Executive Presence – The Myth and the Reality
One of the most frequent requests I get from clients is for help developing their executive presence. Not presence, note, but executive presence. The kind that is – presumably – carried by a particular type of suit-wearing, corner-office-inhabiting corporate leader who draws a six-figure salary and drives a BMW (other car brands are available).
I would argue that there’s no such thing.
Over the years, I’ve met many leaders with presence. But had those individuals been doctors, teachers or airline pilots they’d have had exactly the same air of self-possession and confidence.
From my perspective, presence doesn’t show up in a particular way according to what you do. Barack Obama doesn’t have Political Presence. Cate Blanchett doesn’t have Actor Presence. And when Jeff Bezos gets on stage to reveal the latest Amazon initiative, he doesn’t have Entrepreneur Presence. What they all share, quite simply, is Presence (capital P entirely intentional).
Semantics aside, however, there’s no doubt that if you want to move to a leadership position, having presence – whatever the flavour – helps. The good news is presence can be cultivated. The even better news is that I can help show you how.
So, what is presence?
Presence is the kind of characteristic for which the phrase je ne sais quois might well have been invented. Notoriously difficult to define, people often describe it as ‘charisma’, ‘magnetism’ or ‘gravitas’, none of which, for me, is accurate. In my experience, presence comes from a deep-rooted confidence that works from the inside out.
Executives with presence are comfortable in their skin. They are clear about what they stand for and the unique contribution they make to the world around them. This ease with themselves enables them to be fully authentic in their interactions with others. They’re calm under pressure, engage rather than command attention and make their points assertively instead of aggressively. This, by extension, makes them more able to inspire, influence and ultimately lead.
Developing presence is a long game. It’s not about learning a few power gestures or speaking with a deeper voice. It’s about self-awareness, self-control and a strong sense of intentionality in how you behave towards and interact with others. I believe it works on three levels: physiological, psychological and situational.
Level 1: Presence is being ‘present’
At its most fundamental, presence is simply the ability to be fully in the moment you are in. When your body’s free of tension and your breathing is even and centred, your mind is clearer and more focused.
In this state, you’re more grounded and less likely to get thrown off balance: by nerves before an important presentation, for example, by defensiveness when challenged in a meeting, or by stress when faced with too many tasks.
It’s what leadership expert Dr Alan Watkins calls being physiologically coherent. In his work with the British Olympic rowing team and board members of global corporations, he uses rhythmical breathing techniques to help them manage stress and develop greater focus, ultimately enabling them to perform at a high level more consistently. As he rightly points out, it doesn’t matter how brilliant or accomplished you are, if you can’t stay focused and manage your responses in moments of stress, you’ll never be able to lead others effectively.
Being present also allows you to bring the right energy and mood to the moment. We all know people who can darken the atmosphere in a room just by walking in. We also know those whose mere presence brightens everyone’s day. Your energy is an essential component of your leadership presence.
Building physiological presence:
- Be prepared for each meeting in your day by practising 45 seconds of rhythmical breathing before you enter the room (or the conference call).
- Give yourself a purpose for each meeting. It might be “today I’m going to practise staying in the moment/managing my reactions/maintaining my energy” etc. When we give ourselves a goal, we’re far more likely to achieve it.
- Become more aware of the triggers or distractions that get in the way of your ability to be present. You might need to make changes to your environment to overcome these.
Level 2: Presence is being self-aware
At this level, presence is about you. Your sense of self – what some might call your character. It’s the personal traits that define you, as well as who you are in terms of values, beliefs and purpose. This is your foundation as a person.
It doesn’t matter how capable you are in your role, if you’re unclear about who you are and what you stand for, you may not be seen as genuine or trustworthy. Or it might make it difficult for you to maintain your authenticity while flexing to the requirements of your role.
The key then, is not only to be able to identify and clarify your personal values but to also behave consistently with them in your day-to-day interactions.
Building psychological presence:
- Do a ‘personal branding exercise’ to identify your strengths, values and purpose in life. Use the information to create a personal brand story that communicates the unique value you deliver to the business (or to the world around you).
- Think about how you live your values day to day. Are you staying true to those things that are most important to you? Do you stand up for what you believe in, when necessary? How do you communicate your values when setting expectations for your team?
Level 3: Presence is managing the moment
A huge part of presence is the ability to understand and respond to the demands of the moment. Depending on the situation, there will be times when you’ll need to be a dynamic and energised communicator and others when you’ll need to be quiet and reflective listener. Some problems will require a directive response, others a collaborative one.
When a leader responds well to the demands of the moment, they will be seen as decisive, confident and strategic, but also attuned to the needs and concerns of their stakeholders.
Your presence in the moment will also encompass elements like image, mannerisms and personal style – how you carry yourself and interact with those around you. In other words, how you “show up”.
Whether you like it or not, what you communicate about yourself, verbally and non-verbally, must be congruent with what people believe is appropriate for your role. If there’s a clash between how you’re perceived and the expectations people have of you, you will be judged as ineffective.
Building situational presence:
- Become more aware of your posture and body language. Remember that vision is the most dominant sense in humans. We make snap judgements about others’ credibility and trustworthiness from how they carry themselves, use gesture and make eye contact.
- Work on your vocal delivery. Your pace, energy, melody and use of pause will have a significant impact on how authoritative you sound, as well as how easily you’re able to engage and hold the attention of listeners.
- Practice the mantra of ‘less is more’ when you deliver your thoughts. Being clear, concise and to the point will earn you more gratitude and admiration from listeners than clever, flowery language.
Top tips for developing your presence
You can’t change who you are but you can change how you are.
- Start with assessing how you’re perceived by others. Get feedback from trusted friends or colleagues to help address any blind spots.
- Develop greater mindfulness in your day to day activities. Learn to recognise – and avoid – your derailers, so you can stay focused and maintain your composure.
- Work on your public speaking and storytelling skills to enable you to present your ideas more clearly and compellingly.
- Develop your listening skills and make a point of participating fully in meetings, rather than having one eye on your phone.
All of the above will, of course, take time. You can’t develop presence from reading a book – or a blog for that matter – but with greater physiological, psychological and situational mastery, you will slowly gain the deep-rooted inner confidence at the heart of real presence – whatever adjective you choose to put in front of the word.