Executive presence (EP) is the unknown quality that some people appear to have and others do not. Luckily, most of the elements of EP can be learned.
No person can achieve a top job, an extraordinary deal, or a significant following without executive presence (EP). EP is a combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that gives others the idea that they are in the presence of someone who is the real deal. It is not a measure of performance, but rather a measure of image.
In the competitive classical music world, a study found that people shown silent videos were more likely to predict the winners than those who only listened to the music. The reason for this is that the musicians’ presence on stage was an important factor in the judges’ decisions. Their body language, facial expressions, and style of dress were hugely influential.
While EP is very difficult to define, most people seem to know it when they see it. There are basically three pillars to EP:
- How a person acts (gravitas).
- How a person speaks (communication).
- How a person looks (appearance).
Gravitas is the core characteristic of EP, with 67 percent of the 268 executives surveyed by Hewlett expressing it as the most important factor in success. Communication was cited as the most important factor by 28 percent of participants, and appearance received only 5 percent of the votes.
It is important to note that although appearance is the least important EP pillar, it still carries significant weight. While executives may not consider appearance an important factor in whether someone can do a job or not, it does serve as a critical first filter. Grooming, polish, and dress are more important than physical attractiveness or body type. This is good news, since those are areas of appearance that are easily changed.
According to senior leaders, the top six traits of someone with gravitas are:
- Emotional intelligence.
- Reputation and standing.
With all of the corporate scandals that have come to light over recent decades, it makes sense that people gravitate toward leaders who keep their promises, keep their cool, and show compassion and courage. Avoiding catastrophe may demonstrate competence, but handling catastrophe confers gravitas. In a crisis, real leaders lean into the wind, acknowledge shortcomings, and rise above them.
People expect leaders to make difficult decisions. Doing so confers gravitas because it shows that the leader has the courage and the confidence to impose a direction and take responsibility for it. Seventy percent of leaders consider decisiveness to be a component of EP. Real leaders know when being decisive is not the right thing to do. Sometimes events need to play out a certain way first.
Women have a more difficult time than men in appearing to be decisive.
Women who render decisions that demand action risk being perceived as unfeminine or unlikeable. If a woman is tough, she may be viewed in an unfavorable light. If a woman is not tough, she may not be seen as leadership material.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) is something that people today value tremendously in their leaders. Leaders with low EQ tend to isolate and even insult many of their followers. While making and enforcing unpopular decisions is part of a job, acting insensitively about it will compromise leaders’ ability to create buy-in among employees. EQ helps leaders build trust, become self-aware, and learn situational awareness.
Vision and charisma are also important leadership traits. Steve Jobs is a great example of a visionary leader. He had a reputation for being a control freak and an unfeeling boss, but those actually fit Apple’s brand of being flawless and minimalist.
While many blunders in the workplace can be overcome, two types are career killers: lack of integrity and sexual impropriety. These two mistakes basically eliminate all sense of gravitas in a person. With sexual impropriety, women tend to suffer more than men.
Individuals can immediately increase their gravitas by:
* Associating with important and influential people.
* Being generous with credit.
* Sticking to what they know.
* Showing humility.
* Smiling more.
* Empowering others.
* Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
* Driving change rather than being changed.
Communication is not so much about what people say as it is about how they say it. Tone, word choice, inflection, articulation, delivery, and even body language help listeners form impressions. Every verbal encounter is an opportunity to create and nurture a positive impression.
According to senior leaders, top communication traits include:
* Superior speaking skills.
* The ability to command a room.
* Forcefulness and assertiveness.
* The ability to read a client, boss, or audience.
* A sense of humor and the ability to banter.
* Body language and posture.
Another study showed that passion, voice quality, and presence were more important indicators of a speaker’s persuasiveness than the content of the speech. Executives cite inarticulateness, poor grammar, and an off-putting tone or accent as verbal tics that undermine EP.
Women should be particularly careful about shrillness. When women get upset or emotional, their voices often rise. High-pitched tones negatively impact perceived leadership ability. Duke University researchers found that a sound frequency around 125 Hz is optimal. One research study found that after accounting for education and experience, a drop of 22 Hz in voice frequency correlated with a bump in compensation. The lower the voice, the greater the leadership presence.
To command a room means that a person has mesmerized an audience.
Telling a story the audience can relate to can accomplish this. The words spoken must also be delivered with the same style as a musician who delivers notes. Cadence should be lifted or dropped to emphasize key passages or points. Speaking too fast is never acceptable, and a speaker should not be afraid of silence, as it can be quite powerful. Speakers should be careful not to overwhelm their audiences with data. Presenters should include a good mix of data and narrative, use props sparingly, and be succinct.
To command a room, the speaker must read the audience and adjust to it.
This may mean abandoning the notes and whatever else was planned and doing something entirely different. Understanding when to do this requires a sizeable amount of emotional intelligence. Being oblivious to the audience’s needs will undermine the speaker’s authority.
Being forceful and assertive is another essential trait of an executive.
However, it needs to be handled the right way. It is important to push back when necessary, but leaders should frame their objection by showing how the decision benefits the company. It is essential to always offer a solution when being assertive.
Executives also need to master the art of small talk and humor. Humor may be difficult to pull off, but basic conversations held before a meeting establish leaders’ expertise and credibility. This may require leaders to learn about a wide variety of topics outside of their normal interests so they are able to insert themselves into conversations with many different people.
A person’s EP is judged the second he or she enters a room. Good posture, holding the head high, and smiling are key factors that people note. Things like checking a watch, tapping feet, rustling papers, and looking at phones indicate a person is not fully present, which undermines EP.
While only five percent of surveyed senior executives said that appearance was an important part of EP, it is the filter through which gravitas and communication skills are evaluated. Leaders with the best appearance are:
* Polished and groomed.
* Physically attractive, fit, and slim.
* Dressed in stylish clothes.
* Youthful and vigorous.
The good news is that the most important aspect, being polished and groomed, is something most people can control.
In a study where participants were shown pictures of women wearing various amounts of makeup, the majority of people thought the women with the most makeup were the most likeable and trustworthy. When individuals make an effort to look polished, others view them as worthy of their time and investment. Good grooming also signals that an individual is in control.
Leaders should aim for a polished look to minimize distractions from their skills and knowledge. Clothing should not be overtly sexual or advertise the body in any way.
Physical attractiveness is another important aspect of appearance, although not as important as grooming and polish. However, it is important to note that fitness and wellness should be the focus. Leaders do not have to look like movie stars, but if they look like they might keel over from a heart attack because they are unfit, that detracts from their EP.
When it comes to clothes, it is essential that leaders dress for the jobs they want rather than the jobs they have. They should complement a signature look with a signature style piece or accent. For men, this could be colorful socks or a playful tie. For women, this could be a specific handbag or quirky brooch.
While women’s leadership potential is unfairly correlated with weight, men’s potential is unfairly coordinated with height. Short men have a more difficult time conveying leadership qualities than tall men. In the United States, taller presidential candidates have beaten shorter ones 17 to 8.
Leaders should seek professional help if they struggle with any of these aspects of appearance. Personal shoppers, makeup artists, and image consultants can do wonders. Leaders should always strive to dress appropriately for their audiences while listening to their inner voices about what feels right and what does not.