Aaron was not a Vice President as he thought he deserved, but he was smart and he knew it. He was a junior director, and was generally recognized as a leader in the department. He was technically strong, in many ways a visionary, and a hard worker. He and his group could out-perform any other. Aaron did not however have strong relationships with his peers, and often left ‘dead bodies’ in his path.
Elena was a skilled, strategic player in her department. She was a strong manager that encouraged critical thinking skills, expanded her team competency and built confidence within her team. She had the respect of her colleagues and direct reports, but was often vexed by her lack of confidence.
Suzanne was a professional who had always been efficient and motivated at work. She was known for being reliable and hard working. She had strong relationships with her peers, had always been driven, thorough, and a solid performer. Over a short period of time though, many aspects of her life that had always motivated her, including her work, just didn’t interest her anymore.
All of these leaders had an executive presence that prevented them from 1) being promoted, and 2) maximizing their influence.
After almost 20 years of leading corporate succession planning conversations, I have learned that although ‘executive presence’ is a leadership attribute often brought up in conversations around advancement, senior leaders have vastly different ideas of what this concept means. ’ Regardless of how you imagine and evolve your ‘executive presence’ at work, most leaders know when their ‘executive presence’ engenders trust and followership in others (and when it does not.)
If I were to create my own definition, executive presence is the almost immediate central impression others have of you based on the meaning they make of their experience with you. Part of that meaning-making process is about the beliefs and assumptions others bring which have very little if anything to do with you. But, this meaning-making also includes, what some call the ’2% truth’ – that commonality in others’ impressions of you that really is about you.
No matter how successful you think you are (or are not) in building a compelling executive presence, everyone can build capacity in this area. I have had clients deliberately and successfully adapt the overarching impression they create at work. Part of this is an old idea, “fake it until you make it.” There is no question that this is a useful tool in a leader’s toolbox as the leader reaches for new career heights and new challenges. At some point though, a more impactful executive presence is as much about internal work as external work. To broaden the concept of executive presence a bit, consider that the ‘presence’ worth building, goes beyond competence and neatly collected behaviors that make a leader ‘corporate pretty.’ Consider that ‘presence’ includes a greater connection to the leader you are when you are most compelling, and a closer alignment with your larger purpose. That process of re-alignment comes through in your presence, even in the first 30 seconds.
Silvia, a director at a consulting firm, believed that she needed to bring more assertive authority to work. She wanted to be like some of her colleagues who were ‘naturally’ direct and candid. She soon realized that she did have an authoritative leader inside that came to life when she felt a sense of conviction. We worked on how Silvia could feel more ‘convicted’ at work. Between bringing forward her more confident self and her own unique convictions, Silvia enhanced her influence and impact with her team.
To be your most compelling self which also translates into a stronger executive presence requires ‘core’ work. I think of ‘core’ as the center of who you are and what you stand for as a leader, regardless of position. It may be your spiritual center of gravity. It may be you when you are most grounded. It informs your perspective, the way others experience you, and the way you experience yourself. If we source the leader already present at our core rather than ‘putting on the act,’ we become engaged in core work, and are free to lead more powerfully and with more ease. When a leader is able to connect to core at work, that leader may create additional respect, trust, followership, and more personal fulfillment.
How do you connect to your most compelling executive presence? I challenge you to ask five colleagues when you were most compelling at work.