What happens to the people around you when you walk into a room, join a meeting or step into the spotlight to give a presentation or speech? Is your impact irrelevant or electrifying? It’s probably somewhere in between but check it out – you have just got a measure of your Executive Presence (EP).
For anyone in a leadership role EP is vital. It is the icing on the leadership cake. Sylvia Ann Hewlett of Columbia University has been researching this topic for years and believes it to be “an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be”. She argues that developing Executive Presence means that “you’ll be given a chance to do something extraordinary with your life”. Well, I think that we’re all up for that!
Hewlett regards EP as a pre-condition for leadership success and that EP is neither performance nor ideas but something you radiate – you embody ‘the real deal’. It’s a sensation that people experience when they engage with you and the memory of it lives on long after you have physically left the encounter. Think of your CEO – what’s his or her score out of 10? Wh at about your boss? And your major challenger for promotion? What about you? What’s your score?
It’s not enough to be the smartest guy in the room – or the one with the most experience or the most charm and diplomacy. All of these are important but the magic ingredient is the capacity to be trusted to hold the leadership ground without flinching however demanding or scary the situation might get and, all the time, behaving with integrity, decisiveness and compassion. That’s a cool leader.
We have witnessed too many leadership scandals this century – in business, politics, the church, social services, the police… to be prepared to support leaders who can’t handle the combination of power and pressure. Executive presence is an elusive quality but Hewlett has nailed it to three components: gravitas, communication and appearance.
Gravitas is the absolute ‘must have’ of EP. It was singled out by almost 70% of the senior executives surveyed by Hewlett as that which “signals to the world that you are made the right stuff and can be trusted with serious responsibility”. Let me ask you – do you have what it takes? Well, you can’t fake it but you can cultivate it. Here are Hewlett’s top six components of gravitas – each eliciting between 50-80% of votes.
Most important was the capacity to be calm and confident in the white-heat of a crisis – do you have what Hewlett calls “grace under fire”? Or do you panic, get emotional and talk dangerously or maybe feel paralysed, defensive and frozen with fear? It takes personal courage to maintain a sturdy authority and have the backbone to make the right decision when no-one else dares.
Decisiveness or “showing your teeth” in public and then standing by the decision, was the second core aspect of gravitas – this is also the riskiest activity so timing and frequency need careful monitoring.
Next came integrity or “speaking truth to power”. This is all about the courage of your convictions which, in turn, are based on unshakeable values. By definition, pointing out the unpalatable to someone more powerful can backfire heavily – there is often a price to pay so the way in which the home truths are communicated makes a big difference.
Demonstrating emotional intelligence was #4 because the social sensitivity tempers the testosterone-laden toughness and aggressiveness of the first three. Emotional intelligence also ensures that the leader controls their own emotions and tunes in to what others need from them. Coming in close behind was a positive reputation and social standing, having a strong vision and the charisma to inspire everyone who knows of them.
How powerfully you connect to your audience, however large or small, is all about your capacity to engage them. Capturing their attention and then holding it long enough to be influential boils down to effective communication skills. Top of the list by far are superior speaking skills – these can be learned with some guidance and a lot of practice. Every so often, it requires a major breakthrough – remember the film The King’s Speech? Hopefully you won’t need to go through all that but everyone can improve. Are you up for it? To speak in a clear, pleasant-to-listen-to voice without ‘umms’ and ‘errs’; to use good grammar and to tone down an accent so that everyone can follow what you say is not too much to ask of a leader.
You might not think that it matters how you speak but research in the financial sector shows that the sound of your voice matters twice as much as what you say! It also shows a correlation between lower voice tones and greater leadership presence (and higher salaries!). The listeners aren’t going to change – but you can. Margaret Thatcher did.
Second in importance is the capacity to create a sense of intimacy with the listeners – for them to personally feel 100% of your attention and, because of it, the most important person in the room. This is often described as ‘commanding the room’ (maybe because it is a much more masculine description). Apparently you have 5 seconds to connect so that the audience like you enough to want you to succeed whilst you give the impression that you don’t need to be liked. That means finding some common ground between you – being human without being self-indulgent.
Then delivering what you say at the right speed with the right pauses and modulations – its like a musical performance. For content: select credible messages with supporting arguments but without drowning everyone in data; have an illustrative story or two; and deliver with a minimum of props but lots of eye contact. All of this sounds easy and obvious but its very rare. So too is the advice to be “straightforward and brief” when such a lot of work has been done and you want to share it.
To have sufficient executive presence requires your communication skills to be forceful and assertive. This is difficult for women as they get criticised for being ‘aggressive’ and ‘unfeminine’ by men and women alike. Knowing that you are called ‘a bitch’ behind your back is hardly a badge of honour so sensitive phrasing and clear mutual respect are imperatives.
Other communication skills highlighted for EP are being able to ‘read the room’ and to read individuals and flex style accordingly; to engage in gentle humour and happy banter; and to be aware of body language. Skilful handling of all of these will heighten perception of your authority and agility as a leader as well as your presence.
This is a hot potato! No-one likes to be criticised for their dress sense and no-one likes to give feedback about it either, especially if the person looks unkempt or there are issues of personal grooming or hygiene. And, starting as a teenager years, those protestations of “what does it matter? What’s important is who I am!” turns, with the years, into “what’s important is what I deliver and I meet all of my targets and more…” But appearance counts on the EP stakes and directly impacts on promotion to senior roles.
The important factors identified in Hewlett’s research are to be well-groomed, to wear simple and stylish clothes and accessories appropriate to the organisational culture and to radiate youthful energy – mostly by staying healthy, fit and slim and by having good posture which will make you look tall, even if you’re not. Developing a ‘signature style’ can give you additional latitude to express your personality beyond the corporate straight-jacket but beware – behind closed doors it might be the negative deciding factor!
So, how you act, how you speak and how you look are the three pillars of executive presence. That’s what Hewlett discovered. But knowing and doing can be a million miles apart. How do you learn to send out the vibes? Here at ‘cool’ we’re going to kick off 2015 with the first in a series of weekend workshops that will show you how to tap into your own presence and leverage it to the point that when you walk in a room people not only want to be with you, they want to be you.
Dr Jacquie Drake is Founder of cool-leadership.com and Editor of the cool-leadership newsletter.