Ever had the feeling that you didn’t quite ‘have enough’ when hosting a critical discussion or making a key presentation to your board, executive team or significant key client? Somehow, that sense of confidence and ease was missing or faltered during your interaction? Or you found yourself flustered, visibly frustrated or even noticeably angry when facing resistance to your perspective, the work you’ve prepared or proposed course of action?
You are definitely not alone. Most people have been in a similar space at various points in their career. Where this lack of suitable presence gets challenging is when it becomes a consistent pattern. Without executive presence, those aspiring to C-suite roles are passed over for opportunities while those who find themselves in an executive role, but lack presence, face a daily uphill battle to establish credibility, influence and effectiveness. And one very common piece of 360 feedback that aspiring mid-level leaders receive relates to their need to develop ‘executive presence.’
Of course, the term ‘executive presence’ lacks a commonly agreed-upon definition. At its broadest level, it’s about your ability to inspire confidence so that others see you as credible, competent and successful—and your ability to inspire that in others. And of course, effective executive presence will likely look different between individuals, operating contexts and cultures.
Regardless, executive presence at its best instills confidence, trust, respect and meaningful commitment by others. In my experience working with senior leaders over the years, the following qualities best define executive presence:
- Strategic and Operational Perspective: Senior leaders take a ‘big picture’ approach to their work and yet remain well connected to key relevant operational details of their business. They provide an important strategic lens that discerns emerging patterns and offers broader, more impactful options and solutions.
- Confidence with Humility: Those with true confidence, not bravado, demonstrate surety in their expertise and are able to share their perspectives in a calm, cogent manner. They make decisions, both big and small, with the best available information, knowing that perfection is rarely an option in the real world.
While humility might seem like a counterpoint to perceived notions of executive behaviour, this trait is powerful when combined with confidence. You can’t possibly know everything or have answers to every question so don’t act like you do. And you’re bound make mistakes – so own up and take responsibility when the time comes.
- Courage and Conviction: This attribute includes a willingness to speak up and/or push back based on core principles or personal convictions. Not getting flustered, backtracking or giving in when facing resistance is essential. It also includes the ability to challenge the status quo and generate forward momentum for change using non-confrontational communications and actions.
- Ease: The ability to demonstrate appropriate body language and verbal tone sets the stage for engagement with others. Avoid nervous behaviours such as feigned laughter, fidgeting or overt deference to authority. Engaging in open, friendly and even fun banter with others often strengthens relationships but should always be customized and appropriate for the audience and particular situation.
- Calm, Cool and Collected: When the ‘temperature rises,’ those with strong executive presence are able to remain calm, centered and focused in terms of their language, behaviours and actions. They continue to treat people with respect regardless of the urgency of the situation or potential consequences.
- Commitment and Accountability: Those with strong executive presence demonstrate a real and enduring commitment to an agreed-upon vision. They are determined and focused in their efforts to align and advance their individual, team and company agendas.
When things go sideways within their team or even with the broader organization, those with executive presence will consistently step forward and take ownership to help address the issue or situation. They take ownership around the business.
Executive presence, while often elusive, is critical to success at senior leadership levels. For certain, it can be developed, but takes focus, effort and time. Consider how you ‘show up’ as a leader – do you currently possess the attributes necessary to be a credible, trusted, respected leader in your organization? Get some feedback from trusted colleagues as to how you’re doing in terms of executive presence. Then set some development priorities and build those key attributes that open doors to broader leadership opportunities.