By Maya Hu-Chan
Leadership expert and executive coach@mayahuchan
This article was originally published on Inc.com, December 2016
You’re smart. You’re educated. You have a resume packed with accomplishments. But you’re not getting ahead.
My coaching clients and the people who take my seminars often voice a similar frustration. By any objective measure, these leaders are ready to move up in their careers, and yet promotions routinely pass them by. When they ask why, they tend to hear things like, “You just don’t seem like executive material,” or, “You don’t carry yourself like a leader.”
The elusive quality they lack is known as executive presence. There is no single, agreed-upon definition, though the term generally refers to how you convey confidence and authority through your physical comportment (voice, dress, mannerisms, etc.).
In other words, it’s highly subjective. What does a leader look like? Sound like? Dress like? Although standards are shifting as workplaces become more diverse, they tend to reflect longstanding social and cultural norms. Women are most likely to get the “executive presence” talk at work, but plenty of men do, too.
Fair or not, your colleagues’ perceptions of you have currency. I have found that it is best to address them head on. Once you know how others perceive you, you can decide what (if anything) you want to change. The following steps will help you eliminate blind spots that may be holding you back.
Nothing creates confidence like competence. As you take on the work of refining your communication skills, make sure you have something worthwhile to communicate. By the same token, if you don’t know something, don’t fake it. Admit what you don’t know, and take steps to learn it.
Executive presence goes hand in hand with executive function – the mental processes that allow us to plan, focus, prioritize tasks and remember what we’re supposed to do. If you have a meeting, make sure you’re there early. If you have a presentation, practice as much as possible. Record yourself (easy to do on your phone or tablet) and rehearse.
Several years ago, I decided to listen to a voice mail I’d recorded before sending it. I was horrified! My voice was high-pitched, I talked much too fast, and I rambled on where I should have been succinct. From then on, I made a conscious effort to speak from the diaphragm, lower the ends of my sentences and slow down.
Be aware of how you sound. I’ve also observed how common it is for people – even in business settings – to litter their sentences with “likes,” “ums,” and “OKs.” These filler words diminish the power of your communication. Use them sparingly.
What you wear makes an impression. But your body language is perhaps even more important in communicating who you are. Look in the mirror (or record yourself in a meeting) and do a little audit. Do you tend to slouch, or do you stand up straight? Do you look people in the eye, or do you let your gaze wander around the room while you’re talking? Do you fidget, or are you comfortable in stillness? You may be communicating nervousness or disinterest without meaning to.
Notice how often you complain or use sarcasm to make a point. Your complaints may be justified, but the act of complaining projects powerlessness. You are essentially saying, “not only is this situation bad, unfair or intolerable, I expect some one else to do something about it!” If you are the complainer, you aren’t the leader.
Honestly assessing yourself is important. If you really want to know how other people perceive you, get feedback. My mentor, the executive coach Marshall Goldsmith, coined the term “feedforward” to describe a simple but very effective technique that is surprisingly painless and even fun.
Identify three to five people you trust, and ask each of them for two suggestions to improve your executive presence. Hear them out without defending, correcting or explaining. Say thank you, even if the advice is wildly off base. Don’t promise to do anything right away. Just tell them you’ll think seriously about their advice.
Then, consider carefully what you heard. Does anything ring particularly true? Are there any common themes? Once you’ve decided which suggestions will be most helpful, act on them. Every couple of months, follow up with the people who gave you the advice to see how well you’re doing.
Feedforward has worked wonders for many of my clients, including one whose colleagues described him as cold, aloof and non-communicative. Based on their input, he set a few simple behavioral goals – to speak up twice in every meeting and to smile more. After six months of these very simple changes, the whole team performed better.
Set your own goals, and follow through. The people around you will start to see you differently – as someone with executive potential.