Written by Sally Williamson Tuesday, October 16 2012
Among corporate executives, communication managers and succession planning experts, the leadership development discussions are about executive presence.
Executive presence is not a new trend. It’s always been a critical skill for aspiring executives. So, why is it a buzzword now? Although it’s not a new skill; it is now seen as a new skills gap. While historically leaders have possessed a lot of presence, young managers and the new generation of leaders seem to be lacking it.
I’ll offer three theories that I hear from leadership development groups who are scrambling to add executive presence to their leadership curriculum.
Visual Image: Over time, as the corporate environment has become more relaxed and casual, so have many of the workers in it. A part of presence is a visual thing, and "dress for success" is an old adage. Ironically, the more relaxed dress code has drawn a more definitive line between managers with presence and those without.
Training: While the concept of executive presence is being assessed in leadership and high potential programs, it isn’t being coached until much later. Executive presence isn’t as much a trained skill as a coached behavior. It takes hard work and a heightened awareness of perception. The results are better when a young manager has the opportunity to establish impressions, rather than being the leader who has to change them.
Practice: Most importantly, young managers don’t spend as much time on their feet as they used to. A critical part of presence is commanding a room. As communication has become more of an email trail than a critical conversation, managers may move up the ranks without a lot of on-the-job practice at presenting themselves and their ideas. Executives agree that there is a ceiling to how far you can go without presence, and many managers find themselves derailed because they don’t have the presence needed to command a top role.
What is Executive Presence?
Defining executive presence is a gray area because for many it is the essence of leadership. It isn’t a technique but an embedded skill that becomes a personal trait and gives you power and influence over others. An executive with presence commands the room, projects the message and pulls you into her beliefs.
Presence isn’t something you give yourself but something you earn from those around you who come to respect your right to speak and your ability to lead. Some have called it an “earned authority.”
It is a combination of behaviors and attitudes that present a sense of confidence, competence, commitment and authenticity.
How do you get it?
Executive presence is perception. Managers and executives gain it through awareness and coaching. At Sally Williamson & Associates, we’ve spent a lot of time conducting research and interviewing executives to create a process that works. Here’s how we do it.
Assessment: We assess an executive’s current impressions through interviews, formal assessments and role-plays. This gives us a good understanding of impressions and perceptions of those around her. An important role of coaching is helping people understand perceptions and gain trust in their ability to change them.
Coaching: Our coaching focuses on three concepts:
- Physical Presence: This concept deals with everything physical about you. Visual image plays a role, but it’s also how you carry yourself, your posture, your stance and your overall body image. For many people, this is the easiest part of executive presence because you can see it and often feel the impact of coaching choices.
- Vocal Presence: We also focus on everything about the voice that drives impressions. In order for me to believe you, you have to sound confident about what you’re saying. Voice inflection, projection, articulation, variety and power all play a role in your presence. As remote presentations and meetings have grown in popularity, managers are judged by voice impressions alone and have to be able to convey confidence and credibility with their words.
- Core Presence: Executive presence is also a core desire to connect with people. Core presence goes beyond the voice and body choices of an individual and focuses on interpersonal skills that engage others and lead to that “earned authority.” Executive presence is the essence of how we describe and admire leaders, and it is a critical development priority for future leaders.
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Sally Williamson, author of “The Hidden Factor: Executive Presence,” is the industry leader for improving the impact of spoken communication and executive presence. As president and founder of Sally Williamson & Associates, she specializes in executive coaching and developing custom workshops. She is a 30-year veteran of developing key messages and coaching for professionals to improve their executive presence and overall impressions.