One of the common but least understood (or at least, poorly explained) bits of feedback people can receive is “the need to have executive presence” or the feedback that “they need to improve their executive presence.” But, unfortunately, there is usually little concrete advice that one is offered as to what to do about it.
I am not entirely sure I know exactly how to describe it nor how to improve one’s “executive presence” but here are some thoughts based on observation over the years:
- Content does matter. Although how you present things is important (see below) we should not lose the point that content does matter. It doesn’t necessarily have to be entirely original or earth-shattering (most things aren’t) but it’s hard to make an impression of any kind if all you do is occupy a chair. The first step in having presence is actually having people take note or your presence through some kind of idea, question or perspective; the higher the quality — timely, incisive, though-provoking — the better.
- Deliver matters. Having something useful or important to say is not they same thing as a great delivery. The nature of your speaking voice has an effect. Say something in a weak voice and your great thought sounds meek, uncertain and certainly not authoritative. This doesn’t mean we need to say everything as if we were Olivier at the National Theatre, but we each can relatively improve our projection and ease of delivery so as to mitigate any weaknesses we have. It’s a difficult thing to do but tape yourself speaking or giving an informal presentation; it’s usually eye-opening. While voice is important, don’t ignore posture, especially when seated at a table as well as how you use eye contact (when culturally appropriate).
- Work on a catch-phrase, word or analogy. A combination of content and delivery, it is amazing the power of the right word, phrase or example to really have an impact. You might have a great idea, and you might even have a great delivery, but find a great phrase to sum it up and you’ll increase your impact.
- Dress for success. Long ago (i.e. decades ago) the book “Dress for Success” was mandatory reading (Malloy’s website is: http://www.thedressforsuccesscolumn.com/). Although the office dress code has relaxed over the years and there is a marked difference in the dress-code culture of companies, my advice is to make sure you understand how the “big shooters” in your organization and industry dress and take that into account in your own wardrobe decisions. My only advice here: when in doubt, go up one level rather than down. Note: An organization called Dress for Success, an international not-for-profit organization, helps promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and the career development tools to help women in work and in their personal lives. Dress for Success offers services designed to help clients find jobs and remain employed. Each Dress for Success client receives a suit for job interviews and can return for a second suit or separates when she finds work. Since 1997, Dress for Success has served more than 650,000 women around the world (http://www.dressforsuccess.org/home.aspx).
For other ideas, check out Jenna Goudreau’s article in Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2012/10/29/do-you-have-executive-presence/
If you run a search using “executive presence” you’ll find the usual articles and books by consultants. Goudreau’s article references the Center for Talent Innovation. In their study on executive presence they wrote:
When it comes to career success, attractiveness and hard work don’t match the influence of “executive presence (EP)”, according to a new study from the Center for Talent Innovation. In a survey, 268 senior executives cited executive presence–being perceived as leadership material–as an essential component to getting ahead. In fact, executive presence accounted for, on average, 25% of what it takes to get promoted.
The findings contribute fresh, startling new insight as to why so few women make it to the C-suite. Though work/life balance challenges are often cited as a major factor, the fact that many women do not understand executive presence, let alone how to exude it, also plays an important role, according to the study.
The study, which will be published in the November issue of Marie Claire, on newsstands October 23, aims to close the information gap about executive presence—especially for women and multicultural professionals—by defining the three areas that govern the perception of “leadership material”:
- Gravitas, or the ability to project confidence, poise under pressure, and decisiveness
- Communication, which comprises excellent speaking skills, assertiveness, and the ability to read an audience or situation
- Appearance—looking polished and pulled together
Women and multicultural professionals surveyed feel that they are held to stricter standards of executive presence and are given hopelessly contradictory feedback on expectations.
In addition to defining and unpacking the often-murky concept of executive presence, the study also provides tactics for individuals, managers, and HR professionals to improve their own and other’s executive presence. By understanding the nuances of this key leadership competency, individuals and corporations can work to ensure that top talent advances and companies reap the full leadership potential of their most promising employees.
The study’s revelations were gleaned from 18 focus groups, nearly 4,000 college-graduate professionals, and 50+ one-on-one interviews with high-level executives.
- Executive presence accounts for 26% of what it takes to get the next promotion, according to senior executives
- Gravitas is the core characteristic of EP, according to 67% of the 268 senior executives surveyed
- Communication telegraphs you’re leadership material, according to 28% of senior executives
- While only five percent of leaders consider appearance to be a key factor in EP, all of them recognize its potential for curtailing or derailing talented up-and-comers. Notable appearance blunders, not surprisingly, are unkempt attire (83% say it detracts from a woman’s EP, 76% say it detracts from a man’s) and, for women, too-tight or provocative clothing (73% say it detracts from a woman’s EP).
- Sounding uneducated proves a tripwire (59% say it detracts from a woman’s EP and 58% say it detracts from a man’s)
- Women and multicultural professionals tend to struggle with EP due to intrinsic tension between conforming to corporate culture and remaining true to oneself. 56% of people of color feel they are held to a stricter code around EP, compared with 31% of Caucasians; 36% deliberately recast the way they tell their stories, compared with 29% of Caucasians.
- For both women and people of color, feedback on EP can be hopelessly contradictory—which may be why 81% say they’re unclear as to how to act on it.