You may have heard the phrase “Executive Presence.”
And while it’s hard to define exactly, the phrase refers to the group of qualities that signal your capabilities to others.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett notes in Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success that 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 how to work around those biases.)
How You Speak is Part of Your Executive Presence
I recently coached a dozen executives for a series of videos their multinational firm was creating.
The women among them were very impressive; they were smart, vital, and extremely accomplished. However, two of them (both 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 that point was driven home during this video session. 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
Here was a man who liked and respected his female colleague, yet hadn’t told her she was doing something that drove him nuts. Something that, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s research, might actually limit her advancement.
I shared my feedback 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.
So the moral of this story is: Don’t assume that feedback will be offered. You have to go out and ask for it.
And don’t wait for the last minute to do this! If you suspect that something is less than optimal, ask your boss or a trusted colleague to help evaluate your presence. Questions that can help identify communications issues are:
- Do I express myself clearly and professionally?
- Are my instructions and explanations easy to understand?
- Is there anything about the way I speak that undercuts my leadership?
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 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. The same approach will help you increase your executive presence.
Hewlett’s and Hedges’ books have helped me identify small changes that will help me up my own game. And if you don’t have time to read an entire book, they’ve both written many articles that make their points quickly.
The best news of all?
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 on improving them, and start reaping the benefits.
In 25 years of speaker coaching, I’ve helped my individual speaker coaching clients develop their strengths and skills to become authentic and effective communicators.
Along the way, I’ve developed tips for everything from small talk to speaking up in meetings, from managing fear to making an impact.
And now, I’ve shared it all in 100 Top Public Speaking Tips: The Book. This beautifully designed PDF booklet is searchable, clickable, and categorized, so that you can find what you need, instantly.