Any leadership training and development initiative would be incomplete without guidance on executive presence. This subtle attribute can be difficult to pinpoint and challenging to discuss. It’s the combination of behaviors leaders draw on and attitudes they express that enable them to be clear and confident in expressing their ideas and influencing others. It relates to the persona they convey and the way they carry yourself when communicating with others, whether in groups or one on one. Executive presence is less about a leader’s performance than about the signals that leader conveys through his or her daily interactions and communications.

How important is executive presence? Based on 360-degree assessment data from hundreds of executives and leaders, executive presence is one of the top three dimensions that professionals need to succeed in their existing role and to advance to the next level. It’s at the top of the list in how executives are evaluated, proving it to be a critical and dynamic asset when it comes to a professional’s growth and career advancement. Strong presence allows current and aspiring leaders to show up with a strategic mindset and establish credibility throughout their organization and industry.

Everyone has his or her own form of presence, which can include multidimensional traits and attributes that reflect substance, style and character. As is true for effective leadership in general, people with strong executive presence are generally “made” — in other words, developed through targeted training and coaching — not born with natural flawless skills. Leaders and future leaders can learn and continuously improve their executive presence with the right tools and techniques, including proper feedback and coaching.

Below are some strategies that are useful in training executives and high-potentials on mastering the art and science of executive presence:

Seeing Is Believing

One reason that executive presence training lends itself so well to leadership development is that it’s difficult for professionals at any level to evaluate their own presence. People may perceive themselves to be intentional, credible leaders, yet others around them may not agree, based on individual interactions with them.

To help executives “get real” about their current level of presence, it helps to hold up a mirror — quite literally — that reveals how they come across to others. An effective way to do so is using real-time video for coachees to see their presence. Ideally, all participants should have the opportunity to watch their video reel at the launch of the training or coaching program as well as at the conclusion of their development work. Without seeing their own presence live and in color, it’s hard for professionals, regardless of their current leadership level, to accurately assess their presence. A video allows participants to observe what others see when it comes to physical presence and nonverbal language.

Good goals to set for this process are radiating a high level of confidence, energy, and passion and speaking with definitiveness and authority when presenting ideas and opinions.

Link Values to Presence

When you think about what makes dynamic, successful leaders stand out, it often comes down to whether or not the values that they stand for are aligned with the executive presence that they convey. This exercise should begin with coaching trainees in identifying their personal and professional values and working together on language that represents themselves and their value proposition effectively. If a leader wants to be known for his or her emphasis on collaboration and building relationships, being creative, or strategic development, then that leader’s presence and communication styles should be clearly linked to those values.

When strategic leaders can articulate an aspirational, values-based view of the future to help guide individual and corporate action — paired with a business rationale for their suggested strategies — they can bolster their executive presence.

Consider the Context

When conducting leader development training, I’m often asked about the role of authenticity as it relates to executive presence. The implication of this question seems to be that authenticity should always guide a leader’s behavior when making decisions around presence. Yet while being authentic is clearly important to effective leadership, leaders should also continuously adapt their executive presence, making shifts as needed based on the context or situation.

Train leaders to approach presence as though they have a toolbox at their disposal, from which they can select the appropriate tool or technique to address what’s happening around them. That toolbox includes elements such as nonverbal communication, relationship-building techniques, the power of listening, inclusive language, strategic voice and the use of questions. Instruct trainees in how to read a room, observe what kind of style they need to flex and tap into their social intelligence to determine what people need from them.

Whether the matter at hand involves dealing with difficult change, understanding the bigger picture, listening to what people say and comparing it to what they really mean, or staying calm under pressure, leadership requires executives to accurately gauge the environment and adjust their presence accordingly.

Cultivate Emotional Intelligence

Two of the most important elements of executive presence are the emotional and social intelligence tools that leaders should have at their disposal. We often take these tools for granted, but most people can benefit from specific training on emotional intelligence (EI) as it relates to executive presence. EI is a smart area to develop in managers and executives, since boosting it can be a distinguishing factor that dramatically improves leadership ability from good to great. While EI is often associated with understanding others, it’s equally about understanding oneself — in other words, a combination of social awareness with self-awareness.

The first step in coaching professionals on EI is to show them how to become truly present with their presence. This means going beyond speaking or acting with presence and removing their “lens” — becoming aware of any internal bias in perspective. It’s only by switching lenses that leaders can learn to listen to visions and viewpoints that may differ from their own.

Honing EI can help leaders establish credibility, build trust and influence others. Coach leaders on the following steps to cultivate emotional and social intelligence as part of their overall development of executive presence:

Tune in to What You Bring to the Table

Executive presence and EI both involve awareness. Trainees need to understand how they are showing up in their workplace interactions — what kind of energy they are bringing into the room or on a call — so that they recognize the impact they have on others. Executives also should understand how their energy, conveyed through shifts in voice, inflection, emotions, passion and other body signals, impacts others.

Learners need to explore questions like these:

  • What dynamic does their presence create in a meeting?
  • Does it help to inspire others?
  • Are they seen as someone who has strategic vision?

Develop Your Internal Radar

When leaders have a strong internal radar, they can listen accurately to their mental narrative. Effective leaders stay alert to any internal bias that may affect their problem-solving and decision-making or that might sabotage their best self by hurting their professional relationships.

When coaching executives to improve their EI, encourage them to become aware of this mental narrative, which can be shaped by hard-wired beliefs and assumptions that they rarely think to second-guess. This process calls for bringing underlying daily narratives to a conscious level and then understanding how it impacts the people around them. It also requires reprogramming their beliefs, which then influence how they show up and engage with others.

While this activity can take some practice, since it is often unconscious, working with a coach can accelerate the process and help executives and leaders free themselves from unproductive bias. Emphasize that no matter how “politically correct” you may try to be, everyone is prone to some bias. By using their internal radar to see how their bias shows up, leaders will better understand how their decisions and interactions affect others.

Stop Talking, and Listen

Leadership training traditionally came from the perspective that leaders know best. Development initiatives were, thus, often based around the assumption that the leader’s way was the right way — in other words, leaders were coached on how to spend most of their time talking to spread their own viewpoint rather than listening to others’ viewpoints.

This approach was not emotionally intelligent. Today’s leaders need to listen intently to others, extending their self-awareness of their own biases to pick up on other people’s emotions. A training goal should be to help executives develop their ability to detect how others feel, not just to hear what they say. This subtlety of EI involves becoming attuned to cues like tone, body language and other forms of nonverbal communication rather than just focusing on words.

Executive presence can influence whether a professional is deemed capable and ready for advancement and can be a determining factor in everything from talent reviews to succession planning. Don’t overlook the importance of training and coaching leaders and high-potential professionals to maximize their presence and gain influence where it counts.

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