For both men and women, executive presence is a key trait necessary for climbing the corporate ladder and taking on positions of leadership. It is how you motivate staff, promote vision to investors and appeal to the public. However, executive presence is not easy to define; it is a series of traits that combine to make someone look like “executive potential.”

What’s Holding You Back

If your work performance has been excellent, but you have not been receiving high profile projects or coveted promotions, reflect on the reasons why that may be. Sometimes managers do not use the term “executive presence” when discussing flaws or areas of improvement, but they might use phrases like “improve assertiveness,” “take ownership” and “demonstrate poise.” These are soft skills that all contribute to how you are perceived and how your ability to lead is gauged.

Improving Executive Presence

To enhance your executive presence and position yourself as a leader, work on the following traits and behaviors:

  1. Composure: Awareness of how you present yourself and understanding the body language of others can go a long way in helping you lead and manage a team. A successful executive needs to be able to control emotions, no matter how much is at stake. At the same time, recognizing the emotions and feelings of others and managing your response to them is pivotal. For instance, one typical response to criticism for many is to cry. It is a natural and reflexive action, but can be viewed as unprofessional or weak in the workplace. By learning coping strategies, such as envisioning yourself as someone else, biting the inside of your cheek or detaching emotionally from the situation, you can manage your reaction and handle criticism calmly and productively.
  2. Image: While appearances are not everything, how you physically portray yourself is important. That does not mean you need to wear lots of makeup or a full suit every day to work. However, you do need to be cognizant of how you present yourself. If you wear cutesy dresses with playful prints on them, you can appear girlish or immature. Similarly, if you wear novelty ties with sports team logos, you can look unfocused and distracted. Being well-groomed and dressed appropriately for the role you want can ensure you are given consideration for promotions and customer-facing projects. If you are not sure where to start, image consultants and personal shoppers can help you put together a cohesive and professional wardrobe on a budget.
  3. Confidence: Confidence is essential for any executive. In some cases, you can feel completely out of your depth but still, come off to others as poised and strong. Your body language signals confidence, so when speaking in a meeting or giving a presentation, watch your posture and avoid slouching or leaning. Maintain eye contact, and if asked a question or if someone disagrees with you, don’t look at the ground; manage your eye focus, so you looked engaged.  Ask a trusted co-worker to give you feedback or tape your performance; you may not realize that you shift your weight when you speak or avert your eyes. Being aware of these habits can help you recognize and fix them.
  4. Language and Delivery: Your language and delivery play a significant role in how you are viewed as a professional. Many people who are nervous speaking in front of others develop bad habits, such as uptalk, where it sounds like they are asking a question when making a statement. Others use softening language, such as “I am not sure if this is a good idea, but…” or “This might be a dumb question, but…”. Take note of how leaders that you admire speak, whether they are politicians, business leaders or philanthropists. They never weaken their message with these wavering introductions. They are direct and to the point, speaking at an appropriate volume and delivering with conviction. If this is an area of weakness for you, consider joining ToastMasters or another speaking club; you’ll practice and learn strategies on how to handle presentations as well as meetings.
  5. Conciseness: When you are nervous in a meeting or new to public speaking, you may feel like you have to fill the silences or you forget your point and end up rambling. Talking too much negates your power and weakens your message. Learn to present your points concisely; deliver the critical message, one to three points on your rationale and then stop. Presenting an idea in a short and sweet manner gives you more authority and credibility. Practicing at home with loved ones can help you wrap up your message in a concise manner.

While some people have natural charisma and gravitas, executive presence can be learned and cultivated. With some self-reflection, coaching and practice, you can improve your presence and be regarded as a composed and polished executive.

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