Honing Your Executive Presence

To flourish in our career, we soon learn we need to pay attention to our executive presence. We need to learn how to improve presence for job interviews, promotion opportunities, and for our participation in leadership development programs.

Executive presence can be described as how well a person speaks, looks, and acts like a leader.   

“Executive presence begins in your head. It resides in how you think about yourself, your abilities, your environment, and your potential.”

Kristi Hedges, The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others, 2012

Sylvia Ann Hewlett surveyed hundreds of senior executives to define what elements are important when evaluating for presence.

Hewlett, author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, cites three main factors create presence in a leader:

  1. How you act: gravitas
  2. How you speak: communication skills
  3. How you look: appearance

For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on how your actions can underline or undermine your presence as a leader.

Your Actions Speak Loudly

“Who you are speaks so loudly, I can hardly hear what you’re saying.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s true; what we do speaks volumes about who we are and what we stand for. But how well do we observe and read our own actions? We are experts at reading other people’s actions, and other people know how to read ours.

You may be clear on your intentions and still not be perceived the way you intend to be because your actions aren’t clear enough and not aligned with what you say you believe.

So to be seen and trusted as a credible leader, your actions must line up with your intentions, stated and unstated. All too often we are unconscious of our own behaviors.

If you do not consciously act like the leader you believe you are, you can confuse people and send messages which are easily misinterpreted.

Author Kristi Hedges provides practical exercises for improving your presence in The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others (Amacom, 2012). She writes about two equally important types of actions which affect people’s perceptions:

  1. Micro-actions: your body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice.
  2. Macro-actions: how you spend your time and energy, what you do, priorities and consistency.

Authentic Actions

Authenticity, of course, has to be at the core of whatever you do . It’s not about taking a certain power posture or using body language techniques or a commanding tone. The best way to improve your micro- and macro-actions for executive presence is to focus on your intentions and allow your body to relax.

When we are trying to decide if we trust someone, body language and voice play serious roles.  Humans are intuitive and most of us pick up on cues like poor eye contact and shakiness that indicate a lack of authenticity.

When you’re comfortable and sincere, your micro-actions align and you naturally project confidence. Unfortunately, in high-stress situations and difficult conversations, our bodies and voices give way to nervous reactions that can undermine a relaxed composure and send the wrong message.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep our actions aligned with our best intentions. We are not helpless, even when we suffer nervousness that could possibly affect our presence.

Checklist for Aligning Actions with Executive Presence

Before entering into a stressful presentation or difficult conversation, prepare by aligning your thoughts, feelings, and micro-actions with your worthy intentions.

  1. Humans trust actions above other forms of communication. Learn to observe your micro- and macro-actions: your body language, vocal tone, and most importantly, your priorities. Or ask for feedback from trusted colleagues, or your coach.
  2. Before engaging in an important conversation, practice your favourite pre-game ritual, a repeatable process for getting yourself in your intended zone.  It could be listening to music or an affirmation, meditating, or reading a favourite quote or something funny to put yourself in a good mood.
  3. For clarity in your communications, ensure alignment between your intention and your actions. Make known your beliefs, values, and the things you do to advance your intentions. Let people know who you are by letting them know why this issue is important to you.
  4. Use actions that signal comfort. You already know how to have perfectly aligned body language in situations where you feel comfortable. Observe how you behave when at ease and put those same actions into play when you begin to feel stress.
  5. Breathe deeply. This sends a signal to your nervous system to relax.
  6. Focus on your core values and beliefs.
  7. Make eye contact with people.
  8. Smile more: 99% of people who see themselves videotaped at work agree they need to smile more. It improves your presence to others and reinforces good thoughts for yourself.
  9. Pause and refocus often. Ask questions and make sure you’re tracking with your audience/listeners.

Often, making a good impression and the ability to influence others depend on how well we manage our emotions and physical actions. Whatever you feel, don’t fight it, don’t resist. That only makes it worse. Instead, own what it is you feel. You wouldn’t feel anything if you did not truly care.

Manage your actions and reactions by aligning with your highest intentions. Let others know what truly matters to you. Your executive presence will be seen, heard, and felt.

And most important of all, do all of the above in a way that is authentically you.

Content for this article provided by Patsi Krakoff, Psy.D