Having gravitas is one of the crucial factors when promoting an employee to a leadership position. Gravitas which is a big part of executive presence is how you project your level of credibility, assertiveness and ability to deliver a clear and compelling message.
A lot of people think that executive presence means “dress for success”, personal grooming and looking like an exec, but that’s only part of it.
I’ve worked with many senior managers before their executive interviews (as an interview coach but also in my recruitment work) and while dressing appropriately for the exec level is important, at the core of the executive presence is displaying the self confidence required to succeed at a higher level of leadership.
Can the individual take control of difficult, even unpredictable situations and make tough decisions? How do they engage with other opinionated members of the executive team?
Although executive presence is tough to articulate, it’s important you understand how senior decision makers define executive presence, why it’s important and what you need to do to display it.
A lot of senior decision makers I’ve worked with in my recruitment career apart from having a track record of success, are also socially adept in any setting, are articulate and can capture people’s attention – they are excellent public speakers.
I’ve also recruited for a female exec who was soft spoken but in meetings, especially when working with managers on complex issues, her presence as a leader shined through. She was a superb listener, never competed with others for airtime but she always maintained her calm, composed demeanor even when others got emotional. She used her dry sense of humour to defuse tensions in meetings and was always able to find the right time and the right words to guide the group’s conversation where she wanted it to go. Overall, her style suggested a collaborative approach to solving business problems, however if she felt that an issue was central to success, she’d pursue it until it was addressed to her satisfaction.
I also remember an internal candidate, at a Director level, who was highly valued for his commitment and contribution to his company. However, he wasn’t getting the promotion he wanted. Over time, I’ve seen that while his presentations were always well prepared, it was clear that he wasn’t entirely comfortable speaking to the group. His posture was a bit hunched and his shirts always a bit crumpled. Even though he knew all the other people, he looked nervous in presentations and when others challenged him, he seemed to be thrown off balance and tended to ramble on. The hiring manager mentioned later a lot of his responses were vague and noncommittal. That combined with the other issues raised question marks about his ability to represent the company and build credibility with outside groups that were important to the company’s success.
There are also situations when someone is working extremely hard and they are delivering, but they aren’t getting promoted because people describe them as harried, rushed and disorganised. If someone is often late to meetings, their desk is always cluttered, they don’t appear organised in meetings and they appear overwhelmed at their current level, how can they possibly be promoted to handle more responsibility?
So what are the elements of the executive presence? If successfully displayed, your executive presence indicates that you can:
- Maintain your composure and clarity of thought in stressful and pressurised situations
- Take control of difficult to manage situations – as opposed to being passive or overwhelmed by the crisis
- Make tough, often unpopular decisions without procrastinating
- Quickly build confidence on the part of others so they will follow your lead
- Project a sense of optimism that difficult challenges can be overcome
- Be taken seriously as a member of the Exec team – being able to hold your own in spirited discussions with other smart, talented and opinionated execs and persuading others to adopt your point of view.
- Take a minority position on an issue you think is critical to the company’s success and hold your ground when challenged
- Represent the company well with external group; customers, suppliers, the media, regulators, governmental bodies, and industry groups
Your ability to project executive presence builds confidence that you’ll be able to handle the kinds of challenges executives are forced to deal with at the C-suite level.
Of course, many of these skills can take a long time to develop, but whatever level you’re at, here are some actions you can immediately take to improve your exec presence:
- Uplevel your style & grooming (if needed). Look around and see how execs in your company dress, as this varies from company to company. If you have someone trusted within your company, ask them to give you the straight scoop about your appearance, along with recommendations about things you might change.
- Improve your public speaking skills. You don’t have to be an amazing speaker to be successful although your presentation skills become more important the higher up you go. However, it’s a good investment of your time and money to take public speaking classes or work with a communications coach with the goal of becoming a poised and capable speaker. Focus on developing a communication style that is direct and concise in conveying your points. Get feedback on your body language (your posture, hand and arm gestures, how you stand in front of a group, even when you walk) so that it projects the level of self-confidence and conviction in expressing your opinions expected of an executive.
- Find your voice. We all have a different style and when developing our presence, trying to adopt a style that’s not consistent with your personality is a losing proposition – you’ll come across as unconvincing. Instead, identify your assets – e.g. your listening skills, sense of humour and timing. Keep in mind that you should also be able to convey a sense of optimism to others and a sense of being in control of yourself and those around you.
- Project a sense of composure and self-control. In developing your executive presence, be mindful of seemingly small things that can trip you up and undermine the image you’re trying to project. You don’t want to project to others that you are disorganised and harried even if you can deliver on your responsibilities. Make sure both emails and formal reports are error free, and that your messages are well articulated.
Projecting executive presence is not totally natural to most of us. Focus your developmental efforts on displaying the building blocks that add up to a commanding presence – the self-confidence, composure, positive assertiveness, attitude of optimism, and sense of being in control – in a way that’s consistent with your style and personality.