Executive Presence. What the heck is it?
It’s one of the vaguest terms used about excellence at work. Some people seem to have it. Others don’t. For those don’t, the phrase “you lack executive presence” on a formal review can be a death knell for a corporate career. It stalls many middle managers who are looking to break into the executive ranks.
On the flip side, those who have executive presence, seem to have a mysterious quality that propels them forward. Sure, they might do great work as well, but there is capacity they seem to possess that motivates others to follow their leadership (the definition of a leader being one who has followers!) and enables their steady rise up the ranks.
In this blog post, I’ll decode executive presence. It isn’t a magical quality. It is, however, a vague term that if left unexplained will have you avoiding the inner and outer work that is necessary to continue making progress in your career. We can break down executive presence into its fundamental parts, examine them, and use these insights as a tool to zero in the particular behaviors that are present or lacking in your current day to day work.
Decoding Executive Presence
One of the better studies of Executive Presence was done by the Center for Talent Innovation in 2012. Here is what they did and what found:
“Performance, hard work, and sponsors get top talent recognized and promoted. But “leadership potential” isn’t enough to lever men and women into the executive suite. Leadership roles are given to those who also look and act the part.
Center for Talent Innovation research reveals that the top jobs often elude women and professionals of color because they lack “executive presence” (EP), or underestimate its importance. And they’re not getting the guidance they need to acquire it.
In early 2012…CTI surveyed nearly 4,000 college- graduate professionals in corporations to get at the essence of executive presence.
Executive Presence, senior executives told us, accounts for 26 percent of what it takes to get the next promotion. It depends on getting three things right: appearance, communication, and gravitas (itself a set of behaviors). Additional findings from 18 focus groups and some 50 interviews revealed how these elements interact to generate that aura of authority that sets leaders apart.
Presence alone won’t get you promoted, we learned—but its absence will impede your progress, especially if you’re female or a person of color.”
Let’s dive into each of these elements, Gravitas, Communication, and Appearance, to see what matters most and how to apply the learning to our careers.
How do you act?
Some people act in a manner that exudes confidence, clarity, empathy, and trust. Obama has it. So does Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg. Even Donald Trump, political views aside, has a high degree of gravitas. Gravitas is a quality that shows up regarding how someone acts, especially in times of crises. It’s easier to pretend to be confident when business is booming and everything is going great. What happens when your biggest customer cancels a large order, or a company restructuring is announced? Will you still remain confident?
Gravitas cannot be faked. When situations are dire, true colors are shown. Emotions take over. That’s why it’s important to understand what gravitas is and how to cultivate in daily life before crisis situations emerge. What you practice regularly will become your natural way of being. Gravitas included!
CTI research shows that Gravitas, according to 62 percent of the leaders they surveyed, is what signals to the world you’re made of the right stuff and can be entrusted with serious responsibility. Of the three factors – Gravitas, Communication, and Appearance – gravitas is the most crucial aspect of Executive Presence. In fact, it’s no stretch to say that gravitas is the heart of Executive Presence!
Gravitas is made up of six aspects, with varying degrees of importance for men and women:
Self-confidence is the solid-core of gravitas. It shows up as the top element of the six components of gravitas for both men and women. Trust in your own abilities to do the job are vital in establishing an executive presence. You must be able to look deep inside and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you have what it takes to excel in your job. More crucially, you must be able to stand on your bedrock of self-belief at the very moments when everyone else is freaking out!
How do you build self-confidence? “Steeliness is forged, history shows us, in the crucible of crisis— and it may take a crisis for you to discover your core of confidence.” says Sylvia Ann Hewlett, president of CTI and author of the definitive book on the subject called “Executive Presence” (from which the idea for this very blog post was born!).
In fact, all of the elements of Gravitas are best built through action on the job. Of course, reading and studying various theories is great (I’m glad you are reading this blog post after all). Yet, it’s through working in real-life and work scenarios that you will forge a rock-solid foundation of confidence, and continuously improve your gravitas.
With practice and consistent feedback, one day soon, you too will be the person everyone looks to as a true executive leader.
How do you speak?
I grew up learning to respect my elders. I never spoke back. I learned to listen and follow orders. Learned the value of hard work and sells service. I had a fantastic upbringing, the son of immigrants who came to the USA with nothing but professional degrees and the hope of a better life for their soon-to-be family. They worked hard and built up something great. Part of our culture was one of respect (for others, particularly elders) and knowledge. Both of the traits are priceless, and I am in gratitude to have learned them at an early age.
A by-product of this upbringing, however, was that I had to learn how to speak up, and push against others ideas. I had to learn how to speak the truth, even if it was uncomfortable. This has been particularly hard as I moved into a work environment, where at an early age I was put into positions of significant responsibility (e.g. I can still vividly recall sitting across the table from CFO’s as a 22-year-old financial analyst looking at acquisition targets!) and then as a 26 year-old, becoming a manager with most team members 10+ years older than I.
Learning how to communicate is not just about being eloquent, funny and poignant. It isn’t about taking a few Toastmasters classes and thinking you can command attention just by clinking a glass (though: having just delivered two best man toasts this year, this is a great skill to have!).
Communication is about saying what must be said, despite how it feels.
CTI research shows the following critical factors regarding communication:
Luckily, I had mentors and managers; who offered great examples of executive level communication. For example, I’ll never forget the time my former manager Jason, pushed back – hard – on our product plans many years ago. The situation made me uncomfortable at the time, but it was necessary.
The other aspect of great communicators is that they don’t turn this mode on and off. There is a saying, “how you are anywhere is how you are everywhere.” This is especially true when it comes to how you communicate. Your level of executive communication must be congruent through hallway chatter, emails, formal presentations, and reports. Every encounter with others is a chance to lead and leave a positive impression on others.
Don’t forget about body language. Research shows that only 7% of information is communicated through the quality of your words. The rest is made up of vocal tonality and body language. For an excellent primer on how to improve your sense of personal power through body language, watch Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk.
How do you look? More importantly, how do others perceive your appearance?
CTI data shows that of all the elements of Executive Presence – Gravitas, Communication, and Appearance – appearance is the least crucial. That said, appearance is seen as a filter through which people make assessments and judge. Therefore, we can’t ignore it.
The good news about appearance is that the major factor is being polished and groomed. It has much less to do with being fit, slim or attractive. It also has less to do with the clothes you wear or height! This is all good news, as my preferred wardrobe is jeans and a black t-shirt (and hoodie in cool weather) on my 5-foot 8-inch frame! I have no desire to wear platform shoes to gain height!
What does your appearance telegraph to others about the level of commitment and competence you have about your work? It’s important to ask yourself that question. Does your answer match what you would want others to think about you?
For example, if you love wearing bold-colored and patterned suits and crazy looking shoes, but work as a Creative Designer, that might work. On the other hand, if you dressed in that manner as a Patent Attorney, you aren’t going to be telegraphing the right qualities to your clients!
Regarding appearance, it’s also true that some people have a good sense of style and taste, while others do not! This is where is can be helpful to get feedback from others. Ask friends what they think of your style of dress and the impression it leaves on them. Even better, hire a professional coach (or a stylist at a higher end shopping store, like Nordstrom) to help you out!
One of the best decisions I made was to ask my friend Kristy to take me shopping for a few hours many years ago. We went to Nordstrom, and she had me try on dozens of shirts and several suit coats. Kristy works in a corporate environment, and I’ve always known her to be stylish with a keen eye for what works well in work and social settings.
After a few hours, we headed to the checkout line, where I was shocked at the price. The bill was well over a thousand dollars! As someone who used to never pay more than $20 for a pair of jeans, I swallowed my pride and paid for it. Lucky for me, the pricing including tailoring of all the clothing for a custom fit. What a great investment! I’ve used those clothes for almost over eight years so far (dry cleaning them to improve the longevity). They were worth every penny!
Executive Presence is crucial. Not just for executives. It matters for anyone who is looking to influence, lead and inspire others to action.
The good news is that it isn’t a mystery. We used to think that Executive Presence was a magical quality that some people had, and others don’t. Now we know that it is comprised of a concrete set of factors that anyone can improve, with practice and the right coaching.
How is your Executive Presence? Of all the factors described in this article, what areas are most crucial for you to work on? Let me know your answers in the comments below. Let me know your answers in the comments below.
Hewlett, Sylvia Ann. Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success. HarperCollins.