“I Don’t Really Want Executive Presence” … Says No One Ever

Danielle PaulsonBy Danielle Paulson

executivepresenceExecutive presence is a powerful term, don’t you think? And is there anyone out there who wouldn’t want to be described as having “executive presence”? Aside from sounding impressive, it’s a concept named as a key competency more and more in organizational leadership—bosses want their employees to have it, leaders seek it, peers admire it. And yet, executive presence is rather elusive and a tough notion to articulately describe; there is no one word and it’s beyond simple body language. One thing everyone agrees on? We know it when we see it and it’s clear when a leader lacks it. Executive presence is definitely a sum of many parts, but just what are those parts?

Here are four key concepts to come back to when working on executive presence:

  1. Executive presence is an inside-out characteristic. If you don’t believe in yourself, how do you expect anyone else will? Confidence is a foundation of executive presence and a lack of confidence will undermine any other attempt to “show up” at your best. Spend time considering those self-sabotaging thoughts you bring into meetings and professional interactions. What negative messages is your inner voice perpetuating? Any thought that includes “too much,” “not enough” or “if only I …” will impede your ability to build executive presence.
  2. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. Call it “wow,” “woo” or “charisma.” Executive presence calls for self-assurance in what you say. Eye contact, communicating with energy and using an authoritative tone of voice (note: check for speech quirks such as “vocal fry” and “upspeaking”) all serve as conduits for people to connect with your message. Additionally, if you tend to run around with your “hair on fire,” creating a sense of chaos and false urgency around you or are often heard complaining about what’s not going well, chances are you are limiting yourself professionally. Slow down your walk and your talk—calm assertiveness served with a smile does wonders to draw your audience in.
  3. But what you say is important too. Now that you have their attention and people are ready to hear what you have to say, be certain to tie your big ideas to the greater good of the business. Always connect the dots between what you think and what you do (or want to do) and a positive organizational outcome. Call it added value or strategic self-promotion, just be certain to carefully consider this step or you risk being labeled self-serving—and no one can connect with that.
  4. Gravitas. Admittedly, if executive presence is an elusive term, “gravitas” is a true head-scratcher. That said, in Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s book “Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success,” gravitas is the most important pillar of executive presence and in my experience, she is spot on. Here, gravitas is broken down into four palpable elements you can really get your head around:
    • Confidence or the ability to maintain grace under fire. When things get heated or stressful, make it a general rule to not lose it. Instead, stay sane and behave in a calm and collected way. If this is something you struggle with, it’s time to read my former post on mindfulness and the role it plays in business.
    • Decisiveness or the capacity to make tough decisions and stay the course even under scrutiny or challenge from others. I would amend this a bit by again pointing out the effectiveness of tying your thinking back to the organization. Decisiveness isn’t about “I’m right, you’re wrong.” It’s about utilizing an enterprise approach to thinking and strategy and then being confident enough to vet your thinking with others. Influence is a key leadership skill that plays heavily in situations such as this.
    • Integrity directly affects a leader’s ability to be effective. Walk the walk and talk the talk, as they say. In other words, do what you say you’re going to do—don’t just say something because it sounds good at the time and then let yourself get swept up in day-to-day demands. Be a leader people can believe in and get behind.
    • Emotional intelligence underlies it all and I can’t stress its importance enough. EQ is no longer a “soft skill”; it is a “must skill.” A leader’s ability to control his/her emotions and act with empathy around others is crucial.

Essentially, executive presence is that ultimate blend of art, science and business. It embodies poise, presence and professionalism, as well as instinct, intelligence and influence. Try to remember that executive presence isn’t just about you; it’s about knowing who you are and what you know, being aware of how you show up, and strategically meeting the needs of the energy and people around you. Done right, your executive presence will precede you and its impact will be felt long after you leave the room.