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Accelerate Your Personal Success: Executive Presence

02.20.19 | Susan Duncan

Executive presence is comprised of the gravitas/aura you project, the ways in which you communicate, your appearance, the impression you make and your authenticity. It is an essential quality for leaders and critical for all who want to succeed – a combination of traits and behaviors that can mean the difference between advancing or remaining static or limited in your career opportunities. Not having a strong executive presence will often be a primary factor in even the most experienced and capable professionals being passed over for advancement or leadership positions or not being successful in client and business development.

Executive presence comes more naturally to some than to others but everyone can improve their executive presence.  In order to enhance your own executive presence (or help someone else enhances theirs,) you need to understand the various components of this skill/quality and work to improve upon each.

Core Elements of Executive Presence:

Confidence without Cockiness

People who have strong executive presence are strong performers on multiple levels and highly self-confident. They stay calm under pressure, confronting difficult situations and making tough decisions with confidence so that others believe and will follow.   They do not brag about themselves but lead by showing, doing and inspire others to action with their certainty.  Building more self-confidence requires you to believe in yourself and your own abilities – this will require practicing better “self-talk” with your inner critic!

Foresight and Decisiveness

Your peers, managers, partners and clients will value you if you are strategic and visionary and you are able to succinctly distill important issues, trends and projected outcomes to them. Thinking ahead and about the bigger picture will make it likely people will listen to you and return your call or email. They will find you more credible if you don’t get mired down in the details and ramble on before getting to your point.  Sharing your view on something and making a recommendation for a way forward will convey that your idea can be implemented and successful.

Verbal Communication

Like so many other success attributes, good communication is essential to high executive presence.  After much research, Dr. Albert Mehrabian discovered that the Elements of Personal Communication break-down into three components:

  • 7% is the spoken work
  • 38% is your voice tone and tempo
  • 55% is your body language

This is always a surprise to lawyers who are drawn to law for its focus on advocacy through the written and spoken word.

Modify your tone and tempo. Since 38% of your communication effectiveness is achieved through the tone and tempo of your voice, you should record yourself as you have conversations on the phone or videotape yourself while giving a presentation.  Don’t speak too quickly – slow down, and allow for pauses. Enunciate clearly, i.e., don’t mumble! Women in particular tend to be higher pitched and often end their sentences in “up talk.”  These are all skills that can be learned and honed – it just takes practice and perhaps some feedback from others you trust.

Command your audience. Think before you speak. Before you get on calls, attend meetings or go to a networking event where important people will be, practice a few things you know you want to discuss or raise.  Jot down some notes. Be sure to listen to others and incorporate other views into your message and when you speak, make it insightful, succinct and memorable.

Improve your presentation skills.  You need to be able to present effectively, “think on your feet” and make succinct, relevant and compelling points whether in smaller meetings or when addressing a large group.  Rehearse and get coaching and feedback in advance – these are key tools for improving upon this skill so that in live situations you are relaxed, poised and in control.  Remember to gear your style and content to the audience to whom you are presenting.

Non-Verbal Communication: Appearance and Impression You Make

55% of our communication with others occurs through non-verbal signals and behaviors.  Body language and appearance are critical aspects of improving executive presence.

Dress for success and grooming. What you wear makes an impression, even on casual Fridays!  It also can impact how you perform. Many recent studies published in the Wall Street Journal , Business Insider and Inc. indicate that the way you dress makes an impression and helps portray confidence and competence in addition to affecting how you view yourself.  In addition to the clothes you wear, don’t other important elements of your grooming including hairstyle, nails, facial hair, etc.

“Make Yourself Big.” Renowned social psychologist Amy Cuddy has done substantial research on how your body language actually affects the physiology of your brain.  When nervous or afraid, we tend to make ourselves small by hunching over, backing off, holding our arms across our chest.  Cuddy’s research shows that by using power poses to make yourself big, e.g., taking a few deep breaths and standing with your arms stretched in a V above you, leaning into a conversation, taking additional space at a conference table, you can change your own brain waves and increase your confidence and effectiveness.

Mannerisms:  Make sure that you are aware of and rid yourself of any personal “ticks” that appear when you feel nervous, e.g., playing with your hair, waving your hands around, clicking a pen top or tapping your pen on the table, etc.

Make a good first impression.  Hold yourself straight, chin up, shoulders back, look the other person in the eye, and give them a firm hand-shake (but don’t squeeze too hard or pump the person’s hand aggressively.)  Look open and interested in others when you approach them or are approached. Don’t cross your arms or look over someone’s shoulder.  Don’t forget to smile!  Even on the phone, smiling while talking makes a difference in the tone of your voice.

Be present. Focus on what others are saying and doing in the moment.  Don’t check your iPhone, or work on editing a memo while you are on the phone. Observe people around you in the hallways, elevator, meetings.

Having a strong executive presence is essential for those who aspire to leadership roles but it also promotes advancement for professionals at all levels of their career.   While some seem to be born with natural charisma and the ability to instill confidence in others, many of the qualities of executive presence can be taught, honed and modified.