In my experience observing and coaching professionals, there has been one primary predictor of (and blocker to) leadership success; ‘executive presence’. Although most researchers concede that executive presence is difficult to define, it is best described as one’s ability to project gravitas; or confidence, poise, and decisiveness under pressure. Its existence (or lack there of) can trump even the most skilled and experienced candidates in the promotion stakes. And in 2012, Forbes deemed executive presence as the biggest inhibitor for aspiring leaders. So, is it something you’re born with? Or is it something that can be developed? And if it is so elusive, how?
Despite at first appearing to be an innate characteristic, it can be built, and it all boils down to regulating behaviours. Many candidates for promotion considered to lack executive presence have been otherwise brilliant in their chosen field. They have often rounded out their technical expertise developing their ‘soft skills’ (communication, teamwork, leadership etc.) by the book. However despite it’s deal-breaker reputation, you won’t readily find executive presence listed as a leadership requirement or covered in a management course. So when candidates are told it’s lacking, it can leave them feeling blind-sided. Indeed, it can be such a grey area that even those providing feedback can have difficulty articulating exactly what it is beyond ‘knowing it when they see it’ or ‘a certain wow factor’. So invariably, the translations become a catch-all ‘you’re just not ready for a promotion’ and candidates are left in the dark as to why.
The up-shot is that the critical components of executive presence have been identified, and they can all be learned, practiced, and perfected. Harvard graduate, economist, and the founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, Sylvia Hewlett conducted a 2012 study of executives and pinpointed three essential elements of executive presence: gravitas (how you act), communication (how you speak), and appearance (how you look). Interestingly, ‘how you act’ had by far the greatest influence on executive presence at 67% (‘how you speak’ 28% and ‘how you look’ a mere 5%).
The following is a three-pronged approach to help you to better regulate how you behave, and to improve your executive presence.
1. Find composure. Focus on being calm, in control, and in the present. One strategy to achieve this is to practice mindfulness meditation for as little as 10 minutes a day. There are countless personal and professional benefits of mindfulness. And there are several great apps you can upload to your phone to get underway including ‘Smiling Mind’ (which tracks your progress), ‘Headspace’ and ‘Mindfulness’.
2. Tap into your EQ. Emotional intelligence is dominated by two characteristics: self-awareness and social competence. Tune into your true self (your strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivations, and emotions) better enabling you to evaluate your emotions in the moment, and manage them. The flip side is being able to read other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with, and bring out the best in them (a critical skill of any effective leader). A coach or mentor who can observe and provide feedback on your day to day interactions will be an invaluable way to better understand how you act, react, and interact with others. Another strategy is to identify and better utilise your strengths! You can start this process by identifying your top strengths through the free VIA strengths survey www.viacharacter.org/www/The-Survey
3. Be confident. Demonstrate your value by confidently conveying insights that are both compelling and succinct. Hewlett explains..."A big part of gravitas is a knack for conveying tremendous amounts of knowledge and giving people the impression you could go ‘six questions deep’ on the subject you’re talking about, but in a way that’s concise.” And it takes practice! Know your worth and be confident to talk about it (briefly). Before you attend a meeting or networking event, prepare your one-liner or elevator pitch that best sums up how you can add value.
So, where will you begin?
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