Executive presence is an elusive concept, much like the notion of leadership. It is difficult for most people to concretely define what it is, but they are quick to say when a certain person lacks it. I define executive presence as having the presentation, the demeanor, the knowledge, and the skills, which inspire trust, respect, connection, and productive results, while commanding attention and securing a strong reputation as a leader. Some of my coaching clients find themselves seeking my support because they are told that they need to develop “executive presence.” I have found that many of these clients are women and/or people of color. The harsh reality is that when many people think about what a typical executive looks like, they still think of a 6 foot or taller White cisgender male. Therefore, it is no surprise that executive presence is sometimes racially or gender coded language for “something about you demographically, or in the expression of your race or gender doesn’t make you seem like a leader here.” However, despite some of these biases, there are still some strategies you can utilize to develop better executive presence, in order to advance your career and to strengthen your leadership brand. The following are some tips to increasing your executive presence for your leadership advancement:
1) Communicate Culturally
The way you express your thoughts and opinions matter when trying to establish executive presence and these are culturally bound. It’s important to almost become a cultural anthropologist in your organization, and to watch how well-respected senior leaders run meetings, speak to each other and engage their direct reports. There may be a lot to learn in these interactions. If you don’t like what you are seeing (e.g. demeaning or bullying behavior), and this is not something you want to represent, you may want to think about seeking your leadership experiences elsewhere, somewhere that is a greater fit for your values.
2) Own Your Authority
It is important for you to be able to state your opinions confidently, often backed by data or prior experience. Try to refrain from qualifying statements (e.g., “This is only my opinion, I could be wrong..”) or self-deprecating statements (e.g., “I am not usually good with numbers, but I tried my best”). Women especially are socialized to hedge when making an assertion, for fear of offending or providing an oppositional viewpoint. Therefore, as a woman, it is even more critical to own your authority and expertise, and to stop yourself from saying or doing things (e.g., constantly deferring to others rather than going with your own opinion), which diminish them. Make sure to speak up in meetings, even if it is to support a previously made point. Sometimes, you may feel that your comment will not be deemed worthy of airtime or won’t add anything to the conversation, so you silence yourself. However, not every comment has to be an incredibly genius idea. It is more about amplifying your voice, and claiming your space in the meeting rooms.
3) Build Relationships Constantly
Someone with executive presence is regarded as a person who can be trusted to engage well with a variety of stakeholders (e.g. senior leaders, clients, direct reports, the media, etc.) in a particular organizational context. Therefore, you want to recognize that, in addition to your actual job duties, another part of your role is to consistently build relationships. Some of my executive coaching clients don’t like to attend after-work happy hours, office outings, or holiday parties, and often want to skip them. However, I encourage them and you to be present at these functions, because these are the places where relationships can deepen, to your career advantage. Also, even if you feel most comfortable engaging and hanging out with your direct reports, make a point to interact with peers and senior leaders by setting up touch base meetings or lunch engagements. Even if you are an introvert, it will benefit you to stretch yourself to develop relationships with key people in your organization. The more people know you, the more advocates you will have, and the more you can learn about what it takes to be perceived as a high potential executive.
4) Be a Trusted Problem Solver & Execute Consistently
You want to be someone people turn to when they are stuck or need assistance when trying to solve problems. While you may not have all the answers, you want to demonstrate that you are willing to help, and can provide viable & executable solutions. You also want to consistently deliver high quality results in your role. Being a top performer engenders the type of trust and respect that solidifies your executive presence.
5) Present Appropriately
The old adage of “Don’t dress for the role you have, dress for the role you want,” applies when thinking about executive presence. As noted earlier, people have a preconceived notion of what an executive looks like and this is contextual to each environment. I am not suggesting that you need to spend a fortune on designer clothes or suits. I am recommending, however, that you invest in yourself, by being mindful of how you show up to work, and looking to suitable role models (e.g. successful executives with whom you can relate) to emulate.
6) Adopt a Growth Mindset
In a growth mindset, learning is an essential part of your professional development. It is not solely about natural intelligence or skills, it is about the willingness to put forth effort to better understand new concepts or areas. Demonstrate your commitment to growth by deepening your knowledge or sharpening your skills, in areas of most interest to the senior leadership in your organization. Such learning may require activity outside your work hours, such as additional training, coaching, or advanced credentials, but it will be worth the investment.
While it is true that executive presence can feel like a vague and hard to define concept, biased by subjective & contextual considerations, you can still control how you increase it, to advance your career and to gain a competitive advantage. While it can at times seem daunting to do so, I know you are more than up to the challenge, to claim your leadership brand and to make strides toward your own career advancement!