Friday, 19 July 2013 13:58

Cultivating Your Executive Presence

People are promoted into the leadership ranks every day.  In the main, these leaders successfully competed against other qualified candidates, some of whom were probably just as experienced and smart.

As often happens in judging one candidate over another, the decision most likely came down to degrees of “executive presence.”

Presence: Often referred to as “bearing,” presence incorporates a range of verbal and nonverbal patterns (one’s appearance, posture, vocal quality, subtle movements)—a whole collection of signals that others process into an evaluative impression of a person.

The concept of presence raises serious questions for anyone with ambitions of career advancement. If, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Blink, decisions are made intuitively, what do we need to know about “executive presence”?

As it turns out, everyone’s definition of the term seems to differ. But planning your career and determining your leadership development needs shouldn’t be left to guesswork.

Searching for Executive Presence

An Internet search on executive presence reveals definitions and advice on everything from dressing for success and patterns of speech to more fundamental issues of emotional and social intelligence.

Some conclude that executive presence has little to do with polish, poise, sophistication or even use of body language and gestures. In many cases, executives with presence are just as likely to lack these qualities.

In this day and age, executive presence comes in all shapes and sizes, including some you wouldn’t normally recognise. Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that Bill Gates would command it? Would Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old founder of Facebook, have stood out as a high-potential CEO? But as one of the youngest men ever to be named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, he certainly has presence—albeit a “Gen Y” version of it.

If you want to be promoted to the C-suites, you must learn how to acquire or improve your level of executive presence. If you are already in senior management, you must recognise your current potential and help nurture executive presence in the people you want to groom for succession.

11 Qualities of Executive Presence

“We need leaders who model high social intelligence…who appeal to our higher selves and invite us to grow as individuals and as a society, rather than leaders who pander to our primal fears and selfish greed.”

—Karl Albrecht, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success (Pfeiffer, 2009)

The qualities associated with executive presence can be difficult to learn and practice. It may prove impossible to develop them without the help of qualified coaches and mentors. You can work on and improve some of these competencies, but they may evade certain personalities.

Most people aren’t born with executive presence. They develop the requisite skills with experience, maturity and a great deal of effort.

One important caveat: Don’t confuse executive presence with speaking or presentation skills. They’re part of the total package, but presence is what you project wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. Your challenge lies in managing others’ perceptions of you, which is no small task.

Foundational to executive presence is integrity defined by the capacity to have your authentic personal values present and visible in your day to day interactions.

The following additional 11 qualities contribute to executive presence:

  1.     Transparency: Genuine, open, straightforward, comfortable in one’s skin. Aims for truth and clarity, even when difficult issues arise. Doesn’t try to please or cover up with spin.
  2.     Passion: Loves and feels strongly about the profession, job, industry and life in general. Sees and believes in optimism.
  3.     Clarity: Communicates thoughts, feelings and insights with crystal clarity and simplicity. Master of metaphors and stories that make an impact.
  4.     Intelligence: The ability to process, retain and apply information, whether it’s academic or street-worthy.
  5.     Pattern Recognition: The ability to boil down complex factors and mounds of data to rare conclusions. Offers insights others may not see.
  6.     Results-Oriented: Driven and full of purpose; determined to achieve and succeed. Able to discern dichotomies, unravel paradoxes and work with uncertainties. Flexible and willing to adjust goals. Decisive under pressure. A bias toward action. An attitude of giving, rather than getting. Works in the service of common goals for the organisation’s and society’s higher values.
  7.     Confidence: Not overconfident; has enough self-doubt to be objective. Asks questions and listens.
  8.     Humility: Willing to admit mistakes, misjudgements, fears and uncertainties in ways that are endearing. Seeks answers and advice; listens to others.
  9.     Courage: Willing to take risks and positions against considerable odds. May be seen as a maverick. Able to perceive possibilities and innovations.
  10.     Humour: Not over-the-top, but in the right measure to disarm others’ defenses.
  11.     Social: Genuinely cares about others; sees both strengths and weaknesses in people. Allows for people to learn from mistakes. Promotes healthy self-esteem in others. Respects others and shows a real—not manufactured or superficial—interest in them.

No single leader possesses all of these qualities in abundance. For example, many successful CEOs with strong executive presence lack one or more of the likeability factors, such as humour and humility, but they make up for it in other domains.

Storytelling for Professional Success

The art of crafting and telling a good story is a key element in leadership communication skills and a vital part of building executive presence. Cold, hard facts don’t inspire people to change. Straightforward analysis won’t excite anyone about a goal.

Effective leadership requires stories that fire others’ imaginations and stir their souls. Our brains are wired to pay attention to stories. We quickly process information when it’s delivered in the form of a story, and we personalise it when we relate it to our own similar experiences.

General Electric’s Jack Welch excelled at this skill, as do Apple’s Steve Jobs and many other successful leaders. They know how to motivate by engaging people’s emotions through storytelling.

A narrative magnetically and biochemically draws audiences into the process, compelling them to visualise the picture you’re painting with your words. Stories help your staff make the connections among theory, facts, real life and real people.

Consider the following story options:

  •     A negative story, a failure, a lesson learned
  •     A success story, especially in the face of difficulties
  •     A case study
  •     History and mythology
  •     A deeply personal story (a tragedy or rags-to-riches example)

When crafting a story, include as many specific details as possible to make it real to your audience. Be brief, and get to the point. Understatement often carries a bigger impact. Transport the listener by describing events in emotional terms. Keep it simple. Learn to use metaphors and analogies to summarise. Personalise your story with names, even if they need to be altered.

The more authentic your examples are, the more your stories will resonate with people. In real life, nothing is black or white. Real life is full of paradoxes and uncertainties. Tell your stories to make a point and deliver a lesson that has true value.

What Really Matters

While your physical bearing is important, your core values and the way you communicate them are even more significant.

Your executive presence is reflected in the energy and image you convey, along with your understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Leaders with a strong presence intuitively know what will cultivate loyalty and approval. They also recognise how to avoid coming off as egotistical, insecure and insensitive.

Your emotional demeanour influences others’ perceptions. You must be able to balance your own needs with those of others and the organisation’s. This requires keenly honed emotional awareness—being in tune with the situation, the context and other people.

When your personal values resonate and are aligned with others’, you have an opportunity to lead in meaningful ways. This will attract others to you and command the respect of peers and superiors. An infectious grin and authentic sense of camaraderie will open doors, but the ability to communicate sincerely and connect with core values is what inspires people to respond.

Your presence communicates your self-worth and confidence, as well as the level of respect you have for others and the situation at hand.

6 Steps for Building Executive Presence

In Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success (Pfeiffer, 2009), management consultant Karl Albrecht encourages readers to work on the following dimensions of executive presence:

  1.     Don’t mimic a CEO you’ve read about, admired or conceptualised in your mind. Personal authenticity is critical, so find your most natural way of walking, talking, dressing and interacting with others. Find and express your own voice. If you try to act important, you will come across as arrogant. Think about how you want to be perceived, and aim for these qualities in everything you do.
  2.     Identify your core strengths and values. Write a brief description of yourself from the perspective of someone who has just met you. What would you like people to say about you? Start working on specific aspects of this ideal description to ensure they’re real. If you’re not expressing your values in the things you say, then maybe you’re fooling yourself about them.
  3.     Leave a long message on your voice-mail, and play it back in a few days to get an idea of how you sound to a stranger. Note any aspects of your speech that you would like to change. You may not be aware of your vocal intonations and tics, which can add to or detract from how others perceive you.
  4.     Record a conversation with a friend on audio or video. Make sure it’s long enough so that you and your pal forget you’re being recorded. Study yourself and your friend’s reactions to jot down any habits or behaviours that contribute to or inhibit empathy, clarity and/or authenticity.
  5.     Ask one or more close friends to share their impressions about meeting you for the first time. Remind them to be brutally honest, and encourage them to offer insights into other aspects of your interactions—especially the areas that could be improved.
  6.     Review your discoveries with your coach or mentor. Ask for help. Practice. Change will take time, as personal habits in interacting with others are ingrained. After a while, however, you and your inner circle should begin to notice improvements. Never forget that polishing your interpersonal skills and executive presence is a lifelong journey.

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