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Executive Presence – The Secret Weapon You Need to Rise to the Top

Imagine yourself locked in a crucial meeting. You have a brilliant idea that could revolutionize the company, but when you open your mouth, your voice lacks conviction, and your body language screams insecurity. The room falls silent, and your opportunity vanishes.

Executive presence isn’t about arrogance or a forceful personality. It’s about commanding respect, inspiring confidence, and radiating leadership potential. It’s the invisible quality that separates successful executives from the pack.

This guide unveils the secrets of executive presence. We’ll explore how to develop the communication skills, composure, and demeanor that grab attention and propel you towards your leadership goals.

I am fascinated by the topic of executive presence and especially the feedback many receive that sounds like: “You need to work on strengthening your executive presence.” This feedback usually leaves people stressed and in need of clarification.

In my Senior Manager program, every participant in the cohort identified this as a goal of theirs.

Unfortunately, descriptions of “executive presence” vary, and few can describe how to strengthen it. Frankly, it’s a miserable label. It is less about being a manager and more about projecting yourself correctly in different situations.

Let’s demystify this concept and make it actionable and achievable. At the end of the article, I suggest some excellent expert resources on this topic.

Lessons in the Presence of Clarence

Clarence was the founder and CEO of our largest distributor and was revered in the industry. When he walked into a room of hundreds of people, you could feel his presence changing things for the better.

He interacted with everyone, regardless of title or rank, and made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. He made his way around a room, greeting people by name, shaking hands, and making you feel like he loved being here with you.

Sadly, we lost Clarence to cancer many years ago. Yet I have always thought about his ability to project his presence and let people experience him in that personal and powerful way. You were important in your interaction with Clarence.

He projected, “I’m glad you’re here!” unlike many senior managers who project, “I’m here, and now things can begin.” This ability was Clarence’s superpower, which led to my vision of what executive presence is.

How others experience YOU

The key to cultivating and projecting executive presence is to purposefully decide how you want people to experience you. This starts with the person looking back at you in the mirror and requires you to think about how you want to be seen by others.

Whether we were negotiating a business deal, exploring new policies or programs, or, quite frankly, trying to sell more, Clarence never wavered from his “You are here” projection. Respect was shown and tensions were resolved with warmth and trust.

And no one has ever seen his approach as a weakness. On the contrary, he was the strongest person in the room all the time. Compare that to the jerks we encounter in the workplace who make sure you know they have power.

So think carefully about how you want people to experience you. And don’t resort to thinking, “I’m just going to be my authentic self.” Your projection of your ‘authentic’ self is often the problem.

When your authentic self is your opponent

If you are an introvert and a processor, someone who prefers to think long and hard about a subject before responding, you may find yourself at a disadvantage or overlooked in environments where more extroverted individuals fill the airtime.

Your ideas may be brilliant, but what good are they if they aren’t listened to? Sidebar: Processors are the ones who, in my experience, most often receive feedback about the need to strengthen their presence.

If you are combative in situations where others question your opinions (yes, that was me), your approach may initially be perceived as aggressive and passionate, until it becomes annoying and unpleasant.

I love the verbal jousting and intellectual challenge of a good debate. As it turns out, this hindered my credibility and the perception that I was ready to take on more responsibility.

One senior executive I know has an attitude that seems cold and arrogant to the outsider. Once you get to know him, you realize he’s neither.

His facial expressions, body language, and verbal tone are off-putting to many, and he has had to work hard over the years to adapt his authentic approach to a warmer version.

My good colleague Anita constantly reminds me that this is a challenge for women who are at risk of being seen as too soft or aggressive.

In our culturally and globally diverse workplaces, people see us through their cultural filters. If we don’t know what those filters are, the way they experience us can be very different from how we want them to experience us.

Four big ideas to strengthen your presence

This is a more important topic than a blog post. But first things first: Q&A:

1. How do others see you?

To see yourself as others do, you need candid feedback. However you think you are perceived, you are probably wrong. Several ideas include:
Ask for feedback about yourself. You can do this verbally or, ideally, allow others to share their input through anonymous surveys.

Get opportunities to see yourself in action and focus on how others experience/react to you. For some clients, we obtain permission to record their meetings. It is fascinating for them (and for me as a coach) to see how they present themselves and how others react.

Recruit one swimming buddy or two, individuals who see you in action regularly and whom you trust have your best interests at heart. Ask them to work with you and share their perception of your behavior and the impact of that behavior.

Ask them to measure the effect of changes.

2. What does your environment ask of you?

The expectation for presence varies depending on the type of environment you are in at any given time.

  • In a loud, extroverted environment, processors are often left out of the equation. In a quiet, thoughtful environment, your tendency to take up all the airtime works against you.
  • In high-level leadership or board positions, you are judged on your ideas, confidence, and, quite frankly, why you can be trusted.
  • On the factory floor or in challenging situations, people need to be able to trust that you will have their safety and interests at heart.

In your work, you are exposed to multiple environments. Learn to assess what each group needs from you and adjust accordingly.

3. What is the personality you should radiate?

In many coaching situations, the focus for individuals is on projecting their ideas and engaging in challenging but important discussions. Perhaps your goal is to appear knowledgeable, thoughtful, and confident.

Yet your authentic self likes to sit in the background and think about things. The feedback on you is that you are quiet and reserved, which may be damaging your perception of yourself as a competent, capable contributor or leader.

It’s time to define how you want others to experience you. Try the invisible sticky note exercise: What do you want that note on your back to say about you? (Thanks to Adam Bryant for pointing this out in his book Jump to Leader.)

How do you want others to experience you, so that you appear in the best light?

4. What behavior do you need to change?

After understanding yourself and thinking about each of your target audiences in the workplace, it’s important to start aligning verbal and nonverbal behavior.

  • Should you come across as warm and open or confident and knowledgeable?
  • Do you need to develop tactics to engage even if you prefer to process? (I teach my coaching clients a lot of great tactics for these types of situations.)
  • How should your nonverbal behavior be adjusted to better support the presence you are trying to project?

And of course, how can you get feedback about whether the behavioral changes have a positive influence on your perception of you?

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