What's Executive Presence? The Art And Science Of Getting Ahead At Work

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Does this story sound familiar?

Rena has had a great pedigree and a successful career, first as an engineer, then as a product manager and later, a director at a fashionable tech company. She was gunning for a Vice President role but was told by her boss that she was missing executive presence and the promotion was then given to her male peer. A month later, Rena was hired by a competitor for the same type of role she was passed on. She was happy about the new gig but was also feeling very confused by the mixed messaging:

“[Executive presence] seems so nebulous, everyone seems to want it in their execs but no one can quite define what it is! I am trying to figure out whether I have it, and if not, what I can do to develop ‘it.’ But first, I need to wrap my head around what ‘it’ is.”

There is quite a bit of conversation about Executive Presence (‘EP’) in leadership development circles but only a handful of people can clearly define what it actually is. 

Research has also shown that women are more likely than men to receive vague feedback about their performance and qualifications—and be held back by it: 

“The vague feedback lets women know they are generally doing a good job, but it does not identify which specific actions are valued or the positive impact of their accomplishments. We also learned that vague feedback is correlated with lower performance review ratings for women — but not for men. In other words, vague feedback can specifically hold women back conclude Stanford’s Shelley Correll and Caroline Simand in their HBR article Research: Vague Feedback Is Holding Women Back.

Combining a vague concept with gender bias in performance evaluations and we can clearly see how the lack of executive presence can be used to slow women’s career growth. But it’s not just a women’s issue—it affects men as well.

According to executive recruiters, Elena Lytkina Botelho and Katie Semmer Creagh, interviewers cited lack of EP for about 36% of high-performers who were passed for promotions.

So, What The Heck Is Executive Presence?

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Source: Punch

When more and more of my women’s leadership course participants started coming to me for help with Executive Presence, I embarked on a long journey to find the perfect definition in order to help them find more career success.

I first interviewed successful executives from different industries and countries and got an array of definitions that highlighted diverse qualities such as self-confidence, decisiveness, speaking truth to power, transparent communication, carefully managing perceptions, authenticity and treating people with respect.

This research only illustrated that there was no universal understanding of EP among even the most seasoned executives. 

I then turned to business literature to find more objective definitions. Through this review and research, I identified three viewpoints of Executive Presence. I call these the corporate, the psychologist, and the actor views of EP:

1. The Corporate View

 Economist and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, shares in her book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, the following definition: 

“Executive presence is the ’it factor,’ a heady combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we are in the presence of someone who’s going places. [..] Executive presence is not just a measure of performance. Rather, executive presence is a measure of image: whether you signal to others that you “have what it takes,” that you are leadership material.”

In Hewlett’s universe, there is an objective set of desired behaviors that you could emulate in order to project a strong EP. Her research highlights that according to corporate leaders EP rests on three pillars: gravitas (67%), communication (28%) and appearance (5%).

2. The Psychologist’s View

Famous Harvard psychologist, Amy Cuddy, in her bestselling book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, take another approach: 

“Presence is the state of being attuned to and being able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential. 

Cuddy’s Presence is built from the inside out. When you have a high level of awareness and confidence in who you are and what you represent, you project this confidence to others. Cuddy has demonstrated that humans are psychologically attuned to this type of behavior, and treat this authenticity with respect, according to her research.

3. The Actor’s View

Former actresses turned executive coaches, Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern, present a third definition in their book, Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire:

“Leadership Presence is the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others, in order to motivate them and inspire them towards a desired outcome.”

Lubar and Halpern borrow from the actor’s toolkit and show that leadership presence is about effectively tapping into your own experiences and, through storytelling, help others relate to you and therefore connect with you on a deeper level.

What Is The Right Definition Of Executive Presence, Then?

All three definitions are helpful as you work to improve your leadership skills. 

  • The corporate view forces you to investigate how EP is defined by your organization and management team and identify where you have gaps. 

  • The psychologist’s view requires some soul-searching and self-assessments to better understand your own strengths, passions, and what matters most to you.

  • The actor’s view implies that you need to map out your life story and identify the experiences that shaped your leadership style and turn them into stories and lessons learned that you can share to connect more deeply with others.   

Bringing all of the above together will help you become a better executive.

All of these are very nice on paper. But what can you do right now to improve your executive presence?

How To Build And Improve Your Executive Presence

Executive Presence is a broad skill that takes years to develop but it doesn’t mean that you can’t start right now and see immediate results. Here are some key strategies:

  1. Get feedback on your executive presence. To avoid receiving vague feedback, ask your evaluator to rate you based on several clear criteria, such as how you perform under pressure, your communication skills, and your professional look. Ask different types of people such as your manager, colleagues, and subordinates so you get a broader picture of how others perceive you. Feel free to discard any feedback that seems too personal and doesn’t give you suggestions for improvement.

    leslie-knope-praise

  2. Challenge vague feedback to get more information or test for biased judgements. If you are told that you lack EP, first ask for examples of situations that you didn’t handle properly and advice for how you could have handled them better. Then ask what resources you could rely upon to improve your EP in the long run. You can also ask them what their definition of EP is, to make sure that you are on the same page. If you consistently continue getting vague responses, you may consider switching teams or companies because you are under a serious risk of having your career growth stalled.

  3. Prepare well for high stake interactions like important meetings or job interviews. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the most important factor according to which people judge your EP is your ability to demonstrate “confidence and grace under fire.” There are three things that you can do to help you prepare and manage the anxiety about difficult interactions:
    1. Write down your objectives for that meeting: what are your desired outcomes? What messages would you like your audience to get out of the interaction? Putting these into writing can help you focus and maintain better control over the conversation
    2. Practice. Practice. Practice. Role-playing with a trusted colleague or friend will help you test the clarity of your message and anticipate difficult questions.
    3. Manage physical symptoms of anxiety through activities like sports, deep breathing, meditation, or any other rituals that can help you calm down. Consider adapting psychologist Adam Grant’s suggestion for channeling anxiety into excitement.
  4. Improve your public speaking abilities by adapting the permanent public speaking mode. Speaking more slowly, clearly, and to the point will draw people’s attention to your message and will help you command more authority.
  5. Dress for the occasion. According to Hewlett’s research into executive presence, women are more harshly penalized for blunders related to physical appearance. This is unfair but has a quick fix. Do your homework about dress code. If you don't know what the code is, ask the organizer and err on the conservative side. Here are some additional tips and insights on professional attire to get you started.

EP Your Way

Executive Presence is somewhat of an art and science leadership skill. Don’t let its complexity stand in your way. Understanding the three definitions (the corporate, psychologist’s, and actor’s views) combining them with the strategies above can help you gain self-awareness and pick and choose the approach that makes the most sense to your personal style.

If you’d like more help to boost your credibility at work, get a copy of my free eBook—The Credibility Guide—or go deeper with the Executive Presence Lab.


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