal coach, awarded a 5-star-rating distinction. Before Google, Caterina worked in advertising. Caterina has coached leaders from Google, Amazon, Vodafone, WPP, Ferrero, ArcelorMittal, and several entrepreneurs. She collaborates with INSEAD, coaching Executive MBAs and alumni. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and the European Mentorship and Coaching Council. Caterina has lived in more than seven countries across America, Europe, and Asia and is currently based in London. She speaks English, Spanish and Greek. Caterina writes about personal development on Forbes, Fast Company, and Thrive Global. In 2017, she was one of Medium’s top writers on self-improvement. She holds an INSEAD MBA and an Executive Coaching Accreditation and Masters from Hult Ashridge Business School. She has two young children and enjoys spending time with family and friends. You can subscribe to the Leader’s Path, for tips to create meaningful impact and a fulfilling life to your inbox. Follow her on LinkedIn or Facebook.