Six Keys to Executive Presence and Leadership Development

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” — Jim Rohn

If you desire to move to the top ranks of leadership in the workplace, it takes a lot to build your credibility and a track record of success. Indeed, in today’s flatter organizations, leaders need to stand out. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation, October 2012, states that executive presence accounted for 26% of what it takes to get promoted according to senior executives. While companies have started noticing their talent needs to have executive presence to get ahead, that doesn’t mean the leaders have it or even know what to do about it. One organization we worked with recently came to this conclusion as they implemented their succession planning initiative. They discovered more than 40% of their identified candidates (both men and women) were missing one key element: executive presence.

One leader we worked with, “Tom”, has been the interim CFO at his organization for more than two years. While Tom is very capable of the skills required to do the job, it is well known that he will not be offered the official CFO position even though he wants it. The reason given is a vague explanation that he just doesn’t fit the part. Clearly Tom is competent at his job, yet his boss fears telling him that his lack of executive presence is holding him back.

So what is Tom missing? He has a strong finance background. He is productive and has steered the ship for the past two years, but he is not one to share a point of view or try to convince others to adopt new change initiatives. He does what is expected of him, but he doesn’t stand out. Many people will contend that you either have executive presence or you don’t. Others believe the behaviors and attitudes that portray executive presence can be taught and obtained like any other leadership traits.

Many companies have identified executive presence as a developmental need and are taking steps to make that happen. Tom’s organization is shortsightedly willing to pay a substantial price to replace a competent individual who simply needs to develop his executive presence. A modest investment in Tom, would allow both Tom and his employer to reap the benefits from his advanced leadership skills at an overall much lower cost to the organization.

How do you start to develop executive presence and your own authentic brand?  Let’s look at 6 key dimensions of executive presence for both men and women:

  1. Carry yourself with confidence:  Your body language should exude poise, composure, confidence, and decisiveness. Confidence comes from knowing your abilities, being knowledgeable and getting results. Greet people with a smile while making eye contact and offering a firm handshake. Stand tall and learn to be purposeful when you enter a room, sit, stand or walk. Those who are confident take up more space through their stance, their gestures and even how they sit at a conference table, and yes, it is o.k. to put your elbows on the conference room table.
  2. Dress for success:  Like it or not, impressions and judgments are made based on our appearance. While we might like to think it doesn’t matter, it does; and major mistakes in appearance can be detrimental and potentially derail up-and-comers. According to the Center for Talent Innovation research, significant appearance blunders include unkempt attire for both men and women and 73% of those surveyed said that too-tight or provocative clothing detract from a woman’s executive presence. For men and women alike, it’s definitely worth an investment in a professional wardrobe and a good tailor to get it right.
  3. Manage your thoughts:  Yes, this could go under the dimension of communication, but I believe it deserves its own category. The framework for your conversation is critical when you are communicating with those at a more senior level. Take the time to organize your message so that it is clear, direct and candid. Filter your thoughts—get your message across in as few words as possible without qualifying or explaining too much.
  4. Communicate with clarity:  Communication is a two way street and effective communication starts with listening. Follow the advice of Stephen Covey to “seek first to understand”. When it’s your turn to speak, deliver your message with composure and clarity. Make eye contact with your audience. Pause at the end of sentences to eliminate running them together with “and”, “so”, or “but”. Get rid of filler words such as “um”, “you know”, and “like” because they take away from your message. When in doubt pick elegant over causal such as “good afternoon” versus “hey there”. Less is more when it comes to effective communication. Be prepared and speak up with relevant input during discussions. Don’t wait until everyone has spoken and conversely don’t monopolize the conversation.
  5. Moderate your voice:  Many people overlook this important aspect of executive presence. Pay close attention to your volume, diction, inflection, and pitch, as well as how fast you speak. Speaking too fast makes it difficult to clearly enunciate your words thus appearing less confident. Yes, you do have control over the pitch of your voice. Let’s face it, a shrill Minnie Mouse voice is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Likewise, an overly loud, booming voice is equally annoying. Use a conversational and clear tone of voice. Listening to yourself on tape will do wonders to help you improve in this area.
  6. Act with integrity: First and foremost, treat others with respect, thoughtfulness, sincerity, and demonstrate a genuine interest in other people. Simply put, do the right thing toward others. Listen well and allow others to be heard. Also, manners are important, learn and act with proper business and social etiquette. If you need brushing up on this, get help quickly!

How is your executive presence? Working with a mentor or leadership coach to develop or enhance your executive presence could make the difference in your leadership development!