What does it mean when you hear the phrase executive presence? When you describe someone as having executive presence, what does it look like? And how do you get more of it?
I get this question a lot from leaders at all levels. I have coached leaders who have been told, “You need to work on your executive presence,” and, “You will get that promotion when you learn how to step into executive presence.” Some have been directly told that they won’t get to C-suite until they figure out that piece. While it may sound easy, executive presence is an elusive trait. What makes it so elusive?
One reason executive presence is confusing is because it is highly contextual. As a leader, the presence you bring to any given situation, group, event, or company, needs to match the culture and context of the environment. This is why I can’t tell you exactly what executive presence is or how to get it “right.”
What exactly is executive presence?
What I can tell you is that executive presence has to do with the way you present yourself, and your attitude, mindset, confidence, body language, verbal language – your entire ontology, or way of being. If you are a leader and want to improve your executive presence, you need to learn how to engage and influence within your teams and workplace. In order to do that effectively, the first step is having the ability to read your environment.
Because executive presence is so contextual, it has to include “listening” as a competency first and foremost. I mean listening not just with your ears, but also observing the culture in a variety of ways – getting a feel for how team members behave, how they are motivated, and what matters most to them is critical as a leader. Once you have a feel for the environment, showing up with this culture in mind is critical. Some people have confused this approach with inauthenticity. However, this could not be further from the truth.
Adaptability Is Key to Executive Presence
For most of us, we have a range of traits and behaviors we use in life, depending on the context – just like most people have a wardrobe range that includes everything from casual to formal attire. You chose every piece in your closet because it was YOU in some way. This does not mean you would wear anything in your closet for every occasion. I.e.: You would not wear yoga pants to a board meeting, nor would you wear your favorite blazer to the gym.
In the same way that you choose your attire based on setting, you can adapt your presence to your context. As a leader, you have the power to choose which traits, behaviors, and moods serve you best in various work situations.
- Are you meeting with your Board of Directors?
- Leading a team-building offsite?
- Meeting an old colleague for dinner?
- Interviewing for your next General Counsel?
- Talking to your child’s 2nd grade class for career day?
Each of these situations requires some flavor of leadership presence, but you may show up in a slightly different way for each of them. (You may also show up in different attire). This highlights the important characteristics of flexibility and discernment.
The Many Interpretations of Executive Presence
You can have the most impressive resume, references, and educational background, but without executive presence, you can only advance so far. The precise behaviors that comprise executive presence are difficult to pinpoint and discuss because they are contextual, as already mentioned. Communication, appearance, and personality are part of the picture, but not the complete picture.
“You know it when you see it” is what many people say when I ask them to describe it. How do you define executive presence?
I asked 20 managers, leaders, and HR professionals to define executive presence, and here is the amalgamation of responses:
“You know it when you see it.”
“A mix of how you hold yourself and present yourself”
“Confidence and courage”
“How a leader responds to stressful situations well”
“Kind of like charisma, but more than that.”
“An empowering leader”
“Someone who presents well in front of any audience”
“Someone everybody likes”
“Someone everybody fears”
“A leader who is full of energy, enthusiasm, and zest.”
“Someone who knows how to build rapport, network, and connect the right people.”
“It means how you show up at work”
“Someone who can be in charge and create a culture.”
“A leader who can easily gain attention and authority in the room.”
“A leader who commands respect simply by their presence.”
“Bringing high-level understanding and awareness to any situation”
“Executives with presence are always attentive to the details of the moment, while holding high-level vision at the same time.”
“It’s … body language. It’s also how you speak. Being confident is important for executives. And being present and mindful and … hmmm … being in tune with everyone at work and aware of the big picture at the same time. Someone who can pay attention to the big picture vision and the relationships at the same time. Executive presence is kind of all of these things. It is hard to describe, but yes … all of those things are important for executive presence or leadership presence.”
All of these responses are spot on! And I’m sure we can add 100 more that are also true.
I believe executive presence has a lot to do with the way I define the word leader. I define a leader as a catalyst – the kind of person who has the power to motivate and influence the actions of others toward a common purpose or goal. This kind of power does not have to come from a formal role or job title, although it may. It has a lot more to do with the way people present themselves so others easily respect them, trust them, and have confidence in them.
And in order to motivate and influence others and be respected and trusted, there is much that needs to be done effectively.
9 Competencies of Executive Presence
There are many skills and behaviors helpful for leaders to learn. The competencies I believe that are most relevant to executive presence, include, but are not limited to:
- Communication skills
- Listening skills
- Emotional regulation and intelligence
- Tolerance to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA)
- Ability to connect with others / build meaningful relationships
When a leader has executive presence, others feel relieved knowing they are in charge. They instill a sense of confidence in others that they have what it takes to lead a team, project, or initiative and move it forward and in the right direction.
In today’s volatile and uncertain world, executive presence in a leader provides a sense of ease in an otherwise chaotic environment – just knowing this person is at the helm of the company or team. It is the energy, respect, attention, balance, confidence, and vision they bring all at once.
Is this easy? Of course not. But executive presence has an incredibly powerful effect on an organization.
The Power and Influence of Presence
When a leader has executive presence, it not only can have a positive influence on those they directly interact with, it can also produce a powerful ripple effect on the entire organization (which, in turn, can often have a powerful ripple effect beyond the organization, too).
For example: let’s take a look at Peter (changed his name for confidentiality). Peter was the newly appointed CEO of a medium-sized tech company. He was brought in after the former CEO was ousted for mismanagement. The former CEO was known to be a curmudgeon – critical, negative, and rigid in many ways. The trickle-down effect of this had created a strained and toxic company culture with low engagement ratings and high levels of dissatisfaction from employees at all levels.
Peter’s task was to turn the organization around and create a collaborative and dynamic culture that would engage the workforce, create a more satisfied and cohesive team, and attract top talent.
Now let’s take a look at his EVP of Sales, Victoria (name has also been changed.) Victoria had been unhappy in her role for more than 2 years and was ready to leave the company. She would often butt heads with the former CEO. She led a team of 35, collectively a disengaged, underutilized, and dissatisfied division.
Peter hit the ground running with a positive attitude. Did he enjoy every day at work among his overwhelmingly dissatisfied and disengaged teams? Of course not. But he knew the power of executive presence.
Over five months of listening and building rapport, respect, and relationships, he worked with the teams through some very challenging decisions and changes – all while maintaining a calm confidence and positive attitude. The executive presence he brought to every person and each step of the process was consistent and palpable – and the ripple effect was enormous.
Peter was able to retain his top leaders, turn the entire culture of the organization from dreary to dynamic, and instill a sense of hope and positivity at a company that was heading down a dark path. His experience, strategic mind, and intellect were all important assets to driving this change – and his executive presence was a critical component to his success.
Think about the other trickle-down effects that Peter’s executive presence had. His leaders felt inspired, which in turn positively impacted their direct and indirect reports. You could argue that the families and loved ones of those at the company were also likely impacted in a positive way. And so on …
Thich Nhat Hanh has a story about small, crowded boats that cross the Gulf of Siam in Vietnam regularly, and the powerful impact one calm person can have on a group of people holds a beautiful lesson:
“When the crowded refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all would be lost. But if even one person stayed calm, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive”Thich Nhat Hanh
This is the power of executive presence.
Exercise: Find Your Executive Presence
Close your eyes and think about a time when you were with a colleague or boss who had what you consider to be strong executive presence. When you have a clear picture of this example in your mind, start to notice the details about this memory and ask yourself:
- What do you notice about this person in this example?
- What does it look like in their physicality? (Was there eye contact? What were their facial expressions like? How did they hold their body?)
- What do you notice about their tone of voice?
- How did it feel for you to be with someone who had executive presence?
- What was your connection like with the other person in this example?
- How do you think other people in this situation were feeling in this example?
- What ripple effect might this person have had on you and others in this scenario?
Explore the example in your mind and notice the ways executive presence may be helpful to your work, family, and relationships. How can you bring elements of this example into your life every day to increase your ability to have executive presence and influence those around you in a positive way?
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