5 ways to build your executive presence

Feb 08, 2018
To improve your leadership potential, invest time and effort in developing your executive presence.

While knowledge, skills, experience and achievements are all important factors in moving up the career ladder, executive presence could be the key to helping you break through the C-suite ceiling.

So, what is executive presence and why should you care? For many, executive presence is something that can often seem innate. Rather than a set of learned characteristics or behaviours, it can appear that someone has been bestowed with this enviable trait through the genetic lottery; the phrase ‘a natural-born leader’ springs to mind.

You are likely to have worked with a colleague or boss who commanded a room upon entry, who people listened to intently when speaking and who, almost effortlessly, achieved success in their field. While this might seem like an intuitive, indefinable set of personal attributes, this ability to engage, align and inspire those around you is the fundamental nature of executive presence, and you can learn to build and hone the skills necessary to achieve it.

As you might expect, executive presence can be hard to define and even the most experienced human resource (HR) professionals struggle to delineate the characteristics behind the much sought-after qualities. Recent studies have highlighted many overlapping behaviours and attitudes exhibited by professionals considered to have a strong executive presence. While it is by no means an exhaustive list, the following advice can provide a strong foundation on which you can build your executive presence.

Appearance

Appearance may seem like a subjective and somewhat shallow element that really shouldn’t influence executive presence, but this can play an integral role in how you are perceived. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, it is essential that your appearance matches the culture of your organisation and those in senior executive positions. An untidy and informal approach to dress may distract from the important messages you are trying to communicate, ultimately lessening your ability to influence those around you.

Notable appearance blunders include unkempt attire, provocative outfits and informal clothing inappropriate to the context of a meeting or event.

Communication

Another important aspect to consider in developing your executive presence is communication. Use clear and strong language, speak up when making a point and always maintain composure. 

If you want to make executive decisions you believe in, you need to inspire those around you to believe in them too by speaking with passion, energy, confidence and authority. 

Body language is another crucial element in effective communication. The simple basics are important here: stand tall, look people in the eye and ensure your handshake and initial greetings are firm and professional. 

An often overlooked side to communication is the ability to listen effectively – communication is, after all, a two-way street. Are you listening to what is being said? Truly listening and taking in all viewpoints can help dramatically in speaking on your feet and leveraging those around you with informed and thought-out responses. The strongest executives know how to listen and, because they are confident, they aren’t intimidated by contrary views. They listen intently and know how to draw the other person out. They want the full story before they make a decision. 

Communication is one of the key pillars in building executive presence. The best way to work on your communication style is to fully understand your challenges and how to improve on them. There are some excellent communication courses and coaches available in this space to help you overcome any shortcomings.

Gravitas

Gravitas encompasses a few small but powerful behaviours fundamental to building executive presence. The ability to remain calm, confident and composed under pressure are the key characteristics here. Showing decorum in the face of adversity, remaining true to you and your organisation’s values, and always maintaining integrity are further examples of gravitas at play in executive settings. The ability to speak up and challenge ideas with strong, positive body language is a hallmark of this trait.

Self-awareness

Key to negotiating through the personal growth necessary to build executive presence is a strong sense of self-awareness. Having an accurate representation of the various competencies and behavioural tendencies you possess is important in not only knowing your strong points but in identifying the areas where you can improve in order to build your executive presence.

One way to achieve this is to ask for honest feedback. Look for someone in your organisation or a close associate who cares about you, and is willing and adept at sharing constructive feedback. This can be a tough task, particularly if you are not comfortable in hearing your weaknesses, but if you are open to improving personally and professionally, this can be one of the most invaluable ways of exploring who you really are and highlighting the areas you need to improve on to achieve success in your context. 

Demonstrating emotional intelligence and the awareness of how your behaviour impacts on others is another factor important in developing the self-awareness needed to build executive presence. Genuinely caring about others, along with the ability to willingly admit mistakes, misjudgements and fears, as well as openly seeking advice and guidance are all endearing traits that you can work on to further build the emotional intelligence synonymous with all great leaders.

Practice with assistance

Letting a colleague or a mentor know you are working on improving your executive presence can help in cultivating the confidence required to do so by holding your accountable to follow through. 

Build a network of meaningful connections and like-minded individuals. Look for opportunities to hone your presentation skills – public speaking is an integral requirement of a strong executive presence. Be willing to try new experiences and approaches, you might not always be comfortable, but the greatest achievements and learning will often take place when you step outside your comfort zone.

Engage with an executive coach and avail of any training or courses in this field in order to further develop your leadership presence. Some of the best leaders today are lifelong learners; they know they can continuously improve and dedicate a significant amount of time and energy in doing so.

Conclusion

Become an executive presence people-watcher. Observe how others do it. Identify those around you with leadership presence and try to recognise the various attributes that make you feel they are in control.  However, copying someone you consider to have strong leadership presence would seem inauthentic and immediately noticeable to those around you. Good executive presence is simply a refinement of the fundamental skills that have gotten you to where you are today and  can be achieved through repetitive behaviour and ongoing self-reflection with the aim to project and create a picture of who we are in the minds of others while always being true to ourselves.

Find your own version of executive presence that feels right for you. With a little practice your executive presence will match the level of your intelligence, qualifications, and performance. And you may start to realise your leadership potential.

Shane Collins ACA is a Director at Priority Placements Recruitment.

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