What is executive presence – and do you have it?

During the past couple of months, I’ve been in four or five conversations with leadership development professionals who are looking for a way to build executive presence in their organisations’ high-potential managers. Most of them have tried different programs and approaches and they’re not happy with the results they’ve achieved.

I have a theory about why that’s the case. Executive presence is one of those terms that’s often used but rarely clearly defined. If you do a Google search on the term you’ll find articles that talk about confidence, communications, personal appearance, body language and other factors that don’t get a lot more specific than that. It’s a great case of what the French would call je ne sais quoi – “I do not know what”, or something that can’t be adequately described.

That, of course, makes executive presence hard to teach to people. If you can’t describe it, you can’t teach it.

Based on the research I did for my book, The Next Level, and more than a decade of coaching senior executives and high-potential managers, I’d like to offer a two-part definition of executive presence. First, it’s about your ability to get results, especially when the expectations around results are continually changing. Second, it’s about the behaviours you exhibit at personal, team and organisational levels. When your behaviours align with the expected results, you have executive presence.

Let me break it down in a little more detail.

In today’s world, the results that were good enough last year aren’t good enough this year. This year’s results won’t be good enough next year. For leaders, then, it’s a continual state of getting different results.

As Einstein would likely tell us, different results require different actions. That means that leaders need to be aware of when they need to pick up and let go of skills, behaviours and mindsets even if they’ve worked for them in the past.

A leader’s executive presence, then, changes over time. In working with my clients, I break the behaviours of executive presence down into three categories and nine distinctions about what leaders need to pick up and let go of get different results.

Here’s the breakdown:

Personal presence

 Pick up confidence in your presence. Let go of doubt in how you contribute.

 Pick up regular renewal of your energy and perspective. Let go of running flat out until you crash.

 Pick up custom-fit communications. Let go of one-size-fits-all communications.

Team presence

• Pick up team reliance. Let go of self-reliance.

• Pick up defining what to do. Let go of telling how to do it.

• Pick up accountability for many results. Let go of responsibility for a few results.

Organisational presence

• Pick up looking left, right and diagonally as you lead. Let go of primarily looking up and down as you lead.

• Pick up an outside-in view of the entire organisation. Let go of an inside-out view of your function.

• Pick up a big footprint view of your role. Let go of a small footprint view of your role.

Over the past six years, my company has conducted 360-degree assessments for hundreds of high-potential leaders on the 72 behaviours (eight for each of the nine “pick up and let go” distinctions) that highlight this model of executive presence. In the weeks to come, I’ll share much of what we’ve learned about the specific behaviours.

For now, though, how do you define executive presence? Do any of these “pick up and let go” pairs match up with your experience? If so, which ones?


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