Developing Executive Presence

Building Belief in Your Leadership

Developing Executive Presence - Building Belief in Your Leadership

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Do you possess the elusive quality of executive presence?

The first time Michael saw his CEO speak at a conference, he was amazed by how "together" she was. There must have been more than 100 people in the room, yet she appeared calm, confident and in control.

But there was something else that kept everyone on the edge of their seats. Michael couldn't put his finger on it, but he knew it was an essential quality in a leader. Whatever it was, it earned her a standing ovation – and his respect.

It was her "executive presence" that so impressed Michael and the other members of the audience.

While it can appear that successful people are born with a magic touch, executive presence is something that anyone can learn. In this article, we'll look at how you can develop it yourself, and boost people's belief in your leadership.

What Is Executive Presence?

According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of "Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success," executive presence has three elements:

  1. Gravitas – how you act.
  2. Communication – how you speak.
  3. Appearance – how you look.

We'll examine these elements in more detail a little later in this article.

Hewlett believes that the way you act demonstrates your confidence and your ability to communicate your thoughts and ideas, especially when you're under stress. She says that, nowadays, we value leaders who appear calm, confident and steady, rather than those who use toughness or charisma to build their following.

Executive presence also means being "present" (being focused on the moment) while remaining aware of the concerns and issues affecting the people around you. Researchers at the Roffey Park leadership institute in the U.K. found that being present also helps you to connect with your own sense of personal power, that is, being comfortable in your own skin so that you can work "with," rather than "over," others.

When all these things are in sync, you can create a strong sense of authority and make decisions in a way that builds trust.

Advantages of Executive Presence

Developing executive presence is more than just a question of winning popularity or power. One of its main benefits is that it helps you reduce stress. Managers with executive presence, and who focus their attention on the moment, can cope better with challenges in several ways. The Roffey Park study shows that they demonstrate:

  • Clearer thinking and perception.
  • Greater courage, conviction and sensitivity in handling conflict.
  • More focus on higher priorities.
  • More energy and passion.
  • Calm when dealing with change.
  • More openness to new opportunities.
  • Confidence in their own views.

How to Improve Your Executive Presence

As we mentioned earlier, executive presence has three elements – gravitas, communication and appearance. Here, we explore each of them and suggest ways that you can develop them:

1. Gravitas

There are several key behaviors in gravitas, including showing grace under fire, being decisive, speaking your truth, using emotional intelligence, and being authentic.

Showing Grace Under Fire. Hewlett says that you demonstrate gravitas in how you handle adversity. Chances are, you will encounter problems and make mistakes, but you will show executive presence if you are poised and controlled in a crisis, and admit your errors. You can adapt and bounce back after a setback if you have the right mindset and attitude. Our article, Developing Resilience, has strategies to help you do this.

Experience is a great teacher of grace under fire. When you go through a crisis, you learn that you do have the strength and skills to cope, and that you can control how you respond.

To remain cool and collected when under pressure, you need a degree of self-confidence, and you can manage stress levels with the help of effective relaxation techniques. It also helps to be well prepared, and this is where risk analysis and contingency planning can help.

Being Decisive. As a manager, you need to be assertive and able to make decisions, but you can easily fall into the trap of becoming too authoritarian or even aggressive. If you issue commands without listening, you won't earn respect. Your team will respect you if you listen, learn, weigh up your options, and then decide what action to take, if any.

Speaking Your Truth. We all have ideas about how things should be done, but it takes courage to share your thoughts with others, and stand by your convictions. Giving constructive feedback can be a daunting process for both a manager and team member, but it is an important skill to master and, when done carefully, it can really improve individual performance.

Using Emotional Intelligence. Understanding how your emotions can affect people around you, and being considerate of other people's needs and feelings, form part of your emotional intelligence, and having strong "people skills" is an essential element of executive presence.

Researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities studying management changes on an offshore oil rig found that, in that macho environment, the toughest men were in charge and others were afraid to ask for help or admit mistakes, for fear of looking weak. The leaders' lack of emotional intelligence had created a hostile and potentially dangerous environment. But when the organization began to focus on safety, people found it easier to speak out and accident rates fell by 84 percent.

Being Authentic. Successful leaders earn respect by building connections with others, and they do this by being themselves. We all want to be seen "in a good light," but it's important that people get to know the "real" you. You can learn more about being true to your own personality and values in our articles on authenticity and authentic leadership.

Engage in honest conversations with people and share your ideas about issues that matter to you. Admit when you've made a mistake, ask for help if you need it, and give credit to others for their achievements.

2. Communication

Effective communication enables you to express your ideas and engage with people. But the way you speak is often seen as more persuasive than what you're speaking about. People are drawn to passion and presence. Here are some of the elements of good communication that contribute to executive presence:

Speaking Skills. Your tone, grammar, accent, and clarity all convey a message to your listeners. If your voice is raspy or if you mumble, people will focus more on the way you speak than on what you're saying. Try to keep an even tone when you speak. For example, your voice tends to rise when you become stressed, and listeners will pick up on that.

Take voice lessons to make your accent easier to understand and try drinking hot lemon and honey before delivering a speech, so you don't sound raspy. Avoid saying "um", "er" and "you know," because these time fillers make you sound unsure of yourself. Our article, Better Public Speaking, has more tips to help you improve your skills.

Commanding a Room. This is more about building a connection than taking charge. Instead of walking into a room and trying to take control, it's better to smile, listen and share your thoughts, without revealing too much. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a great first impression!

You want to present yourself as a real person who others can relate to, trust and want to follow, while maintaining your position of authority. Use anecdotes, rather than bombarding people with information, and engage in small talk to break the ice. A little bit of humor also helps to draw people to you.

Assertiveness. Balance is key when it comes to leading others. You need to be clear and forthright about your needs, while still considering the needs of other people. When you act assertively you act fairly and with empathy. The power you use comes from your self-confidence and not from intimidation or bullying. Find out more on this, with our article on assertiveness.

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Body Language. The way we sit, walk, smile, and enter a room are all ways of communicating, and most people pick up on these cues before you say a word. Your confidence is quickly revealed in the firmness of a handshake and whether you make eye contact. Your body language is a reflection of the way you feel so, when you are comfortable with who you are, that confidence shows in your posture and your stride.

Be sure to keep your head up and your shoulders back, and try to look relaxed and happy. Keep your composure when situations get heated.

3. Appearance

While your appearance is not as important as gravitas and communication, you can show your presence by maintaining an attractive look. Hewlett's studies of senior leaders revealed that looking groomed and polished actually had greater impact than physical beauty, youth, height, or weight. Present yourself as a neat and clean person, to show your respect for yourself and others. Here are a few more tips:

  • People do "judge a book by its cover," so choose clothes and styles that are suitable for the occasion and the environment. You might live in flip-flops at home, but wearing them to a meeting means you will not be taken seriously by the other attendees. And be aware of any potential cross cultural faux-pas when it comes to clothing.
  • Even when jeans and t-shirts are appropriate, you still want to look professional. Women should avoid dangly earrings and clanging bracelets, which can be distracting.
  • Fidgeting and pulling at ill-fitting clothes is a distraction. You will also feel more self-conscious, which might make you lose confidence. If a piece of clothing doesn't feel comfortable, don't wear it.
  • Not everyone is a style guru so, if you're unsure, hire an image consultant or a personal shopper.

Key Points

Executive presence is a seemingly elusive quality of successful leaders, but it's something that anyone can learn.

By developing the three main aspects of gravitas, communication and appearance, you can acquire the skills you need to polish your look, build your confidence, and connect with people in a way that will increase their respect for you and your leadership abilities.

Your body language and tone of voice communicate a message to others. Walk into a room with your head up and a smile on your face.

Try talking about subjects you are interested in, but don't dominate the conversation. Ask others for their opinions and use your sense of humor to inject a little lightheartedness into a situation.


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