5 “Executive Presence” Skills to Advance Your Career

Written by Maya Hu-Chan

 

One of my clients (we’ll call her Nancy) missed out on an important promotion recently. She sought feedback from the interview panel and was told the same thing several times. She had, they said, a “lack of executive presence.”

This is tough feedback to deal with because executive presence is such an abstract and subjective concept. However, as tricky as it is to define, let’s face it we all know when we are in the room with someone who has executive presence…and also when we’re with someone who doesn’t. There’s a certain quality in some leaders those who can (seemingly) effortlessly command a room that is as magnetic as the Pied Piper. Where they go, others will follow.

For aspiring global leaders, executive presence is increasingly the elusive x-factor that can win them a hard-fought promotion or, in the case of Nancy, leave it out of reach. Indeed, a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit research organization based in New York, suggests that in today’s global marketplace, executive presence counts for 26% of what it takes to get ahead.

If you feel that you’re doing a great job but not getting promoted as you expect, it might be that a lack of executive presence is to blame. You might not even be aware of it. It’s often a blind spot because it’s not easy for an individual to understand how others perceive them.

Executive Presence Is About Style

What is executive presence? Can it be defined in a way that will help us acquire it even if it’s not a natural talent?

Put simply, executive presence is a credibility issue. It’s about getting a resounding “Yes” to the question, “Will people follow me?” Those who have executive presence are commonly described as having the ability to project gravitas, confidence, poise under pressure, and decisiveness.

In Nancy’s case, it wasn’t about her ability to do her job as is so often the case. You can be a high achiever and respected for your performance and still find yourself bumping up against a seemingly immovable glass ceiling. No, for Nancy, it was a style thing. Her colleagues and those in senior positions simply didn’t see her in a leadership role.

Given how intangible the concept of executive presence can be, I wanted to dig deeper into the feedback Nancy received to find out exactly what her stakeholders were seeing or, more likely, not seeing. The resulting feedback was that she was too “emotional,” “lacking in confidence,” and “too tactical.”

For example, when she spoke in meetings, she sounded unsure and at the end of her presentation asked, “Is that okay with everyone?” Her peers said her contributions to discussions were always about granular detail rather than the kind of big picture thinking you would expect from a leader. She also giggled too much, which they found childlike and not awe-inspiring in a potential vice president.

If you’re wondering if this is a problem experienced more by women than men, you’d be right. Despite all of the amazing progress made in terms of equality, the modern workplace still often defaults to traditional male qualities and role models when it comes to assessing leaders. This is changing, slowly, and it’s up to the next generation of leaders now emerging to find a model of leadership that draws equally upon male and female character traits.

Men also struggle with this challenge. Another client of mine (we’ll call him Walter) was also criticized for nervous laughter in meetings when the going got tough. Colleagues felt it made him sound out of his depth. Turns out it was his way of dealing with the tension, but it served to undermine people’s perceptions of him. His idiosyncrasy was a tiny, unconscious character trait that had become a career-limiting problem one he wasn’t aware of.

Executive Presence Is About First Impressions

Self-confidence is a common trait in those who display executive presence, along with other qualities like appearance, body language, and speaking patterns.

There’s a reason for the expression, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” That doesn’t mean go out and blow your budget on a designer wardrobe. But first impressions do count. If your preferred dress code is out of step with the company culture, your impact will be affected. Unless you’re working for Google or Facebook, a hoodie simply isn’t going to get you that promotion!

Those with executive presence often speak up, use strong and clear language, and communicate with passion and energy. They use positive body language by standing tall, making eye contact, offering a firm handshake, and using an authoritative tone of voice.

This is all good news because it is behavior that can be learned. So if, like my clients, you had feedback that you’re not viewed as having executive presence, all is not lost. While some people have these attributes naturally, it’s possible that nurture can be as powerful as nature in this instance. Executive presence is a skill that you can adopt on a “fake it ‘til you make it” basis.

5 Tactics for Building Executive Presence

In the most recent of my 100 top tips for global leaders, here is my guide to developing your executive presence:

Get feedback. Understand the behaviors that are putting out the wrong message by seeking honest, formal, or informal feedback. Can you command the room? Do people stop and listen when you speak? It’s quite possible that you simply don’t know so get the people you trust to tell you.

Think about how you appear to others. Speak slowly and articulate clearly. Avoid giving away your leadership power by undermining your authority. This can be as simple as brushing off a compliment about your abilities as a leader, or cracking jokes at the wrong time. If you’re feeling uncertain, stay quiet and think through the situation until you’re ready to respond with authority. If your tendency is to seek approval, then reframe how you end your presentations from a “Do you agree?” approach to “This is what I think we should do” confidence.

Be heard in meetings. Forget etiquette, speak up! Make sure you get one or two good points in so your face and voice is top of mind. Make sure your comments are on strategy points rather than just on tactical execution.

Be their kind of leader. Fit in with the company or country culture. Whether that’s making sure your wardrobe matches those at leadership levels, or watching for clues as to what body language conveys to people. In Eastern cultures, for example, standing with your legs close together or folding your arms tightly across your chest shows respect. In Western cultures these stances suggest you’re uptight, defensive, or unsure.

Fake it ‘til you make it. At the heart of executive presence is confidence, so behave as if you are confident until you find that you actually are!

When you’re looking to hone your executive presence skills,  becoming a people watcher can really benefit you. Observe others. Who around you has leadership presence and what is it about them that makes you feel they are in control?

I am not suggesting for a moment that you copy them. That would be inauthentic and immediately apparent to those around you. It simply means watching what they do and finding your own version of it one that feels natural to you. Developing your executive presence is about style discovering (not changing) the fundamentals of who you are.

 

About the Author:

Maya Hu-Chan

Maya Hu-Chan was rated the World’s Top 8 Global Solutions Thinkers by Thinkers50, Top 30 Leadership Gurus, and Top 100 Thought Leaders in Management & Leadership by Leadership Excellence.

Maya is an international management consultant, executive coach and author. Harvard Business School has chosen her book “Global Leadership: The Next Generation” to be one of their Working Knowledge recommended books. She is also a contributing author to 10 leadership and management books.

Maya was born and raised in Taiwan and lives in San Diego, California.  She has worked with thousands of leaders in Global Fortune 500 companies around the world.

To contact Maya Hu-Chan, please email her: maya@globalleadershipassociates.com, or visit her website:  www.mayahuchan.com