Ignore trite advice and focus on what matters to increase your executive presence

I’ve watched the topic of leadership presence skyrocket up the leadership competency list. Have you wondered why it’s become so important and exactly what it means? You’re not alone.

In a changing and turbulent world, shareholders want to believe in the competence of those leading the way. Screaming, bumbling communication or inappropriate acts don’t give confidence. Also, increased visibility through social media leaves little space in which leaders can hide. With frequent public displays of disgrace, dishonesty and downright bad decisions, employees have come to expect more. We expect our leaders to look and feel like leaders at all times.

Has the increased expectation for presence changed what it takes to be effective at it?  I believe it has.

Executive presence has progressed over the years from an examination of dress and presentation prowess to a spotlight on integrity, empathy, connection, and more. Does he represent our brand? Can she handle scrutiny under pressure? Is he interesting to listen to or is he putting me to sleep? Can she inspire me with a believable vision or does this sound like a bunch of nonsense? Do I feel they really connect with me or are they out of touch? This is what we ask ourselves when we engage with our leaders.  Add it all up, and we call it presence.

While there is no one perfect prototype of a leader who exhibits presence, there is general consensus that ‘we know it when we see it.’ This makes learning how to project presence an incredibly complex task of navigating a series of variable perceptions.  And over the years, there has been exceedingly simplified advice on how to build a competency that is both complex and elusive. The good news is that psychologists have studied what’s behind perceptions of presence. Now, we understand what factors go into weighing whether a leader has presence or not. Plus, these factors can be cultivated and practiced. The bad news - there are so many factors!

But with your own credibility and career hanging in the balance, you have no choice but to tackle this important area of leadership. Below are the various factors people look at when determining whether you have presence or not. I have categorized them into three buckets that I call Think, Interact, and Reveal.

1.     Think is the stuff that happens in your head. How does this relate to presence? What you say to yourself, what you believe, and the clarity of your thoughts greatly impact how you come across. This bucket of factors involves how intentional you’re coming across. Are you clear on your personal leadership brand? Do you set deliberate goals whether for a meeting, a presentation, or your career? Do you mentally prepare yourself for important events and interactions? Your thought processes are also important. Do you have a longer term strategic vision for your team or business? Are the ideas in your head well organized? Do you reflect on your past experiences, both good and bad, so that you can show wisdom and judgement?

 2.     Interact is what people experience when dealing with you. How we communicate has a big impact on how people perceive us. Does your use of voice and language engage and inspire, or deter and deflate? Can you take something complex and explain it with sound bites and a story, or do you repeat yourself and ramble incessantly? Can you come across as decisive and assertive at the appropriate times? Today, of course, this has to be balanced with connection and empathy. Do people feel heard when they speak with you? Do you create a fair and inclusive environment?

 3.     Reveal is what you intentionally or unintentionally show people. The obvious factor here is your use of physicality and appearance. Do you use posture and movement appropriately? Do your facial expressions support or detract from your message? When you walk in the room, do people say, ‘Yes, there is a leader’? This bucket also includes your conduct. Do people experience you consistently and ‘get what they see,’ or do you appear inauthentic? Do you practice humility? Are you composed under pressure or easily fly off the handle?

 If you’re keeping track, I’ve listed at least 18 factors that go into the perceptions of whether people around you think you have leadership presence or not. But now that you know what they are, you can begin to chip away at them. If you’re game, here’s what you have to do: commit to being vulnerable; receive a lot of feedback; and be deliberate about making small changes one at a time. Make movement on one factor and then move on to another; the impact will be significant.