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Throughout my career, when I’m mentoring, coaching or providing career development feedback to business leaders, the one leadership skillset that most frequently comes up as a growth opportunity is developing ‘executive presence.’ While honing your executive presence can be a key factor in your career growth and the competency many leaders frequently need to refine, what exactly does executive presence require? How do you define it, how do you know when you have it, and what can you do to improve it?
The problem with executive presence is that it’s like the old definition of art — you know it when you see it — but you can’t necessarily articulate just what “it” is. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to improve upon it if you don’t have a clear definition, so here’s how I see this.
For me, executive presence is the total combined manner by which an executive “shows up” for the job of leadership. It’s that unique combination of skills, style, actions and reactions in service to the goal of leading your employees forward and driving organizational results. As John Quincy Adams put it, “if your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
The reason executive presence can feel so elusive is because it’s not a singular concept of presence. Instead, it’s how you show meaning and authenticity. It’s not just what you wear or how you communicate — it’s the combination of everything that determines how people view you as a leader and why they look to you for direction.
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Nurturing your results and reputation
To perfect your executive presence, the first step is to earn a reputation for being great at what you do. While this is probably self-explanatory for many of you, I’ve found that being excellent in your role is the biggest determinant of how much executive presence you have.
This is because people notice you for the right reasons when you’re skilled at your work. Consistently achieving stellar results is the foundation for all other executive presence traits. When you excel, you’re in the ideal position to be an inspiring and selfless leader because it allows you to build trust with those around you.
Something I’ve noticed about people who consistently deliver results is that they all have reliability in common. I used the phrase “done done” when consulting to gauge reliability. When something was “done done,” it didn’t need edits and comments. It was zipped up and ready to go. Producing “done done” results is the highest form of reliability. When you, as a leader, can achieve this consistently, it’s invaluable for your reputation of reliability.
Related: 10 Indirect Things We Get Judged On — How Do You Shape up?
Helping others take action
As executives, we’re paid to look to the future. That means it’s up to us to empower our teams to get us closer to our goals. Our teams will look to us for guidance and behaviors they should model, so our actions must demonstrate how they can serve the broader organization.
One of the biggest keys to driving action is the ability to ask the right questions. Questions should always be insightful, probing and open-ended, with the goal of letting the team provide input in an open forum. For instance, what processes are failing, and where can we improve operations? What’s our next strategic goal to move the business forward? What techniques can I adopt as a leader to set the best example, and what strategies do I need to deploy to help my teams evolve? Asking thoughtful questions can also prevent you from making rash decisions before getting the full picture, saving you and your team precious time down the road.
To help inspire action and convey understanding, leaders need to be able to summarize a situation effectively. Executives should be able to be concise, with the goal of orienting everyone to the company’s desired outcomes, communicating the purpose of those outcomes and articulating their impact on the future. Your ability to summarize thoroughly and succinctly is where your sense of executive presence can really shine.
Perfecting your communication
Communication is probably top of mind when you think of executive presence. Whenever you address others, choosing your words carefully is crucial.
I am personally inspired by what author Kim Scott calls “radical candor” to describe communication in the context of executive presence. Essentially, this is the ability to say what needs to be said, not what you think ought to be said. I’m not saying you should berate an employee in a meeting or allow your staff to disrespect their colleagues. You need to ensure that people can express frank opinions, highlight when something doesn’t make sense, and know they can own a mistake without impacting their office’s reputation.
To discern what needs to be said versus what you could say, ask yourself if your thoughts are in service to the goals you’re working toward. We all get frustrated at times, but your words always need to be helpful and actionable for the people in the room with you and the company overall — radical candor ties in with the humility to respectfully speak the truth while also listening to other opinions.
Sharing the credit
I want to touch on one more aspect: the importance of giving your teams as much credit as possible while resisting the urge to believe your hard work drove all the success. Leaders who adopt an others-first mentality almost always separate themselves from leaders who focus more on their own scorecard. Becoming a better leader starts with putting your employees first. People need to be recognized for their contributions to create an engaging and fulfilling workplace.
Executive presence isn’t just how you appear in the meeting room — it’s how you present yourself daily. Executive presence encompasses expertise, action, and communication beyond the boardroom walls. Consistent results, collaborative action through insightful inquiry and communicating with radical candor and humility convey a sense of presence. Truthfully, there’s no magic to it. It all comes down to doing careful work and compellingly articulating yourself.
As you strive to refine your executive presence, remember it’s not a destination but a continuous journey of self-improvement and authenticity. If we can learn to show up with more executive presence, we can pave the way for our personal growth and for the success of our teams and organizations as we shape a future where leadership thrives, and excellence prevails.