It’s Not Magic: You Can Have Amazing Executive Presence

If you don’t, it could be holding you back in your career

You’re smart. You’re educated. You have a resume packed with accomplishments. But you’re not getting ahead.

As an executive coach, I often hear similar frustrations from many of my clients around the world. 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, “You just don’t seem to have executive presence.”

What is executive presence? There is no single, agreed-upon definition, though the term generally refers to how you convey confidence and authority through the elements of your physical demeanor, such as voice, the way you dress, mannerisms, and more.

At its most essential level, leadership presence has to do with perception. Fair or not, people’s perceptions of you have currency. They can either help or hinder your career success.

In fact, a study by the Center for Talent Innovation suggests that executive presence counts for 26 percent of what it takes to get ahead in today’s global marketplace.

While what defines executive presence is highly subjective, it does tend to reflect longstanding social and cultural norms, even as standards shift as workplaces become more diverse.

If you’re feeling stalled in your career, working on your executive presence could give you a boost. Here are eight steps to help you do that.

1. Be a high performer.

First and foremost, you have to prove yourself as a high performer. This is the foundation. If you don’t have exceptional performance, the rest does not matter.

2. Think and speak strategically.

Nothing creates confidence like competence. If you are a strong performer and strategic thinker, people will be interested in what you have to say. When you speak, focus on the big picture. Communicate strategic ideas. Don’t get bogged down in tactical details.

3. Be visible.

Show up early for meetings. Sit in the front or the center of the room, not in the back. Learn to raise your hand and speak up often.

4. Build a strategic network, internally and externally.

Make yourself known. Phrases like, “Can I help you with that project?” should become part of your daily vocabulary. Remember, it’s not “what” you know or “who” you know, but who know of you that could help you advance your career.

5. Listen to yourself.

Several years ago, I listened to a voicemail I’d recorded before sending it. I was horrified! My voice was high-pitched, I talked much too fast, and I rambled when 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.

Analyze your own speaking patterns. If you use subtle or indirect language, your colleagues may misinterpret your message or think you lack self-confidence. So, get to the point quickly. Be as clear and direct as possible, but make sure you are respectful so you don’t come across as rude or aggressive.

Cut out filler words such as “like,” “um,” and “okay.” These words diminish the power of your communication. If you have to deliver a presentation, first record yourself, listen to it, and practice again.

6. Look at yourself.

One of my clients, Patty, is a successful global business leader. Her company has a “Casual Friday” policy, meaning everyone wears jeans on Fridays. Some people take it further and wear tennis shoes and wrinkled T-shirts with their jeans. Patty does not. She said, “If you pay attention to the managers two levels higher, nobody dresses like that. They still wear dress shoes and even sports coats with their jeans on Fridays. If you want to move up, dress the part.”

As important as dress is body language. Look in the mirror and perform an audit. Do you slouch? 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? Your body language may be sending the wrong message and weakening your credibility.

7. Be positive.

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, but I expect someone else to fix it!” If you are the complainer, you aren’t the leader.

8. Get feedback … the right way.

If you really want to know how other people perceive you, ask for feedback. Identify three to five people you trust, and ask each of them for two suggestions that can help improve your executive presence. Hear them out without being defensive, correcting them or explaining. Say thank you. Then, carefully consider their suggestions. Once you’ve decided which suggestions will be most helpful, act on them. Every couple of months, follow up with them to track how well you’re doing.

In short time, your executive presence should rise to the level of your intelligence, your qualifications, and your performance. And you may start to reach your leadership potential.