June 24th, 2022

Kate Purmal and Lee Epting are Athena coaches, business partners, and co-authors of the book COMPOSURE: The Art of Executive Presence. Together, they combine a neuroscience-informed approach along with classic executive coaching principles to work with executives to shift the way they feel inside – and how they present themselves to the outside world – using a blend of techniques and many decades of corporate leadership experience.

Kate’s coaching style reflects her belief that individuals and teams perform best when they amplify their strengths and act from their authentic way of being. She works with clients to identify and create significant and meaningful change. Kate operates at the highest level of leadership and entrepreneurship as an independent board director and angel investor. Before becoming an executive coach, Kate held CEO, COO, and CFO roles in numerous technology and biotech organizations. Her experience includes co-founding and early management team roles in three start-ups that achieved successful exits, serving as the Senior Vice President of an emerging technology business at a Fortune 500 company, and assisting two privately held companies execute successful mergers as an executive and independent board director. Kate is a lecturer at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, a guest lecturer at Stanford University, and has published research on gender in the C-Suite as a Senior Industry Fellow at Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Institute.

Lee Epting is a leadership and development coach whose background as a senior technology executive gives her a non-theoretical approach to working with her clients. She draws on her experience working in the top 10% of three of the largest technology companies in the world as well as her 20 years in Silicon Valley, where she worked for Palm Computing (makers of the PalmPilot) and then went on to join the founding team at Handspring, which delivered yet another iconic consumer electronic product, the Handspring Treo (which set the stage for the first smartphone in the industry). Lee works with executives from companies of all sizes to develop strategies and actionable plans to help them successfully navigate a wide range of challenges, such as obtaining a well-deserved raise or promotion, preparing for major presentations to the executive team, getting endorsement for new business ventures, setting and communicating priorities to management, or simply resolving human conflicts that inevitably arise in the workplace.

Below, read more about Lee and Kate’s work with Athena members, how executive coaching helps leaders identify and overcome their fears, and why executive presence is much more than a “soft skill”.

Tell us about your new book, COMPOSURE. What can readers expect? 

Kate: The impetus behind the book is that we’ve all experienced work environments where we as women, and others in marginalized groups, struggle to show up in a way that is seen and supported in organizations – even in the most psychologically safe organizations. The genesis of the book was asking the question: How can we make it better for people who are struggling in environments that are challenging? It may be a challenging work environment, or perhaps the first time you join a board of directors or take a C-level role. It could be a toxic work environment. This includes any situation where you’re triggered or on high alert. These are the kinds of situations that we wanted to address because we know that psychological safety affects confidence, and one of the big challenges to having more women in leadership is the confidence gap. The confidence gap shows up in high-pressure environments. When we overcome the confidence gap, so women and those on the margins show up with greater inner confidence and presence, we level the playing field with men who (generally) show up that way more naturally.

Based on your research and approach, it sounds like executive presence is so much more than a soft skill. In fact, it seems like a critical skill to career success. 

Kate: Think about when you’ve walk into a room and just by scanning the room you can tell exactly who is in charge. It’s not about what they’re wearing or where they’re sitting. It’s about how they’re showing up and how they’re holding space. That comes from inside. That’s the piece we work on. It’s almost like an inner projection that allows you to show up fully, authentically open, and with a strong presence.

What drove you to this work? 

Lee: The big thing for me after I left technology was asking myself how do I give back? How I take all my cumulative experiences, all the feelings and moments I had collected, all the big turning points – and share that with others? Kate and I both come at it from a different experiences, with different backgrounds. But we decided to co-coach a client two years ago, and we introduced some of the practices Kate had been honing in her work around neurolinguistics and neurosciences. She met Joshua, who is a somatic clinical therapist. We talked about bringing together our various practices – Joshua’s work in somatic therapies, Kate’s in neurosciences and neurolinguistics, and then this more of a classic executive coaching experience. And that’s where we all merge together. We are marrying our practices that we’ve homed in on our Elevate Live Program.

Kate: There are really two things. I’ve always coached in some capacity as a leader, where I needed to bring out high performance in the people on my teams. And then I started to do it as a coach. I found that there was a barrier in coaching, when somebody hits a wall where their internal systems won’t allow them to do what they really want to do, what you’re asking them to do.

For example, I have a client who built her own creative agency. And when it came to selling, she really struggled. In particular, she struggled when it came to selling big, well-known clients. It was as if her system was telling her that she wasn’t good enough to be working with these folks. In the time we work together, her presentation services went from $1,500 a presentation to $35,000! That’s an evolution of her internal self-worth.

Wow – was this client able to identify those fears? Or was it something that the coaching revealed?

Kate: The coaching revealed it. There’s what’s going on the surface, and then there was what’s going on under the surface that’s unconscious. As I coach, I’m on serious lookout for everything that’s going on under the surface. Because talking about the surface is just a story. When people aren’t having what they want, they’re not having it for a reason. Is it because the choice they think what they want isn’t really a choice on their menu? Or because it’s too scary of a choice that they’re not willing to make?

Describe in layman’s terms what semantics and neurolinguistics are – and how we can think of them related to the workplace and to our careers. 

Lee: It’s about dropping into your body, actually identifying how you feel, and finding a way to express that. That could be in words, it could be in your eye movement, it could be in your facial expressions, it could be expressed through the colors that you see, the sound you hear, the way you breathe. It’s about just being able to identify and sit with that for a moment. That’s the first thing. We have to get in touch with what’s happening in our body first, which affects how we respond with our brains. It’s about learning how to make time and space to process, to form a response, to gain composure. It’s an art form.

Describe your coaching style. 

Lee: My coaching style is very influenced by my background and experience. I’ve been a technology executive for almost 30 years and started my career in Silicon Valley. After many years and a few great startups, I moved to Europe. My coaching is heavily influenced by my international work. I was operating on the world’s largest technology stages for the three of the largest tech companies in the world and doing that in the top 10 percentile of those companies as a woman. My style is very influenced by helping people understand where they are, where they want to go, and how to get there – and do that in a way that, at the end, your “one plus one is now three.”

How did you get to this coaching methodology?

Kate: In traditional coaching, I hit the wall. I couldn’t get beyond that. I also have biracial children; my kids are Black. They’re operating in a world that’s even less forgiving and more demanding of them, and where they have a constant radar up about how others are perceiving them. With these forces I realized that we can’t change that unless we change internally, and I needed to figure out how to make that possible for my clients. My business partner, Joshua (who’s the co-author of our book) is a Black man who’s very confident and has a strong and healthy sense of entiltment. He grew up with a very successful father who was in George W. Bush’s administration. The only difference between Joshua and my son isn’t the way they look; it’s the way they feel on the inside.

You use the word entitlement, which often has a negative connotation to it. What’s the positive lens of that word? 

Kate: There is this idea of healthy entitlement. Entitlement got a bad connotation in the 1960s when it started to be associated with a social safety net. Prior to that, the word meant what you’re rightfully deserving of.

How do you actually bridge this gap and create a healthy sense of entitlement from the beginning? 

Kate: It starts with developing the awareness yourself. This is why this program and the work is so important. It gets to the root cause: How do we get socialized? Why do we function this way? How do we overcome it? How do we learn to resolve it? It digs into the layers, including trauma, which imprints in us in a way to keep us safe. But the most important thing is to create an awareness about all of this. What causes it, and how do you resolve it yourself? And once you model it yourself, you can model it with your kids.

What can people expect when they work with you one-on-one for coaching? 

Kate: The first step in any session is to understand the intention for the session. Usually, it’s about shifting something that’s not working, or amplifying something that is working. I use a series of techniques that get down to the root cause. Then I examine what sits beneath ” you not having this experience that you say you want. I call it going off-road, to what sits below the surface. The unconscious forces that keep you stuck or not having what you’d like. I’ve been a CEO, I’ve been a board member, I’ve done all that stuff, I can give advice and stay on the road. But what I really excel at and what’s really differentiated is off-road to identify internal roadblocks and clear them.

Afterward, we move into the future, imagine these situations happening again, and how you’re going to handle those things. There’s the initial work to get it to shift. And then there’s work after it’s shifted. With these things shifted, now what does the future look like? What are the new opportunities and the resulting action plan when you alleviate the resistance in the future?

What’s next for you? 

Lee: What excites me the most is knowing the work we’re doing is impacting the people who are getting access to it. The strategy is to make it available as wide and far as we can. We’re currently working on the audio version of the book, which we’re going to release as a traditional audiobook and for free as podcasts for Aththrough chapter podcasts in the fall. We know this is life-changing – and we want to get it into as many hands as possible.

Athena members can schedule time with Lee and Kate here. Learn more about COMPOSURE: The Art of Executive Presence. Or, listen to the Composure Podcast for lessons in executive presence and leadership.

Athena Alliance is the proven executive development community for women leaders. Athena provides coaching, live and on-demand learning, networking, and access to career opportunities to accelerate women’s careers. Every membership includes two hours of coaching with experts like Kate and Lee, helping you understand your value, position yourself for your next opportunity, and reach the C-suite or boardroom.



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