Executive Presence: Your Door to Leadership Mastery
Reading time: 7 minutes
As managers ascend the organizational ladder, they often notice a distinct atmosphere in meetings attended by the company's top executives. Some may even receive feedback suggesting that cultivating executive presence could be their next area for improvement.
But what is executive presence, and where does one start? Very few companies clarify this concept for middle managers transitioning to senior roles or for senior managers stepping into CXO positions. Even fewer provide specific guidance on what needs to be adjusted to achieve optimal executive presence.
This ambiguity often makes executive presence seem elusive, especially for those in senior and CXO roles. Some lower-level leaders, perhaps out of guilt or shame for not displaying the right actions or decisions in challenging situations, rationalize executive presence as an innate quality—either you have it, or you don't.
You may excel in technical skills, possess a strategic mindset, and even have a magnetic personality, but something still seems to be missing. What hampers your ability to make the impact you desire? That's executive presence. The good news is that it can be developed like any other skill, offering long-term benefits for your professional career and life.
Reflect on these scenarios:
- A senior manager presents the budget to the board. When challenged by his directors, he panics and gets defensive in justifying details on the assumptions used to build that budget.
- An articulate senior manager who always has strong arguments for his recommendations but fails to emotionally connect with his team and thus either stretches the team to the maximum in chasing results or fails to inspire the team into action.
- A CXO with a high ability to foresee risks but lacking the ability to make quick decisions: always building scenarios but unable to decide for any of them because of “not enough data”.
- A middle manager who is an inspiring leader but struggles with maintaining a professional appearance to the point that team members, peers, upper managers or even clients cannot entrust him with the right credibility matching his actual responsibility.
- A director of operations avoids confronting the company’s MD and other senior leaders about certain organizational settings that are hurting productivity because everyone in the company knows that the MD has a bad temper and the atmosphere of the meeting will be heated.
- A newly appointed fairly young Managing Director of a 100-employee project-based company operating internationally, who recently transitioned from the role of Head of PMO of a much smaller company. He speaks in front of his employees to present himself and his vision for the company, but fails to create the right first impression on his employees who leave the presentation worried about the future of the company.
Do any of these situations resonate with you? If so, you might be grappling with the intricate facets of Executive Presence.
The Five Cornerstones of Executive Presence
Imagine Alessandro, a middle manager who is well-liked by everyone. He knows his ideas are good but struggles to articulate his thoughts clearly. He tends to agree with others to avoid conflict, even when he has valuable insights to offer. In simple terms, Alessandro is the guy who nods along but rarely speaks up. He often sees his manager is not following his recommendations only further to realise it was a mistake. When this happens, the manager often comes back to him to ask why Alessandro has not made him aware of the risk. Alessandro tries to explain he did, but his communication now sounds more like a defence. Alessandro tries his best to not upset even more his manager, but his frustration and disappointment can be felt not only in his words but also on his face and in his gestures.
This is a glaring gap in his Executive Presence. While Alessandro has a good grasp of what is happening in the project and company as well as ideas on how to best solve certain situations, he cannot influence and the skill to manage up effectively. Effective leadership requires the ability to communicate persuasively. A leader who can't express their ideas clearly can't convey what is urgent or important to the upper level and cannot obtain the necessary support from upper management or sponsors. In the long term, they face the risk of losing their credibility, especially in their relationships with more senior managers.
Meet Mark, a CTO with a rare ability to dissect complex data and analytics. He can solve intricate problems with ease and is often the go-to person for logical solutions. However, when it comes to understanding the emotional nuances of his team, Mark falls short. He often dismisses emotions as irrelevant distractions, choosing to focus solely on hard facts and data.
Mark is the boss who can tell you the probability of a project's success but can't sense the growing frustration or dwindling morale among his team members. He's the one who will deliver a flawless presentation to stakeholders and receive much appreciation from higher-ups for his clarity but won't notice the disengaged faces of his team. This is a significant gap in his Executive Presence. While he may be a genius in problem-solving and analytics, his inability to connect emotionally with his team makes him appear detached and unapproachable.
Leadership isn't just about intellectual capabilities; it's also about emotional intelligence. A leader sets the emotional tone for the team. When a leader is emotionally disconnected, it creates an environment where team members feel undervalued and overlooked. This can lead to decreased productivity, increased turnover, and a general sense of disengagement within the team. For a team to be truly effective and for a leader to have a compelling Executive Presence, emotional intelligence is not just a nice-to-have; it's a must-have.
Meet Peter, a senior manager who often feels like the world is against him. Whenever something goes wrong, he sees it as confirmation of his belief that he's destined to fail. This mindset affects his ability to inspire his team, who pick up on his negative attitude.
Peter is the boss who always seems stressed or down, the one who never has a positive or encouraging word to say. This is a significant gap in his Executive Presence. While he may be competent in his role, his lack of positivity and inspiration makes it difficult for his team to feel motivated or engaged.
When a leader is constantly pessimistic or too abrasive, it creates a toxic work environment that negatively impacts creativity and initiative. For a team to thrive, the leader needs to inspire through sharing opportunities and vision and nurturing a positive work culture.
Introducing Anna, a senior manager who excels at laying out meticulous plans and strategies for her team. She's the one who ensures that every detail is considered, and every risk assessed. However, when it comes to making decisions on the spot, especially under pressure, Anna falters. She often hesitates, second-guesses herself, and sometimes avoids making a decision altogether.
Anna is the leader who can map out an excellent game plan but struggles when it's time to call the play during the game. She can outline a project's entire lifecycle but freezes when an unexpected issue arises that requires immediate action. This is a significant gap in her Executive Presence. While she may be adept at planning and strategizing, her inability to make quick, effective decisions hampers her team's agility and responsiveness.
Leadership isn't just about planning; it's also about execution, which often requires making timely decisions. A leader who hesitates or procrastinates risks creating a bottleneck that can slow down the entire team or even other peer teams. This indecisiveness can lead to missed deadlines, lost opportunities, and a general sense of frustration among team members. For a team to be truly effective and for a leader to command a strong Executive Presence, the ability to make informed and timely decisions is crucial.
Meet Emily, a young project manager who excels in emotional intelligence and communication. She's the one who can defuse a tense situation and articulate the team's needs effectively. Her positive energy and “can do” attitude are positively felt by all organisational stakeholders Emily is working with. Still, Emily is not invited to any face-to-face decision-making meetings with the Client by her director. The main reason is Emily often shows up to work in casual attire, which stands in stark contrast to the professional environment she's a part of.
To put it straight, Emily is the boss who can navigate complex interpersonal dynamics but doesn't look the part. She's the one who can lead a team meeting with poise but whose appearance might make you question her authority. This is a significant gap in her Executive Presence. While she may have the skills to lead, her casual appearance undermines her authority and can create a disconnect between her and stakeholders with higher decision-making power and authority or even external ones.
A leader's appearance sets the tone for the level of credibility and trustworthiness that she can be entrusted with. If a leader doesn't present themselves in a manner that exudes professionalism, it can create an environment where standards start to slip. This can pinpoint lax levels of enforcement of policies or procedures and can affect how external stakeholders perceive the team or even the organizational performance. For a leader to have a strong Executive Presence, maintaining a professional appearance is not just a superficial requirement; beyond being part of their responsibility, it's a fundamental aspect of leadership.
Understanding the gap and other aspects of Executive Presence is the first step toward becoming a more well-rounded and impactful leader. By acknowledging these shortcomings, leaders like the ones in the above examples can begin to work on filling these gaps, thereby not only improving their performance but also contributing to the well-being and effectiveness of their teams.
Mastering Executive Presence is not just about excelling in one or two areas; it's about achieving a balanced blend of these five cornerstones. It requires a high degree of self-awareness and the willingness to address your gaps.
After all, Executive Presence is all about your presence and how you react as the result of confronting unfamiliar, uncomfortable, unknown, or under-pressure circumstances. Because once in management, you will meet with plenty of opportunities of this type. What type? The type where even your life happens in ultra-secure conditions, your experience of it is of competition, pressure, overwhelm, too much, shoulds and musts, etc.
It is all about how you maintain your composure, and an open mindset, and craft your responses and actions with focus, clarity, confidence and faith that things will turn out as planned and that you have all the external and inner resources to manage properly in your role.
Building your Executive Presence goes hand in hand with building your resilience. Resilience is the number one inner quality that allows managers to be present and make balanced and conscious decisions.
To help you on this journey, I invite you to consider enrolling on the next group coaching program "Master Your Resilience" that I will be facilitating starting on October 14th. This program aims to help you identify and overcome behaviours on auto-pilot that prevent you from being fully present and hold you back from reaching the executive presence needed in your professional role. It equips you with the tools to build mental fitness and a compelling Executive Presence and reach the performance you know you are capable of. If you are undecided, reach out to me and let’s talk.
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Until next time, keep thriving!
Your Management Performance Coach
In the quest for leadership mastery, Executive Presence often emerges as a critical yet elusive trait. The newsletter demystifies this concept, particularly for middle and senior managers who may find themselves at a crossroads in their careers. Executive Presence is not an inborn quality but a skill set that can be developed, encompassing a range of competencies from communication skills to emotional intelligence.
The newsletter presents real-world scenarios that many managers can relate to, highlighting common gaps in Executive Presence. These gaps often manifest in various aspects of leadership, such as decision-making, emotional intelligence, and professional appearance. By identifying and addressing these gaps, managers can not only improve their own performance but also contribute to the overall effectiveness and well-being of their teams.
To assist managers in this developmental journey, the newsletter introduces the "Master Your Resilience" group coaching program. Starting on October 14th, this program aims to equip managers with the tools to build mental fitness and a compelling Executive Presence. It serves as a valuable resource for those committed to personal and professional growth.
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