Building Executive Leadership Presence
As a leader, you’re not just judged on what you do or what you deliver.
The way you act, look, and speak sets the tone for your leadership and shapes your reputation long into your career.
The saying ‘it’s not what you do but the way that you do it’ has a degree of truth. And for leaders who pride themselves on achieving and enabling the greatest results, that can be frustrating.
Impressions form quickly, and they stick. Regardless of what you get done. Like it or not, judgments are formed by the attitude you have, the way you dress, and the body language you display.
The challenge is that wanting to be yourself and lead as ‘you’, can rub up against the need for leaders to display specific qualities and attributes.
And when those attributes mean displaying a level of ‘executive presence’ it can be even harder to find the sweet spot between being authentic and conforming.
Whilst it’s a well-used phrase, ‘executive presence’ is ambiguous. And unfortunately, it is all too often the subject of negative feedback that has very few data points or concrete suggestions attached.
Many of you will have experienced someone who has a true ‘leadership presence’. Yet it’s tough to articulate what it is specifically that makes them so.
Executive presence does not come with a title, and it goes far beyond a level of seniority. It is not gender-specific and is not solely the domain of extroverts.
So, what does executive presence mean to you? How do you know if you have it? And how do you go about building it?
Here are seven things to get you started.
Model: The good news is that research can help de-code exactly what executive presence is and how it can be built. Research by the Centre for Talent Innovation in New York found that there were three key strands to executive presence.
*The percentage of senior executives who said this aspect was the core characteristic of executive presence is noted below.
Putting it simply, executive presence comes from how you talk, think, act, and look.
Watch: This 5-minute clip Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and author of Executive Presence talks through the core components of executive presence. What resonates with you and what doesn’t?
Map it. Look at the spectrum of executive presence below. Think of a person who you’ve encountered in your career who might sit well at each end of the spectrum.
What did they do and how did they do it? Write both down.
Where would you place yourself on this spectrum? Why?
Observe & Experiment: Identify someone who you interact with who sits towards the right of the spectrum. It might be someone at work, a client, or a stakeholder. Observe them closely.
How do they behave? What thinking might drive that for them?
What is their communication style?
How do those around them react in response?
Choose one behaviour and experiment with it to make it your own. We are remarkably bad at actually copying others, so regardless of how much you try, it will inevitably become your own version.
Get feedback. Executive presence isn’t something easily self-assessed. Tap into those you trust and ask them:
Where would you place my leadership style on the executive presence spectrum above, and why?
What words would you use to describe my presence?
What can I do to communicate with more impact?
What can I do to project more decisiveness, confidence, and vision?
Listen: To this excellent interview with Muriel Wilkins, on how to master Executive Presence.
Envision: Reflect on what you’ve observed and complete these three sentences:
When I’ve built more executive presence, I will feel…
When I have more executive presence, I will look and sound…
When I’ve established more executive presence, I will be able to…
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