Executive Presence - What the hell is it?
News Posted: 16 August 2022
Recently a number of senior professionals have contacted me who had been told they need, or who consider they lack, executive presence. They were all in senior positions with considerable experience and expertise. In one case someone had even been advised that he wouldn’t be promoted to the board unless he could exhibit some of these ‘executive’ behaviours. Now you’d think they’d all want this elixir of success. However, apart from the inevitable frustration and confusion about what executive presence is, there was an underlying suspicion. One person said it all sounded a bit ‘nobby’ and another gave the impression that it betrayed his background and would feel and look artificial.
If you google executive presence on the Internet, there’s a huge amount of data. Research has been carried out at the highest levels. Both academic institutions and training companies give very valid and insightful sets of criteria of what executive presence is. Why should this, however, make someone want to become a clone of external definitions created by groups of people they may or may not identify with?
"Why is the phrase ‘Executive Presence’ so irritating?!"
So perhaps the question isn’t what are the physical, mental and emotional attributes of executive presence but what’s your version of executive presence? Or in the case of one of my suspicious clients above we dropped ‘executive’ altogether and went for plain, old presence. How do you turn up in a professional environment, being yourself, with the communication skills to meet your outcomes? Another way of putting it is: what’s your version of leadership? It doesn’t need me to tell you that people are infinitely fascinating, quirky and uncategorisable and any coaching or training that fails to encompass this is doing us all a disservice.
In spite of the vast array of information defining executive presence there’s very little that details the process whereby you actually embody this mystique. Professionals are left wondering how they transfer all this theoretical knowledge into their own behaviours, thoughts and feelings. So bearing all this in mind this blog will focus on the following:
Acquiring a more organic, real and personal executive presence
The process you move through to develop executive presence
The obstacles you might face
Executive Presence - how do I even get started?
Well, that depends on you and what area of work is demanding skills that you don’t feel you have. In an ideal world, I’d start in the following order:
What triggers you?
By this I mean: what are the situations that you feel uncomfortable in? How does this discomfort affect your communication and your performance? How do you react to the pressure that you’re feeling?
By making a list of all those areas you feel less than comfortable with, we begin to analyse your weak spots, so to speak. We look at your reactions, your default behaviours and we look at how you’d like to respond.
If you aren’t responding in the way you want in specific scenarios you’ll need skills to provide you with the necessary resources to draw on. We identify those skills. What behaviours would best fulfil your outcome/s? What if you had a choice of resourceful behaviours rather than one gut reaction?
Having identified behaviours that need modifying, the main body of the coaching is to implement new behaviours so they become second nature. So you don’t even have to think about them. This is where it gets interesting…….
“But that’s not me!”
The last stage is where the discomfort mentioned above may show itself. It’s all very well wanting to sail through a board meeting with everyone thinking you’re the most credible human being they’ve ever seen. It’s another telling that to your Identity! Your Identity has moulded itself over many years and its raison d’être is to protect you and keep you safe. It’s not very keen on shaking up the way you interact with the world. It can get quite stroppy – and understandably. Your identity is you.
Executive Presence – the behaviours!
So what are these behaviours that you might rail against?
No two people will come for coaching with exactly the same objectives. Some behaviours that we might associate with executive presence you’ll already have, some behaviours you won’t. Some behaviours you’ll use successfully in one situation and they’ll desert you in another. But generally these are the areas we’ll look at:
When you walk into a room do people notice? Do you look comfortable standing in front of an audience? Do you look relaxed talking to the exec? When you say nothing do people look to you for the answer? Do you command a space?
When you speak do people listen? Can your voice be heard effortlessly by everyone in the room? When you say something does your voice express your intention? Do you use lower and higher vocal registers? Is your voice stable in all situations? Does your voice have ‘weight’ and ‘authority’?
Do you show a set of behaviours that can be associated with credibility? Do you have a stillness that draws focus and compels people to listen to your words? Is your content concise? Can you hold silence?
No, you don’t have to show your entire, inner emotional world! But you do have to show you’re human and can relate to other human beings. That you feel and not only that you think. Showing a department you appreciate what they’ve achieved sounds hollow and redundant without emotion. Creating a vision in which every single person in an organisation is involved and included is impossible without emotion. Logic won’t cut it.
Flexibility in how you communicate so you can adapt your style to whoever you’re talking to.
Flexibility in how you receive another person’s reaction or response and deal with it in an optimum way.
- Flexibility in your mind-set in terms of problem-solving, strategising and improvising.
Composure, poise, a calm demeanour, call it what you will, being unflappable is an essential.
When the seas are choppy a leader will still respond, they don’t panic and react.
You maintain mental clarity in all situations that allows you to continue to see the big picture. You can then calmly assess the root causes of problems rather than home in on symptoms and create quick fixes.
Senior leaders are often asked to present, deliver bad news, deal with crises, inspire and motivate groups and talk with authority about subjects they may not know that much about with little or no preparation. In my experience, this is something my clients find particularly stressful. If you haven’t developed the art of mental and emotional calmness, you may find improvising in this way stressful.
Does your organisation thrive? How can it improve? How do you increase profits and create a healthy, fair and positive environment to work in? Can you create a common goal that everyone wants to work towards together? Can you talk to people in a way that relates to them on an emotional level and inspire them to action? Can you create a collective sense of ‘we’ rather than an authoritarian sense of ’I’m telling you’. And here’s where the coaching comes in: can you communicate that to everyone?
Most of the people I work with prefer communicating with logic rather than emotion. However, is your language clear and do you stress key facts and figures so people can follow your thoughts? Is your pace measured with pauses so people can take in this information piece by piece? Do you have clarity of word?
Use of Language
When we’re five years old and we want some sweets that we know are in the cupboard we ask for them directly sometimes very strongly! Our subtlety on occasion hasn’t moved on much from this literal stage. Especially when we want something! Use of language is another term for the ability to influence using the subtleties and intricacies of language. It isn’t manipulation, coercion or deceit. It’s respectfully presenting your message in a way that sits well with another human being.
Everyone has a mind that prefers a certain way of processing information about the world we're part of. This can create a bias in how we see reality and therefore how we approach and solve problems. Creating a mindset that works at an optimum allows us to see more possibilities, wider horizons and think outside the box for solutions. A leadership mindset is one that works towards reducing its natural limitations whether those limitations be based around beliefs, information processing, communication or anything else.
“You still haven’t told me how I get Executive Presence!”
That’s true. Day by day and week by week you begin to practice skills. Take for example the acquisition of ‘Presence’. We look at your posture. We look at the way you carry yourself. We begin to change your breathing pattern. We look at how you move and how you occupy space: how much space you actually take up when gesturing.
If you’re presenting on zoom to a large audience, for example, are you proficient using this virtual environment so that you appear on camera at your best? Can you use the camera frame so that you come across natural and impactful?
You’ll have exercises to do after each coaching session to create the mind/body link to resourceful behaviours. The exercises may be around presence, they may be around the voice or anything else we’re working on. We apply these skills to every day activities at work. We then see how they stand up to pressure in more high risk situations The whole point is eventually not to have to think about what you’re doing! Executive presence will be your version not mine or anybody else’s.
Executive Presence Coaching – the results
You won’t look like you’ve had a personality transplant and some rather obvious and fake leadership coaching. People will find it hard to really say how you’ve changed. Your voice is still your own but perhaps a little more so. Your presence is turned up. You’re more visible, more noticeable but without effort. You become someone people listen to when you speak.
You own your personal and positional power and this aligns to your experience, expertise and identity. You look, sound and feel both different and the same. Different in that you’re empowered, the same in the fact that it’s still you natural self and you’re in no way contrived. In a sense you ‘up’ your game and this is as much mentally as in your visible communication. You strategise and solve problems from the territory of leadership. Leadership that is firmly rooted in your identity, your beliefs and your value system.
So are you going to give a definition of Executive Presence?
That’s tricky but this is my stab at a definition:
‘Executive presence is natural, integrated and spontaneous behaviour, appropriate to a work environment which allows you to meet your professional outcomes.’
If you think you’d benefit from this type of coaching please contact me here to arrange a 30 minute zoom call free of charge. We’ll discuss what specifically you need help with and if this kind of coaching’s right for you.