One of the most complex and elusive attributes of leadership is “executive presence”. What makes up executive presence? How would you articulate it to someone else? It’s one of those things that could be described as “I know it when I see it”, yet that’s not very helpful to a person trying develop this attribute.
Some might say it’s about being a good presenter. While I would agree this skill is helpful, I think someone can be an excellent presenter—very entertaining or good at creating PowerPoint slides for example, and yet still lack overall executive presence.
I think there are two themes that run through any aspect of executive presence: having high credibility and inspiring confidence. Without these, you will have a hard time being taken seriously as an executive. So what can you do to help build your credibility and others’ confidence in you? See three suggestions below.
Make a Positive Visual Impression
Part of having executive presence is visual—what people see. There is something to be said for your taking stock of your image. By image, I mean how you dress, how you carry yourself, and yes, I think things like grooming, weight and physical condition matter, too. Eating right, exercising, and dressing in a way that fits the norms of your organization’s culture (or audience) is important. I think dressing slightly “above” whatever is the norm is a good idea. This doesn’t mean you have to wear a dress or suit to the company picnic. But being seen as someone who dresses sharply (not necessarily trendy) can make an important impression and encourage others to listen to what you have to say. Presenting a good visual image of yourself will inspire confidence in others that they can put you in front of an important client or group as a representative of your organization. Small things matter, too. Bringing a beat-up briefcase or backpack into a meeting, wearing clothes that are crumpled or shoes that are worn out or scuffed may seem minor, but they’re all part of the image you convey.
Make a Positive Verbal Impression
Of course, looking good will only get you so far. Eventually you will have to speak and the words that come out of your mouth also matter. I’m referring to your manner of speech here. Word pronunciation matters. Whether English is a first or second or third language, your ability to pronounce words correctly so your audience clearly understands you is important. Also, your use and selection of words and terms (along with pronunciation) will convey a message about your social and educational background. I’m not saying you have to memorize the Oxford English Dictionary, but don’t let poor language skills undermine what might otherwise be terrific business skills and expertise. Be extremely careful in using meaningless jargon, slang, derogatory or other inappropriate language. When in doubt, don’t do it, even if you hear others do so. Just as with dress, remain a “cut above” your audience with your language if you want to inspire credibility and confidence.
Make a Positive Content (or Expertise) Impression
One of the most important factors in gaining others’ confidence is knowing your subject matter extremely well, including being able to answer difficult or probing questions when your audience digs below the surface of your message. They may just be testing you or truly trying to learn more. Being able to defend a point of view from a perspective of knowledge, facts and experience in a calm, rational manner is crucial to gaining your audience’s confidence. Nothing undermines confidence (and your credibility) faster than when someone digs into your analysis or content and finds big gaps or errors in the logic, reasoning, or conclusions. You want your audience to believe you know a lot more about the topic than you are sharing at the time, and that they need more of you and your wisdom, expertise and knowledge. Being able to anticipate your audience’s questions and knowing how your content fits in to the larger or more strategic picture of what’s important to them is a key part of executive presence. Finally, shut up and listen. Many people lose credibility when they speak too much and try to convince others they are smart or knowledgeable by just repeating points or adding fluff. You will be seen as more credible keeping your comments on topic and to the point.
In essence, executive presence is about inspiring others to want to follow you, conveying to them that you know what you’re doing, where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. The visual, verbal and expertise impressions you leave with your audience will make a big difference in how willing they are to let you guide them to the Promised Land.