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What is executive presence (and why do you need it)?

The best leaders are the ones who can command the attention of a room and immediately draw you into their vision. But is there a name for this special skill or characteristic? Some call it executive presence. While it’s a common buzzword in leadership development training, it’s truly a trait that can set you apart from others and help you establish a reputation of respect and knowledge.

Companies and leaders may already know that executive presence is important, but it isn’t a skill that comes naturally for a lot of people. It takes some time to develop and refine. According to a survey conducted by Coach Source, an executive coaching service, 57% of organizations that hire coaches say presence is one of two top purposes for their coaching. Companies see the skill’s value and want their leaders to lead with a strong presence.

So, how can you develop it yourself? We break down what executive presence is, how you can build it, and how it will make you a more effective leader.

What exactly is executive presence?

When someone mentions executive presence, you probably imagine someone who’s confident, intelligent, and an effective communicator. These are all great competencies to have, but there’s usually more to it than that. However, putting exactly what executive presence is into words is a little difficult.

In a study done by Tracom Group, more than half of HR practitioners said executive presence is tough to define, but 81% of them said they’re able to identify when someone has executive presence. It’s hard to wrap your arms around, as it's a skill that’s identified more by actions and overall behavior than by words alone.

While its definition is ambiguous, the Tracom Group research identified three factors that make up executive presence.  

1. Interpersonal aptitude

Interpersonal aptitude is the ability to relate to and connect with other people. Someone who has interpersonal aptitude has a high degree of emotional intelligence and can read others’ emotions and body language well.

2. Professional affect

Professional affect is your overall demeanor and how others perceive you. It’s also called charisma. Someone who has professional affect will be able to inspire and influence others, as well as be seen as competent in their work.

3. Technical competence

Technical competence is having the more quantifiable skills and knowledge required to get things done and deliver results.

Other ways of defining executive presence

In additional research about executive presence, workplace leadership expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett came to another explanation for leadership presence. Hewlett and the Center for Talent Innovation determined through their research that it’s a combination of appearance, communication, and gravitas. You may have more or less of each ability, but the researchers note you must understand how to use each skill to your advantage in order to have true executive presence.

In her book, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, Hewlett unpacks this research and shares examples from real business leaders learning how to develop their executive presence.

Why is executive presence important?

A strong executive presence can be key for you to establish yourself as a capable and inspiring leader in your organization. How you appear to others will determine the future of your career, and if you’re a charismatic leader, you’ll be able to build a strong network of partners who want to work with you. If you come off as a person who can deliver results and work well with others, you’re more likely to experience advancement and secure opportunities to grow.

Unfortunately, first impressions can mean a lot in the workplace. Don’t let others’ preconceived notions be the lasting impression they remember about you. Whether you’re the youngest person in the room or the only woman in a room full of men, having an executive presence can show others you’re someone to take seriously and shouldn’t be underestimated.

Developing executive presence in leaders is important for the business overall, too. In the same Tracom Group study, organizations that invested in executive presence leadership training saw many benefits to establishing this skill as a leadership priority. The study shows that 60% of organizations who listed executive presence as a leadership competence saw employee behavior more aligned to the company’s values and culture, and also increased overall organizational performance.

How do you build executive presence? 7 tips to help

1. Tap into your personal power

Many times, employees struggle to develop an executive presence due to a lack of confidence. However, by tapping into your personal power and overcoming your insecurities, you’ll find yourself more confident and ready to own your seat at the table. To help you increase your comfort and confidence to be in positions of influence and leadership, you can sign up for the Personal Power eight-week coaching program.

The program is designed to show you how to break through ‘sabotaging’ rules and judgments about power, understand how to manage stakeholders, and discover healthy ways to compete and lead in your industry. You’ll also learn how to lean on your leadership strengths and command respect from others. Once you understand your own personal power, you’ll be able to more easily navigate office politics and feel confident in your own abilities to lead and inspire others.

2. Have a vision and communicate it clearly

A critical step to inspiring confidence in your peers and leaders is to have a vision for where you want to go, either for your personal career journey or for the team you lead. Once you’ve established the vision, you need to learn to sell it well. Come up with your elevator pitch to articulate what your goal is, why it’s important, and how someone can help you achieve it. This elevator pitch should motivate others and excite them to help you achieve the vision. Then, make sure you can communicate the steps needed to achieve your long-term goal clearly.

Leading with a vision will set you apart as an inspirational leader and establish a great executive presence. And, gaining buy-in from others for that vision will make it easier to lead a team since they’ll have their own desire to see it through.

3. Be aware of how people perceive you

The ability to pick up on how you’re perceived by others is a good life skill as well as a career skill. If you want to have a good executive presence, you’ll probably want to be seen as a reliable and knowledgeable professional who has innovative ideas. This is the “personal affect” aspect of establishing an executive presence.

To better understand your appearance to others at work, consult with managers, mentors, and other leaders you trust. You should also collect as much feedback as you can from people you work closely with—such as peers, partners, and even your direct reports. Some people have found gathering 360-degree feedback helpful so they can hear from multiple people who’ve seen them in a variety of situations.

You can also become attuned to others’ perceptions by reading body language. Be mindful of how people present themselves when you speak and watch their facial expressions. Do they seem distracted? Are their arms crossed or are they tapping their foot because they’re in a hurry? Evaluate the common body language you see from others when you’re interacting with them and decide if your demeanor or communication should adjust to become more effective. Picking up on these cues can also help you read the room, present a strong presence, and know when or if a topic is appropriate to bring up.

4. Build a strong network

Networking is a well-known leadership skill that can help you build your executive presence. By forging positive relationships with your direct reports, peers, and leaders, you’ll find your level of influence and credibility growing across the business. You’ll learn to connect with others better and will establish a good reputation among your colleagues. More people will respect you and listen to what you have to say if you are seen as a trustworthy colleague.

These relationships may also come to benefit you when going for a promotion or other opportunity at work. Your reputation and network can vouch for you and senior leaders are more inclined to promote you if you’re a well-liked, successful leader at the company.

5. Develop excellent communication skills

People with great executive presence are often excellent communicators, whether it’s written, verbal or non-verbal communication. A good communicator can express their ideas to others and provide clear feedback to their teammates about what needs to be completed or improved. If you can’t clearly articulate feedback or what needs to be done, you’ll confuse your coworkers and direct reports and it will be difficult to work effectively.

To enhance your communication skills, try asking trusted friends or colleagues for feedback. You can also try signing up for a professional development program to develop your communication skills.

6. Become a better listener

Good listening is a sign of a great leader, but it’s not as easy as remaining silent while someone is talking. If you’re in a leadership role, give your full attention to whoever is speaking (that's something that's known as active listening). Ask them follow-up questions, and repeat what you’ve heard to ensure you’ve understood their point completely. This will make the person feel heard, understood, and valued.

Plus, when you later want to offer your own thoughts, others will likely reciprocate the same courtesy and listen to you carefully. When you listen to understand and don’t jump in just to be heard, your words have more weight and will be received with respect.  

7. Practice conflict resolution

Leadership can sound prestigious and seem like a piece of cake until you come across a conflict within your team or between you and another colleague. Here’s the thing—your executive presence will truly come through by how you address conflict and resolve it. Communication, listening, strong relationships, and confidence are great skills to help you navigate tricky situations like this. However, you’ll also want to work on your compromising abilities and adaptability to find a good resolution that others can agree with.

Conflict is inevitable, so it's not something that should inspire you to duck and cover. Be confident in your abilities to address the issue, listen to the different points of view, and try to find a solution that helps both parties meet in the middle. By easily navigating conflicts and finding agreeable compromises, you’ll show up as a strong leader and influencer that people will want to follow.

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Should you invest in executive presence training?

If you’re a leader of an organization debating whether you should invest in training for yourself or your employees to develop an executive presence, it’s helpful to look at the research from Tracom Group. The Tracom study found that high-performing organizations (HPOs) are more likely to measure and develop executive presence in their employees. In addition, these organizations see a noticeable positive difference (such as increased performance and employee behavior aligned to company values) after investing in executive presence training.

If you’re looking into leadership training for yourself, there are many ways you can work on developing a stronger presence. Consider the following development opportunities:

  • Ask for a stretch assignment
  • Ask to lead a meeting or present to leadership
  • Seek out 360-degree feedback
  • Take a personal assessment to understand your motivations and strengths
  • Work with a personal coach

Each option can help you learn how to capture a room’s attention and enhance your presence in a leadership position. Luckily, F4S is prepared to coach you through many of these steps, including understanding your motivations and how to manage up to get the opportunities you want from your boss. You’ll develop a better understanding of your strengths and prepare yourself for career success as a future senior leader.

What makes someone a true leader? Executive presence is near the top of the list

The best indication that you have executive presence is the amount of confidence you inspire in those around you. Can you motivate your employees or colleagues? Do your coworkers or leaders trust your knowledge and recommendations? If you can inspire and gain the trust of those you work with, chances are you’re on the right track to showing others that you’re leadership material.

But before you can gain the confidence of others, you must first have confidence in yourself. F4S can help you build the personal power it takes to own your brand, understand influence and stakeholder management, and become comfortable competing and leading in your industry. Try the Personal Power program to gain confidence and start showing up as a true leader.  

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