Executive Presence – The Myth and the Reality
One of my more frequent requests from clients is to help them develop 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, nine-to-five type 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.
From my perspective, presence doesn’t present 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, however, is not my point. If you want to move to a leadership position, there’s no doubt that 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.
- Do I have a strong sense of intention in my daily interactions? Am I aware of the effect I’m having on others?
- How well do I manage my emotions on a day to day basis? How does this change when I’m under stress?
- Am I distracted by repetitive or inhibiting thoughts? Do I sometimes dwell on incidents that happened hours/days ago?
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.
- What are the key traits that define me as a person? What aspects of my personality draw others to me?
- What are my values? Do I stand up for what I believe in and adhere to my values in my dealings with others?
- What is my unique contribution to the world around me? How do I bring a sense of my own purpose to my day to day activities?
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.
- Do I carry myself with a relaxed assurance? Is my body language open or closed?
- When I speak, do others listen? Can I challenge without being perceived as aggressive?
- How effectively can I present my ideas or communicate a vision? Am I able to motivate and inspire others?
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 and how well you come across in daily interactions. 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 to enable you to manage stress and stay focused throughout your day.
- Clarify your values (this can start with something as simple as a list) and draw up a personal mission statement. This will help you to maintain authenticity while flexing to the demands of your role.
- 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 and Webexes, 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 physiological, psychological and situational mastery, you will slowly (and, most importantly, surely) gain the deep-rooted inner confidence at the heart of real presence – whatever adjective you choose to put in front of the word.