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Managing Yourself – Step 4: Having Executive Presence

This GovLoop series on “Managing Yourself” provides readers with the right skills, tools and mindset to be proactive about their development and as a way to thrive and succeed, both professionally and personally. Thus far, we’ve covered “Knowing Thyself,” “Goal Setting,” and “Time Management.” Our post this week is the next step in your roadmap for success: having executive presence.

Executive Presence

There’s a special quality in some people that sets them apart from everyone else. While many people may work extremely hard, some people seem to have an uncanny ability to easily make friends, win over colleagues and quickly close business deals. They seem to have that “magic touch.”

Well, sorry to say, but there is no magic touch. There’s nothing special about why something turns out the way it does, everything simply happens for a reason. So the question is what is it that some people have that others don’t? Sylvia Ann Hewlett provides us an answer – what these people have is executive presence (EP).

The Three Pillars of Executive Presence

According to Ms. Hewlett, in her book “Executive Presence,” EP rests on three pillars:

1. Gravitas – how you act

    • Gravitas is the piece of EP that can (and often does) get labeled “the magic touch.”
    • The elements of gravitas are: confidence and grace under fire, decisiveness, integrity, emotional intelligence, reputation and vision/charisma.
    • A big takeaway from the chapter on Gravitas is that it’s the core of EP. Without it, you won’t be perceived as a leader, no matter what.

2. Communication – how you communicate (verbally, in writing and body language)

    • Communication is not so much about what you say, but rather how you say it.
    • The top communication traits are: superior speaking skills, ability to command a room, forcefulness/assertiveness, ability to read a client/room, a sense of humor and body language/posture.
    • A big takeaway from the chapter on communication is that while we think communication is for formal presentations, we’re actually always presenting… from the first time we meet someone in the morning to the time we go to sleep at night. We’re “always on.”

3. Appearance – how you look

    • Appearance is more about grooming and polish than it is about physical attractiveness
    • Top aspects of appearance are: being polished and groomed, being fit, simple and stylish clothes, being tall and being youthful and vigorous.
    • A big takeaway from the chapter on appearance is that while it actually plays a very small role in EP, it is the filter through which other people evaluate our gravitas and communication.

Executive Presence is the “grease in the wheels.” It enables you, no matter your industry, to move efficiently and effectively about your work, persuade people to your way of thinking and ultimately get the job done. Think of EP as an intangible “enabling agent,” assisting you with whatever projects, problems and challenges you choose to tackle.

Developing Executive Presence

While it is very common in in high-level leadership and C-suite executives, EP isn’t exclusive to them. In fact, it can be honed and developed at almost any stage of life. In her book, Ms. Hewlett writes that “no man or woman attains a top job, lands a big deal, or develops a significant following without the heady combination of confidence, poise and authenticity.” These, she says, “make signals to others to let them know that you have what it takes.”

So essentially what she’s saying is that people don’t just have EP because they’re at the top; people actually are at the top because they have EP.

And the best part is while some people may have a knack for EP from childhood, it is a learnable thing for nearly anyone. Or as Ms. Hewlett puts it, “born leaders are made… oftentimes through their own systematic efforts.” So let’s get started.

Tips for Developing EP

The first and foremost recommendation is to read Ms. Hewlett’s book. It is replete with contemporary case examples as well as all the tips and tricks of the craft of EP. While I won’t disclose all of her work in this post, I’ll instead provide my top two tips for each pillar and my thoughts on each.

Developing Gravitas:

  1. Surround yourself with people better than you (better in some way).
    • You inevitably become most like the people you spend most of your time with, so surround yourself with people who are smarter, more creative and more charismatic.
  2. Empower others’ presence to build your own.
    • Develop an abundance mindset not a scarcity mindset. Your organization’s success is your success, so spend time raising people around you up, rather than dragging them down. You’re part of something larger than yourself.

Developing Communication:

1. Ditch the verbal crutches (um, like, you know…)

  • These fillers will instantly kill a presentation and make almost any conversation unbearable. So any message you’re trying to get across will likely fail. Stay focused!

2. Broaden the small talk

    • Most people think small talk is pointless, but it actually serves two purposes. First it gives you time to read your listener(s) to gauge how you should proceed with the conversation. Second it is crucial in establishing rapport and rapport is crucial in developing good professional relationships. A tip from Dale Carnegie on small talk: Do your best to make it all about the other person. You can make most anyone like you simply by getting them to talk about themselves!

Developing Appearance:

1. It’s not how good you look, it’s how appropriate you look for your audience.

    • There are aspects of our appearance we have control over and there are aspects we don’t. Thankfully, the research in this book indicates that what matters most is what we have control over! Some simple attention to being put-together will go a long way.

2. Ask for specific feedback.

    • Receiving feedback from others is a personal favorite. But note that enduring feedback from people requires a certain level of self-confidence. If you don’t feel you’re there yet, skip this tactic. The benefit of this approach, though, is that it’s really a two-for-one: you get the feedback on appearance and you also start signaling your confidence (remember, we’re always on).

The Takeaway

Working hard is absolutely critical for success, but what we’re able to achieve in life is largely dependent upon how well we work with others. If you want to be a leader while greasing the wheels of your professional life, begin developing your executive presence. It’s the intangible factor that can give you the edge and set you apart from the rest.

Next Week – Step Five: Networking

Brian Baskerville is part of the GovLoop Featured Contributor program, where we feature articles by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Contributor posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Nazli Cem

No matter how much I would love to think that appearance would have the least amount of effect on how we perceive people, unfortunately it does have a lot of impact. Luckily, as you pointed out, it is not about attractiveness, but about being put together. Most of the traits functioned can be learned and practiced to achieve a good EP, but I do have to admit that I don’t think charisma is something that can be acquired. Great tips to follow to better yourself, especially the tip about surrounding yourself with people that are better than you.