Do you want to be seen as a compelling leader? If so, you may want to work on your “executive presence,” the ineffable but powerful concept that fuels top leaders’ success.
“There is no universal definition of executive presence, which is what makes it so elusive as a concept,” says Nick Marsh, managing director of Harvey Nash Executive Search Asia Pacific, an executive search and leadership consulting firm. But most people know it when they see it.
“People with executive presence exude ‘the X-factor’ or magnetism,” Marsh says. “As a result, people tend to gravitate to them and they're able to easily influence others.” Specifically, he says, “They tend to project an air of confidence—quiet confidence in some cases—and are highly decisive, a byproduct of dealing effectively with leadership situations. Furthermore, they demonstrate poise under pressure.”
Making Your Presence Known
While some people are born with those skills, the rest of us can learn. Here are five strategies that will help you enhance your own executive presence:
1. Go deep. It’s important to recognize that executive presence isn’t just about wowing people with surface charisma, says Tanvi Gautam, program director of the Women & Leadership Programme at Singapore Management University. “Many people think executive presence is about making heads turn or holding the attention of a group. That, however, is only a partial picture. Executive presence is the external manifestation of deep inner conviction, confidence, insight and the ability to handle unexpected situations. We should never mistake style for substance.”
2. Take risks. Confidence is a sign of executive presence; real leaders aren’t afraid to take risks and fail. Gautam recalls one woman in a program she taught who initially struggled with the concept. “We worked on increasing her ability to celebrate and accept who she was, and what she brought to the table," Gautam says. "When she let go of the need for perfection, she was able to stop second guessing herself and spoke and acted with more conviction.”
3. Bolster your communication skills. One of the most critical elements of executive presence is your ability to communicate your ideas, especially through public speaking. “Find your individual style by working on your content and delivery,” Marsh says. “You can work on listening, maintaining composure and reacting quickly.” Practice your body language and eye contact, so you become comfortable in front of a group.
4. Recognize cultural differences. “There are distinct cultural nuances to executive presence,” Marsh says. “For example, in the West, people are encouraged to be assertive and forthright, whereas in the East, people are encouraged to blend in, rather than stand out.” That’s why it’s so important for leaders to learn to read a room and understand the signals others are sending out.
You need to become agile at calibrating your behavior to suit the moment. In some situations, you may need to be more assertive, because otherwise, your voice won’t be heard, while at other times, the most powerful move is to stay quiet. Marsh notes, “In the Asia Pacific region, for example, executive presence is defined by others in the room. Their behavior will ensure that certain individuals stand out, rather than those individuals standing out through their own actions.“
5. Play to your strengths. When it comes to executive presence, Marsh says, “Many introverted people feel they're at a disadvantage, but you can have strong executive presence and be the introverted type. Executive presence doesn’t mean you have to be the most extroverted person in a room. Quite often, it's the exact opposite. Executive presence is being the person in the room that people gravitate toward, and when that person makes a remark, everyone else is quiet, since they value their thoughts and respect them.” Emanating a fundamental comfort with yourself and others is a true sign of executive presence.
Even though it’s hard to define, executive presence is critical to your professional success. “I know of many talented people who never rose up the ladder in the absence of executive presence,” Gautam says. “It's a powerful influence mechanism that cannot be ignored.”
What steps will you take to cultivate your own executive presence?
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Learn more about her new book, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press), and follow her on Twitter.
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