Executive Presence: The Elements Of Leadership Material
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“No man or woman attains a top job, lands an extraordinary deal, or develops a significant following without this heady combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we’re in the presence of someone who’s the real deal. It’s an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be.”
- Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Executive presence is one of those things you can immediately recognize when someone displays it, but few people can put into words what it comes down to.
We see it in CEO’s and public figures who command attention and get audiences hanging on to every word they say. They exude a blend of confidence and charisma that makes it hard to believe they weren’t naturally born with it.
If you ask senior executives what it takes to reach the top of an organization, they’ll invariably mention executive presence.
Gartner conducted a study, in which they surveyed CIO’s to find that executive presence was the second on the list of the top 20 most valuable leadership skills.
Defining the concept and breaking it down into its elements is the first step in understanding what it takes to develop this skill that can determine whether or not you climb up the executive ladder.
Defining Executive Presence
Executive presence is the ability to present oneself in a way that inspires trust, credibility and poise, an ability to keep calm in challenging situations. It’s a complex set of characteristics that convey the message that you’re in charge.
However, most people have no idea what these elements are and fall into the illusion that people like Steve Jobs were naturally gifted with this skill.
Executive presence is something anyone with some degree of motivation and awareness can develop.
More than that, it’s a skill that we could all use in our own lives, whether or not we’re in the corporate world.
Breaking it down
Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the author of the book “Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success” . In her work, she surveyed 268 senior executives to break down the components of executive presence.
It’s not uncommon to hear stories of people that got excellent feedback regarding the quality of their work, yet, when it came to moving up in management, they were told they weren’t quite ready. They lacked executive presence.
What they lacked was competencies in the 3 components of executive presence. The executives in Hewlett’s study identified 3 elements of executive presence:
Gravitas (how you act)
Communication (how you speak)
Appearance (how you look)
Gravitas is by far the most important one, it entails confidence in your abilities and knowledge. This is what wins other people’s trust and therefore allows you to influence them.
It’s one thing to be an articulate speaker with a gift for words, it’s another to keep calm in the midst of a meeting gone astray, with emotional blowouts and people losing their best judgment.
It’s one thing to tell people you care about them, it’s another to act in a way that people feel cared for. Leaders with presence care for the people they work with. And the simplest way to identify who has it in an organization is to ask collaborators who they’d like to work with.
Gravitas also entails being able to handle difficult situations, to speak up when most people are afraid, to actively listen when it’s easy to jump ahead to conclusions, these are telling signs that you can handle challenges with poise, and ultimately carry the message that you’re leadership material.
Another significant portion of gravitas is the ability to convey knowledge in a concise way, it’s when someone can explore a subject in depth without resorting to long, complicated explanations. It’s information delivered in a clear yet deep and concise manner.
“Attention spans are so short now that, whether it’s in a speech or in a meeting, you have to show how you can add value in a way that’s both compelling and brief.”
- Sylvia Ann Hewlett
According to the results of the study, communication is the second most important aspect of presence, with 28% of the votes.
Executives with presence have an assertive and authoritative voice. They communicate clearly and they’re intentional about the language they choose.
They avoid words that convey uncertainty such as “um”, “uh” and “so”, “just”, “sort of”.
When they speak, there’s no doubt in their voice, so much so that others see nothing but the power of strong conviction.
Even if you nailed gravitas and communication to a tee, but your appearance left room for improvement, it would come across as a mismatch and affect your executive presence.
Imagine one of your colleagues is in the middle of a presentation, acting confidently, speaking assertively, but his jacket is ripped and stealing everyone’s attention away from what he’s actually saying. No matter how hard he tried, his appearance would take a toll in his presence.
Appearance is a part of executive presence, it’s hard to trust and rely on someone who looks sloppy. It’s not about looking like a model, it’s about being well groomed and looking the part.
“How you act (gravitas), how you speak (communication), and how you look (appearance) count for a lot in determining your leadership presence.”
- Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Amy Cuddy is a Harvard Business School Professor and a social psychologist who studies how nonverbal behavior and snap judgments influence people. Her TED Talk is the second most viewed talk of TED history and contains powerful lessons about executive presence.
Developing Executive Presence
Senior executives claim presence as one of those skills that can either skyrocket a career or doom it to stagnation.
Now that we have a clear definition and we’re aware of the elements that comprise presence, it’s time to zoom in on how to develop it.
1. Ask for feedback
It starts with awareness. Getting clear on your strengths and weaknesses is the first step to improving your executive presence. Only then can you design a plan of action to work on those areas with more room for growth.
First, look for someone in your workplace you can trust, and ask for feedback. Assure that person that you will not take it personally and ask what your strengths and weaknesses are. In fact, you can make a list of aspects you want feedback on and ask that person to rate you on each aspect.
Then ask a friend and a family member for their views, and compare notes.
2. Set your intentions
Ask yourself what you are about. What is it that really matters to you and what kind of presence do you want to exude?
Maybe it’s being a generous listener, capable of establishing trust and empathy with the people you work with.
Or maybe you’re all about energy and strength, and that’s what you want to communicate.
Sometimes our intention doesn’t match how we’re perceived and that’s why feedback is so helpful.
3. Look for a mentor or role model
Few people are born with presence. But everyone can get better, especially if they have someone to model the skill they’re looking to develop. Who would you like to model? Who inspires you as a leader?
You may or may not know them personally, but start paying attention to how they present themselves. Hone your ability to pay attention to the little details that make a difference. What specifically do you admire?
4. Growth mindset
You need to approach this skill with a growth mindset. Learning a skill is a messy process that involves making mistakes and being in uncomfortable situations where feelings of inadequacy can potentially arise.
These are natural challenges that come along and common experiences. Take them as part of the learning process, not as a sign that you don’t have what it takes.
5. Deliberate practice
This is about tracking your progress. People who excel in a particular ability do so because they’ve practiced it extensively but also because they’ve practiced it in a particular manner.
Deliberate practice is about focused attention and practicing with a specific goal of improving performance. To improve performance we need to track and measure our progress, without it it’s hard to assess any growth.
With a growth mindset, practice and coaching you can become one of those people whose presence is in and of itself leadership at its best.
And we know just how to help you with it. Find out more about our Executive Presence Program.
“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.”
- Sheryl Sandberg
Now we'd love to know your opinion. Who do you know with an amazing presence? What traits and behaviors do they show? Leave a comment below.