Have you ever wondered why one person with the same skills and qualifications gets promoted over another? Many times, it comes down to executive presence. This term may sound vague and elusive to some, but it is achievable. Leadership presence isn’t an innate quality that you either have or not. Instead, it is a skill—a set of learned behaviors that enable you to command attention. And when you exude confidence, it inspires others.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, defines executive presence as how one acts (gravitas), speaks (communication) and looks (appearance). It is a vital leadership characteristic that can set you apart when competing for select promotions in a competitive field. And it’s essential across all parts of the organization, including engineering and technology. For example, a survey of CIOs conducted by Gartner revealed that executive presence skills came in second among the top 20 leadership traits. And according to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, executive presence accounted for 26% of what it takes to get promoted to leadership positions.
Now you might be asking yourself, “that sounds great but where do I begin?” Here are some strategies to get started:
Start from the inside out
Executive presence isn’t just about how others perceive you. It starts with how you perceive yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself and your abilities, that self-doubt will be apparent—no matter what you look like or what clothes you’re wearing. What are the conversations that take place inside your head? Maybe you suffer from imposter syndrome and don’t feel “good enough” to have a seat at the table. Through practice, you can rewire your brain, resulting in a natural alignment of your thoughts and behaviors that profoundly strengthen your leadership presence.
According to the authors of How To Become a Better Leader published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, self-awareness was cited as the most important capability for leaders to develop. Part of the process of creating executive presence involves understanding how others perceive you. It is just as important to recognize and appreciate your assets as it is to identify your vulnerabilities. With self-awareness, a leader can put their strengths forward and lean into them. One approach is to be open to feedback from supervisors, peers and subordinates. Make sure to include people who see you in various situations, so you benefit from a balanced perspective.
Master body language
Body language can have a substantial impact on executive presence. In general, you want to ensure that you are relaxed, comfortable and confident. While various cultures and organizations may have different norms, there are some general guidelines:
- Make eye contact: making eye contact is another part of effective executive presence. Eye contact can help you appear self-assured, and it can also help people feel that you are actively listening to them. Conversely, too little eye contact can make you appear disengaged, distracted or even dishonest.
- Mind your posture: if you have a habit of keeping your arms folded in front of you, your body language impedes people from connecting with you. It becomes a barrier between you and your audience. Instead, keep your arms at your side or use your hands and arms for gesturing. Also, maintaining an upright posture tends to look more confident.
- Watch your facial expressions: leaders with executive presence have a calm demeanor and convey emotion through changes in facial expressions like smiling, laughing and frowning. Communicating feelings through facial expressions shows people that you’re human and make it easier for them to connect with you. Even small cues like occasionally nodding when you’re listening to someone can improve their relationship with you. Just make sure not to smile or nod too much, which can seem forced or disingenuous.
Practice makes perfect
Mastery of a skill comes through repetition. And through repetition, new skills become new habits. Executives who seem to effortlessly demonstrate executive presence actually rehearse, so they are authentic and natural. They practice what they are going to say and how they are going to say it. Leadership presence also requires a continuous improvement mindset. That means regularly seeking out feedback from a trusted mentor or using a trained coach to help address strengths and weaknesses. Finally, find a model you can learn from. Who do you think has a strong presence and why? They likely exemplify strengths and characteristics that you want to emulate.
Whether you want to chart a path to the C-suite or just want to be perceived as a competent leader, executive presence is a skill that you can develop. Remember, it has nothing to do with becoming someone you are not. Rather, it’s about bringing out the best version of yourself.