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June 9, 2014 Talking Points

Building executive presence

Angie O'Donnell

What's the secret formula for developing the elusive thing called “executive presence?”

The kind of presence we're talking about goes beyond oozing charisma while delivering a great presentation. Executive presence is a way of being in all professional situations, with all constituencies, especially when the stakes are high. From inside the boardroom to the cafeteria table, there are dozens of places where any number of your small acts contribute to others' perceptions of your presence.

What we hear from boards, managers, peers and direct reports is a desire for small and subtle shifts in presence, not a personality makeover. While this can be challenging for many leaders, the results are worth it.

Getting Comfortable in Your Own Skin

What comes to mind when you think about someone who has a memorable presence? Is it the way he or she stands tall? Is it their polished appearance? Is it a commanding voice? All of these are observable aspects of outer presence that derive from one's inner sense of self, sending the message to others that this is a person who is comfortable in his or her own skin.

However, we'd like to dispel the myth that you've either naturally got “it” or you don't, and that presence requires having an extroverted personality.

I met a woman who exemplified presence and she broke all of the stereotypical molds you may associate with presence. She was in her 70's and stood about 5 feet tall, but also happened to be an Aikido master and a leadership consultant to major private and public organizations. The minute she shook my hand and looked me in the eye, I knew that she was confident and comfortable in her own skin. She radiated energy, competence and warmth, and she really connected with me. So what's involved in getting more comfortable in your own skin?

We advocate for an inside-out approach with a focus on three distinct but integrated areas: outer presence, inner presence, and connection. We place a high premium on making positive connections with others, since leadership by definition requires followership. Connection increases when we listen well, demonstrate empathy, share compelling stories, and bring others along with us. If we were to limit the focus of our coaching to an executive's outer presence only (primarily appearance, communication skills, and body language), there's a risk that the leader will come off as scripted or inauthentic. The common denominator in developing any aspect of inner presence is greater self-awareness. The good news is that you can develop this, if you're open to growth, and can accept and act on feedback.

We recently did some coaching for a global company looking to promote a particular executive. The client wanted to know if this executive was ready for the next big step as a leader of leaders. For the first 25 years of his career, he hit all his sales goals, was continually promoted, and received substantial pay raises. But there was something he was missing, a blind spot or roadblock preventing him from getting what he wanted most from his career.

From the executive's co-workers, I heard comments like, “He really dominates the meetings,” “He's an intellectual bully,” “He doesn't accept criticism,” “He's a lousy listener.” What emerged was that this person was not connecting well with others, even to the point of having a negative impact on them, despite his brilliance.

When I presented the feedback, the executive was shocked. In his mind, he had the right answers, made good decisions, and delivered results. But his organization was looking for more. He accepted the feedback and began the hard work of dialing back the intellectual bullying and over-talking, and cranking up the listening. Eventually, his colleagues began to feel safe and included, and they wanted to be on his team. Within two years, he received the promotion he now deserved.

A memorable presence is a key accelerator on the path to the C-suite, or wherever your ambitions take you. We know presence when we see it, hear it, and especially when we feel it. You can develop it and dispel the myth that presence is an elusive set of qualities belonging to a select few. 

Angie O'Donnell is an executive coach and co-founder of 3D Leadership Group, an executive coaching firm based in Wellesley, Mass.

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