Five steps to developing your executive presence

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The Art of Leadership Newsletter

One of the major themes coming out of our recent research into executive coaching is the growing requirement for senior leaders to demonstrate ‘executive presence’. It seems that in the face of complexity and uncertainty, how a leader ‘show’s up’ and instils confidence in others is gaining in importance. This month’s blog is the full version of an article that was previewed last week in the The Australian Financial Review‘s (AFR) Boss Magazine, exploring five ways leaders can build executive presence.

The AFR article has garnered significant interest. In response, SMG will also be hosting free highly interactive masterclasses in Sydney and Melbourne which will delve further into the subject of how leaders at all levels can build and demonstrate this enigmatic quality – especially under high pressure situations. Expressions of interest can be registered below. 

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Founding Partner


Five steps to developing your executive presence


When I worked as a BBC News reporter in London, I interviewed a broad range of leaders on the world stage – from Prime Ministers to captains of industry. The most successful of them shared one common attribute. They all had executive presence. Without it, it’s unlikely they would have scaled the summit of leadership.

In our own research, executive presence is one of the most sought-after qualities of senior leaders looking to make an impact. So, what is this inscrutable quality, and can it be developed? At a broad level, executive presence is the ability to consciously demonstrate a controlled and confident state in a way that naturally elicits admiration from others. It is part art, part science, and with disciplined practice and time, it can certainly be learnt.

Here are five steps you can take:

Self-reflect on the source of your confidence

Since executive presence is a demonstration of your own innate, confident state, a vital starting point in developing it is to reflect on where that confidence comes from. That’s hugely important because it’s hard to instill confidence in others if your own sense of confidence is being sapped by doubts about your own abilities. Contrary to popular belief, the old adage, “fake it until you make it” doesn’t hold true when it comes to executive presence. That’s because a lack of confidence shows up unconsciously in our body-language, which is the biggest determinant of how people perceive us.

The erosion of confidence that many leaders experience – particularly when they need it the most – can come from their need to prove their positional knowledge or expertise. It’s what Stanford Professor, Carol Dweck describes as a “fixed mindset”. Dweck’s famous “Growth Mindset” approach encourages a fundamental mindset shift away from “I need to prove what I’m capable of” to “I need to improve what I’m capable of.”

In practical terms, that means developing the ability to consciously frame any situation, no matter what the stakes, as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Think differently

Leaders with strong executive presence tend to think differently. For example, when presenting to a large group, they tend to shift their focus away from “what does my audience think of me?” to “What do I want my audience to ‘think’ and ‘feel’?”. By doing so, our typical feelings of self-consciousness are subjugated by a purposeful intention and attention to how we are communicating.

In other words, if we want our audience to feel ‘inspired’, chances are, we will be focusing on ‘being inspiring’. As a case in point, while I was working in the US, a White House speech writer shared with me that this his entire approach for writing speeches was to begin by mapping the emotional journey that he wanted his audience to follow. The words came afterwards.

This ‘emotion-first’ approach also builds a sense of authenticity and empathy, which are both hallmarks of executive presence.

Analyse how you show up

Studies have shown that only 7% of the impact in communication comes from ‘what’ we say. All the rest essentially comes from ‘how’ we communicate. The good news is that the ‘how’ can be broken down, analysed and strengthened. The ‘how’ includes elements of body-language that are ‘observable’ to others, for example, eye-contact, posture, voice, gestures, movement, facial warmth and attire. Take ‘eye-contact’. Consciously holding eye-contact with others (in the right measure) can convey confidence, authority, poise, balance, understanding, and certainly – to name just a few attributes.

Posture can be an equally powerful way to create impact. Actors learn how to create a majestic and commanding presence by developing what’s called “vertical” presence in their postures. Equally, by learning how to develop “horizontal” presence they learn how to connect more effectively with their audience.

Voice is another mechanism to shape perceptions. An analysis of how Barrack Obama ‘showed up’ when he was the President reveals that one of the elements that created a sense of gravitas was how he used pauses. Deliberately. Purposefully. And to great effect. The ability to stand in front of an audience and hold a silent pause to punctuate a presentation, underscore a point, or simply for effect, creates presence and impact because it exudes a sense of self-assuredness.

Put simply, if you want to present like a president, (insert dramatic pause) pause.

The former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher reportedly increased her presence and gravitas (in her entirely male cabinet) by working with a coach to drop the tone of her voice by an octave. Lower registers in the voice create more authority.

Train, Practice and Prepare

Here’s a paradox:

Leaders who seem to effortlessly demonstrate executive presence also plan and prepare for situations so that they are coming across as authentic yet spontaneous. They rehearse what they are going to say and how they are going to say it.

Stephenson Mansell Group executive presence coach and former Head of Directing at NIDA, Peter Kingston approaches the subject through a lens of performance: “Developing executive presence involves the application of skills and techniques, which over time become habits,” he says.

In other words, executive presence requires a ‘continuous improvement’ mindset. That means regularly seeking out unvarnished feedback on how you are ‘showing up’ in situations that matter. Then, it’s knowing what to do with that feedback, or taking the help of a trained coach who can help you address shortcomings as well as calling out your natural strengths.

If you’re rehearsing, the amount of time you spend should be directly proportional to the importance of the situation. For example, for a board presentation, a minimum of an hour. When time is scarce, the most important thing to rehearse is always your opening and closing. The opening creates the first impression. The closing is the impression you leave.

Engage with Energy

When we ask people to describe strong executive presence in others, one word that consistently comes up is “energy”. Energy shows up typically as a strong, steady, confident and engaging first impression. How you dial up that kind of energy certainly commands a lot of interest.

Harvard Professor, Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on the subject has had 53 million views. In her talk, and her subsequent book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Cuddy describes how to overcome ‘imposter syndrome’, the biggest inhibitor of executive presence. Her studies as a social scientist show that our body language and emotions are inextricably connected. For example, holding a ‘power pose’ for as little as two minutes leads us to not only feel more confident, but it changes the neuro chemistry in our bodies increasing for example the natural confidence-boosting hormones, dopamine and oxytocin.

Power poses include standing with arms outstretched with feet firmly anchored to the ground, or the ‘wonder woman’ pose, with clenched fists resting powerfully on the hips. Importantly, power poses need to be held before the situation in which you want to demonstrate executive presence. If done during event, these poses can come across as arrogant.

Self-reflecting, thinking differently, analysing, training and engaging in the right way is likely to change your state and demonstrate the level of executive presence that you need. Of course, executive presence alone won’t guarantee success, but its absence could well be career-limiting.

About the Author:

Mehul Joshi, Senior Partner, Head of Leadership

Mehul Joshi, Partner is a former award-winning BBC journalist and is now a sought-after consultant and executive coach in leadership development and employee engagement, with career spanning three decades and four continents.

 

 


What’s On

Masterclass: Five steps to developing  your executive presence

Following on from our popular Executive Presence and Impact workshop, and the release of the AFR Boss article detailing the steps to executive presence. Mehul Joshi will facilitate a complimentary Masterclass ‘Five steps to developing  your executive presence’. This fascinating session will provide insight into the neuroscience of our reaction under pressure, practical examples from world class leaders, ways to master your demeanour, and how to deliver with authenticity & integrity.

Here is your opportunity to be face to face with a recognised thought leader in the field for an in-depth exploration of how to improve your  presence and impact.

To register your expression of interest for either the Sydney or Melbourne masterclass: please email events@smgrp.com.au – including your preferred location, along with your name, email, company and role.


Integrity – Influence – Impact  : The keys to unlocking confidence

Join Executive Communications Coach and former Theatre Director, Peter Kingston, in Sydney for his final workshop for 2019. Attending Peter’s insightful and interactive one-day workshop will give you new found ability to communicate with conviction and confidence.

If you are a leader wanting to ensure you have impact, influence, and effective negotiation skills – then look no further!

“Peter was great, his approach and personality encouraged people to open up and get feedback from the group which was extremely powerful.”

SYDNEY: Executive Presence and Impact Workshop, 14 November 2019


Brisbane Only – Perspectives on Leadership for Women Program

Specifically designed for Queensland-based female leaders, learn what sets you apart as a leader and establish your goals to achieve professional growth. Refine your leadership skills with the support of both face-to-face workshops and executive coaching sessions. The Perspectives on Leadership for Women program focuses on personal presence and communication, resilience, change and complexity.

Brisbane – Perspectives on Leadership for Women –   25 October & 29 November


What’s Trending in Leadership

With research showing that although there is improvement in the number of women appointed to leadership positions, there is still a long way to go for parity. Kathi Graham-Leviss outlines how developing executive presence for women may be the secret weapon to catapult women into leadership roles.


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