Most of us don’t learn about Executive Presence until we grow into careers that require leadership and influence. However, I discovered the power of Executive Presence when I was fifteen years old.
As a sophomore in a performing arts high school in Florida, I was auditioning for a performance troupe that toured through our campus. During the audition, 10 of us lined up in front of an auditorium full of students. One by one, we stepped forward and simply stated our name. No explanation, no bio, just our name.
When my time came, I walked forward, paused, and took a deep breath. I looked calmly and purposefully around the room and felt a sense of anticipation as the audience waited for me to speak. Then I slowly and clearly stated my name as if it were the most critical piece of information that someone should know about me.
I made it into the troupe.
Later on, when explaining why we were chosen, the troupe director would point to my introduction – not my name, but how I had pronounced my name – as the reason why I was chosen. At the time, he had no idea that I was an opera singer in training or that I had performed in front of thousands of people. It all came across in those two words.
Think about how you introduce yourself when you walk into a room or speak up on a conference call. Your voice is one of the most powerful tools you have as a leader. The sound of your words, the energy in your words, and the intentionality behind your words, can all make the difference between being heard or not, between being listened to or not.
Voice is not the only component of Executive Presence, though it is one of the most important and the one I speak about most frequently when I teach leadership communication. Other components include confidence, a sense of purpose, body language, and the way you interact with others.
Think about what gives an opera singer stage presence: it’s the way the soprano walks purposefully out on stage, her sense of passion for the music; it’s the tenor’s confidence in his craft after years of study and practice. It’s the deep connection they both feel to the material, to the music, to why they do what they do.
These skills are even more important in a corporate setting because so few leaders learn them in business school. We believe we are either “born with it” or at a natural disadvantage. Maybe we’ve heard or have even spoken the words:
“We’d love to promote him, but he just doesn’t have leadership potential.”
Those of us in leadership positions and who have taught leadership know differently. We know that even these “soft skills” are both teachable and critical for our professional success at every level. The more senior we become, the more time we spend communicating the company’s message, and the more we wish we had learned these skills years ago. When coaching business executives, I frequently hear the same comment, “I feel like everyone else at my level learned this already; somehow I never did.”
Anyone can go through a technical training program and become technically competent. But the ability to communicate with others, to inspire others to achieve outstanding results, and to foster camaraderie and collaboration – these are crucial elements of business success which are often missing from professional development programs.
Now I’d like you to imagine a great business leader: perhaps the CEO of your organization, perhaps a member of the board, perhaps one of your colleagues. What gives that leader Executive Presence?
It could be the confident way she walks into the room and starts a meeting. It might be the clear, concise way he speaks, cutting out the jargon and the bureaucracy and getting straight to the point. Perhaps it’s the reputation that person has within the company. Maybe it’s in the power of their voice. All those attributes are critical elements of Executive Presence and they combine together to make a crucial impression on your audience.
Earlier this year, I was preparing to give a presentation on Executive Presence to a group of banking executives in a Fortune 500 company. In preparing my program, I interviewed three different individuals who would be in the audience. I asked all of them what they thought of Executive Presence and why it was important when presenting to clients.
Their answers were incredibly illuminating:
- Do you look like you deserve to be there?
- Does what you say make sense?
- Do you look like you’ll be able to execute the business?
Whether your audience comprises external or internal clients, every presentation is an opportunity to influence people’s behaviors, beliefs, or actions. You might be attempting to persuade the CEO to increase your budget to hire additional staff or adopt an experimental new program. Do you truly believe in what you are saying? Are you confident in your ability to deliver results? Do you have a sense of purpose in why you do what you do? Your Executive Presence addresses all those questions.
It’s not about creating a false leadership persona – your audience can see right through that and it negatively affects your reputation and your credibility. Presence requires you to connect authentically with what drives you in your work and then allow that sense of purpose to infuse your words, your actions, and your energy which creates a very powerful, persuasive argument.
Every time you speak up, you have an opportunity to change people’s behaviors and influence their actions. By focusing on your Executive Presence, you ensure that every aspect of your communication delivers the same powerful message.