“Executive presence” sounds impressive. Every leader should covet it and be proud of their abilities if they’re praised for it, right? The issue is, for as many times the term is referenced in performance reviews and coaching mandates, there are an equal number of definitions of this elusive quality.
As a cheeky undergraduate student, I used to play Buzz Word Bingo with my business school friends whereby, unbeknownst to the prof, (oh, who am I kidding?) we would use hidden bingo boards full of fancy-sounding business words – like synergies or operationalize – to make dry class discussions into a hilarious competition as we worked to slip the words into our comments on the case study. If I were issuing a current version of the game board, I would surely put “executive presence” on it, as it’s a vague management competency one could easily toss into conversation.
Most people have a sense of what the term is getting at. Remarks on “executive presence” are intended to critique one’s aptitude in certain leadership skills; specifically those that fall into what I call the ‘getting the promotion’ category. The message is something like, “to be a higher-level leader in this organization, you should be more leader-like.” You can see how this would be a frustrating comment to receive.
Let me try to decode the remarks of this professional pep talk.
“You should work on your executive presence.”
“You’ve got to convince people of stuff in a way that doesn’t tick them off.”
Or….“Work more on relating to big-wigs at the company. Try to be one of them.”
Or….“You need to act more confident so people trust that you know what you’re talking about.”
Or….“Find a way to keep cool under pressure and stay above the drama.”
Or….“You’ll get further if you turn up the charm. Be more likeable.”
Or….“Pay more attention to looking, dressing, shaking hands, sitting and moving around like an important person.”
Or…. “You’ve got to get better at thinking on your feet.”
Clearly, there are a lot of intended meanings. But if you don’t know which one is intended, the phrase is useless.
To figure out which critique is coming your way, ask: “How exactly do you define ‘executive presence’?” and “can you give me examples of what it looks like to you?” or, “Who around here does it really well?” You should also clarify the intention of the feedback, as in, “What effect do you think better executive presence would have on my work and my team?” It’ll allow you to get to the heart of the conversation more quickly so you can set specific goals around improving your leadership style in the way that’s been suggested, if you so choose. (Because – don’t forget – you always have a choice as to what to do with feedback.)
If you’re the feedback-giver, the one who wants someone on your team to be more executive-y, I hope the point’s been made that jargon only makes things harder. Respect your employee for the future executive they are by telling it like it is.
Now just so we’re clear, the concept of acting like a leader if you want to be a successful one is actually extremely important. “Executive presence” is a thing. But we mustn’t talk about it like a leader’s je ne sais quoi. Instead, identify exactly what’s missing and design actions accordingly.
There are thousands of possibilities, but I’ll set out some examples to illustrate the point.
If you want to work on:
Convincing people of stuff in a way that doesn’t tick them off…
Try: Validating questions and resistance instead of debating, ie: “I understand your hesitation, as this is a big change from what we’ve been doing. We’re considering that by….”
Relating to big-wigs at the company…
Try: Being where the senior folks are, be it key meetings or networking events. Everyone feels closer to people they are more familiar with.
Speaking more confidently…
Try: Closing your eyes and picturing the wise and wonderful person you will be in 20 years. (Yes, actually do that.) Before your meetings, take on the persona of your future self as you present your thoughts.
Keeping cool under pressure and staying above the drama…
Try: Committing to never, ever speaking about anyone in your organization behind their back, outside of official HR conversations.
Being more likeable…
Try: Expressing gratitude, asking questions and listening sincerely: “Thanks for your work on this report. How did you find the experience of putting it together?”
Looking, dressing, shaking hands, sitting and moving around like an important person…
Try: Asking a friend (preferably in a related industry) to give you the most honest feedback they can on your work look and impression. If their feedback doesn’t match the brand you’re going for, change something and try it out on the job.
Thinking on your feet…
Try: Putting yourself in situations more often where this will be demanded of you. It may go against your instinct, but no amount of role-playing can replace real life practice.
How do you define and practice “executive presence”? Let me know!