What Is Executive Presence?
“Executive Presence” — a phrase that has caught on with business leaders and professors — is the quality (or more accurately, the constellation of qualities) that signals your capabilities to others.
As Sylvia Ann Hewlett notes in Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, it is not enough to have top-level capabilities. In order to succeed, you must behave, speak, and carry yourself in a way that lets other people know you have them.
You must, in other words, look and act like your industry’s and company’s idea of what a top executive looks and acts like. (And yes, this often means “a tall white man who grew up with class privilege,” but Hewlett tells you specifically how to work around those biases.)
Executive Presence Includes Your Voice
Just as it’s not enough to be a talented professional if you don’t telegraph that fact, it’s also not enough to be a great communicator if you don’t sound like one.
I recently coached a dozen executives for a series of videos their multinational firm was creating.
The women among them were more than impressive. They were bright, vital, attractive, and extremely accomplished. However, two of them (both were from the South) shared a vocal “tic” — their voices spiked very high and got squeaky at the beginning of sentences. (In the northeast, you typically hear this spike at the end of sentences, turning women’s statements into questions?)
Hewlett’s book had just sensitized me to the fact that women can be passed over for promotion because of small behaviors like this that don’t sound “leaderly” to their male colleagues. And in case I’d missed that point, while one of these women was being videotaped, her male work partner of 12 years turned to me and said, “Can’t you make her stop doing that thing with her voice?”
I said, “Probably not right now. If she does it all the time, it’s an entrenched habit.”
To which he said, “She does it all the time, and it’s incredibly irritating.”
Ask for Feedback About Your Executive Presence
This exchange reminded me that it’s hard to get specific, actionable feedback on how to improve your executive presence!
After all, here was a man who liked and respected his female colleague, yet hadn’t told her she was doing something that drove him crazy — and that, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research, could actually limit her advancement.
I shared that point in private when the female executive was done videotaping. But if not for the accident of our meeting on this job, it might have been another 12 years (or never) before she realized that a minor habit was hurting her career.
The moral of this story? Don’t assume that feedback will be offered. You have to go out and ask for it.
And whether you pursue a formal evaluation or informally ask your trusted colleagues what is most and least effective about the way you communicate, don’t wait for the last minute to do this! You don’t want to get potentially unnerving feedback moments before a high stakes presentation, when your attention should be focused on your audience and message, not on your own shortcomings.
The work of changing a longstanding habit is best done in small doses every day, so leave yourself time to do it right!
Educate Yourself about Executive Presence, the New “It” for Professionals
In her book The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others, Kristi Hedges says,
Presence has become one of the key differentiators—and a critical success factor—for professionals today. And that makes sense. In a world where we have all become free agents who must constantly maintain our personal brand, differentiation is what it’s all about.
That may sound daunting, but remember that “executive presence” is composed of things that you’re probably already striving to do well, such as:
- Taking your work seriously, and adhering to values that you find meaningful;
- Speaking in a respectful and concise way when you communicate for business;
- Dressing so as to minimize distractions, and being well-groomed.
Giving those behaviors a fancy new title does not mean that they’re alien or difficult to achieve. In fact, just becoming more aware of their impact can move you farther down the path toward upgrading your EP.
Make Your Executive Presence Upgrade a Small, Daily Task
I’ve written about how easy it is to incorporate a minute or two of public speaking practice into your daily activities, and the same approach will help you increase your executive presence, and power.
Reading Hewlett’s and Hedges’ books has already helped me identify small changes that will make a big difference, and if you don’t have time to read an entire book, they’ve both written myriad articles that make their points quickly. And both experts are clear that you don’t have to knock every aspect of EP out of the box.
Just start with your strengths, work steadily, and start reaping the benefits.