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If You Want to Lead, Master This Skill

People form an impression of others within seconds of meeting them. The real question, then, is not whether you’ll create an impression, but rather, will you create the one that you want?


(Originally published in Harvard Business Review. Photo: Volanthevist/Getty Images)


If you’ve ever asked a senior leader or a mentor what it takes to rise to the C-suite, their answer has most likely included “executive presence” in addition to timing, experience, network, and confidence. Author Sylvia Ann Hewitt describes it as “the missing link between merit and success,” and a combination of self-confidence, poise, and authenticity that impacts your ability to inspire confidence in others to believe in and follow you.


That sounds pretty straightforward, right? But what’s less clear is how exactly to develop executive presence. Feedback like, “You need to work on your presence,” is often murky and difficult to decode, especially if you’re a first-time manager or just starting out in your career.


My client, Nathan, recently went through this experience. Several months after joining a new company, he was blindsided and confused when his manager told him he needed to “level up his presence.” When he prodded further, he learned that his team found him “too informal” and it was causing him to lose credibility.


Even if you’ve never received feedback like this, it’s worthwhile to consider the impression you’re making on others — through your attitude, body language, and confidence (your entire being, really).


As a professional, you are being judged on your presence as well as your performance. People form an impression of others within seconds of meeting them. The real question, then, is not whether you’ll create an impression, but rather, will you create the one that you want?


The good news is that anyone can build executive presence. With a little effort, you can improve yours.


Rely on Feedback

Start by actively soliciting feedback on your presence. Especially if you lead, or aspire to, understanding your impact on others is essential.


Ask your manager, direct reports, colleagues, and mentors questions such as:

  • How would you (briefly) describe my style of presence?

  • What’s your general perception of me?

  • What can I do to communicate with more impact?

You can either create an anonymous survey and send it to trusted contacts to get candid responses, or hold one-on-one meetings with close friends and colleagues. In particular, asking your manager for this kind of feedback will signal your interest in your professional growth and career development.


If you’ve recently changed roles or companies, these questions can also help you get attuned to how others perceive you, as well as the expectations of your new position.


Tune into How You Communicate

Your presence is inextricably linked to how you communicate — not just through words, but through your non-verbal behavior as well. Everything you say and do sends a message.


Generally, you want to be clear, concise, and project a confident and action-oriented aura. For example, rather than saying, “I wonder if…” say “I see it this way, based on X, Y, Z.” When communicating with more senior audiences, ask yourself: If they leave after two minutes, what do I want to make sure they understand? Structure your communication so that your recommendation or bottom line comes first, then add analysis and detail as needed.


Beyond the words you choose, consider how you use your voice and your accompanying non-verbal behaviors. Do you make good eye contact, project your voice, and stand up straight? Or do you speak softly or avert your gaze? Are you dressed in a way that fits the situation and matches the image you want to project? Your voice, non-verbal behaviors, and appearance are all a part of your message and contribute to your presence — so be authentic to yourself, but also to the kind of leader you aspire to be.


To increase your awareness of your communication style, request trusted colleagues to observe you in a meeting and provide feedback immediately afterwards. If they provide entirely positive feedback, thank them, then ask, “What are two things I could do differently next time to be more impactful?”


When you’re tasked with giving a presentation, consider having a colleague take a video, or record yourself on Zoom. There’s nothing like seeing yourself on camera to highlight aspects of your communication that might be distracting or diminish your message. You may also be pleasantly surprised to see that the nervousness you feel on the inside doesn’t manifest on the outside.


Experiment with New Behaviors

Based on the feedback you received, choose just one or two presence-building behaviors to practice. For example, if you received feedback that you often seem flustered in meetings, you might practice behaviors that signal composure such as using more pauses in your speaking and keeping your body more still. You might also watch a leader you admire who owns the room when speaking. Study what they do that makes them so effective and then try it out for size.


While new behaviors may feel uncomfortable at first, they shouldn’t be entirely inauthentic. Your presence must build on your authenticity, because people can smell a fraud from miles away. And being perceived as phony or insincere will damage your career development.


Projecting a balance of warmth and competence is a common trait of influential people. Warmth signals that your intentions are good, and competence supports you acting on those intentions. That said, when we are the more junior or less-experienced person in the room, we naturally tend to display a greater number of warm behaviors (also known as attractiveness markers). To increase your presence, it may serve you to adopt one or two behaviors that are more powerful, such as displaying a more serious expression, expanding your personal space, or using fewer verbal qualifiers such “just” or “I think.” Instead, simply state your opinions without these “protector” words.


In the midst of the busyness of the day, it’s all too easy to lose sight of our behavioral goals, so choose a small visual cue as a reminder. For example, a client of mine purchased and wore a ring with a lioness design to remind herself to be more fearless in speaking up.


It’s also helpful to build a few minutes into your schedule before important meetings to recall and visualize how you want to show up. Because our neurons interpret imagery as equivalent to a real action, visualization helps us act in ways consistent with what we imagined.


Be Present

Last but not least, you must be present to have presence. Multi-tasking, mind-wandering, or thinking about work that’s piling up as you attend a meeting or interact with others will detract from your presence. Instead, keep your focus in the moment, demonstrating that you’re fully present by asking thoughtful questions or sharing comments that logically follow from the conversation.


By staying mentally present, you will be more attuned to both the content of the discussions you participate in and the people “in the room.” This enhanced awareness will help you show up in more intellectually and emotionally intelligent ways, and thereby demonstrate higher levels of executive presence.


Executive presence isn’t an inherent characteristic reserved for the fortunate few. It’s an acquirable skill that you can develop and improve with time. Start now. Decoding and developing this important asset will increase your chances of becoming the leader you want to be.

With daily fires to fight and limited space to think, I understand how the pressures rob your clarity. As a certified executive coach, I help senior leaders and their teams gain fresh perspective, confidence and new capabilities that accelerate their success. Work with Dina