What is Executive Presence..and what can you do about yours?

Last week I talked with a group of women leaders about what differentiates a great leader from a good leader. Not surprisingly lots of things were mentioned — many focused on a leader’s ability to set and enroll others in her vision and communicate credibility and connect powerfully with others. But the thing that got the group most energized, and where there was the most agreement, was around the need for great leaders to have a strong presence.

Presence, sometimes called executive presence, has many descriptors–confidence, self-assurance, charisma — but we all experience it the same. When we meet someone with a strong executive presence we can feel it. It’s an IT factor. It’s multi-dimensional and dynamic and means much more than being a great public speaker or making a fantastic first impression.

Harvard Business Review’s June issue featured an article, “Learning Charisma” that breaks the learning into nine easy steps. Like the authors, I believe some people are born with more IT than others, and everyone can improve in this area, but unlike the authors, I’m not sure it takes just nine easy steps!

According to the article charisma is a learnable skill set that’s been practiced for years. The authors believe anyone trained in these skills can become more “influential, trustworthy, and leader-like in the eyes of others.”

They break the skills into 12 key actions (some seem very familiar to those who have taken speech training). Nine are verbal skills to incorporate into your everyday conversations, not just public speaking. Some examples are:

  • use more metaphors and analogies to make your words more understandable and relatable;
  • include stories and anecdotes to make your words more personal;
  • offer contrasts because they combine reason and passion and clarify your position by pitting it against the opposite.

The other three skills are nonverbal: effective use of your voice, facial expressions, and gestures.

These skills are important and fine-tuning them will certainly help you as a leader. However, these skills focus solely on the outer signs of your executive presence. I believe it’s crucial to clarify the inner signs of presence so that your inner and outer parts are in alignment. In other words, you need to be clear about what you want your presence to convey to others and ensure that your actions are in sync with this.

To clarify your inner presence you need to be intentional about how you want to be perceived. Your inner presence is based on your core values and beliefs and reflects your personality and aspirations. Once clear, you’re ready to move to the action steps for syncing up with your outer presence.

To strengthen your presence:

  • assess how you see yourself; what do you project in one-on-one conversations as well as group discussions — is it what you want to project; is it working for you; how do you know?
  •  identify assumptions that may be getting in your way that make you less powerful, such as, “I’m basically shy so I can’t connect easily with others or I don’t want to appear self-promotional so I’ll remain quiet.”
  • do your own mini-presence audit: get input from three or four key people; ask them: “how am I perceived and what can I do differently to have a greater impact in our organization”;
  • finally, determine from your own assessment as well as the input you received what two things you can do differently to strengthen your presence.
  • Revisit this list every six months.

For more information about executive presence check out: Leadership Presence by Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar, and Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO by Harrison Monarth.


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