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Demystifying Executive Presence

Posted by Elaine Varelas  October 3, 2011 09:00 AM

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The next presidential election is still over a year away, yet we’re already seeing ads, debates, and polls. Most candidates, and certainly those who emerge as front-runners and win elections, have a unique combination of intelligence, confidence, energy, charm, and character. They also have that certain something that draws people in, garners trust, and gives the impression that they are born to be leaders: executive presence.

Most HR managers are familiar with executive presence, but it can be elusive and difficult to define. We know it when we see it, and of course we know it when we don’t see it. Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Warren Buffet are business leaders who exude executive presence. But are people just born with it, or can they develop it? As HR managers we know it is critical to success, but there is no clear roadmap for developing this competency.

What is Executive Presence?
It may help to define executive presence so we can see where HR managers can improve their own, as well as that of leaders within their companies. Executive presence is a combination of the external and internal. The internal is further broken down to include a person’s acumen and core philosophy.

The external are the traits that others see, including physical attributes, facial expressions, voice and articulation, attitude, energy and mannerisms. These are qualities that we are born with, but can be changed. External traits also include dress, grooming, posture, and etiquette.

The internal part of executive presence is divided between a person’s acumen and core.
Acumen are the skills and experience you would see on a resume. They include education, work experience, skills, preparation, and strategic thinking. These qualities drive confidence and credibility.

The core encompasses a person’s values and philosophy. It includes integrity, directness, honesty, sincerity, thoughtfulness, relationships, vulnerability, listening skills, optimism and self-awareness. This is who the person is at his or her core.

The only way for executive presence to emerge is for all of these to work congruently. If one area is lacking, then the whole package is affected. The deficiency isn’t always easy to recognize. For instance, in politics, you often hear, “There’s something about Candidate X I don’t trust, but I can’t put my finger on it.” Identifying the shortcoming can be challenging, but people can improve their executive presence.

Developing Executive Presence
Developing executive presence isn’t easy, but it is possible. It requires focus, commitment, preparation, and practice. The first step is to identify the area for improvement. Is it part of the external, the acumen or the core? It is almost impossible for us to examine ourselves and see our own weaknesses. We may also think that our faults “don’t matter” in the scheme of work when others believe they do. That’s why it is important to gather outside feedback. In some organizations, there are formal feedback channels such as performance or 360 degree reviews. These are great tools for culling information about where you can improve. If your organization doesn’t have these, ask trusted colleagues for help. You can also look at the “stars” in your organization and take note of their skills. This examination can help you determine what qualities are valued within the organization.

Once you’ve identified the area, you need to pinpoint the specific need. For example, if feedback states you look unprofessional, it is most likely part of the external. If there is a question of credibility (“He doesn’t seem prepared. He can’t give our team answers to our questions.”), it may fall under the acumen category. An example of a core deficiency could be, “My manager doesn’t give anyone a chance to speak and doesn’t value input from others.”

Fortunately, these are all coachable, yet some are more easily changed than others. The external issues can be altered with a new suit, hair cut, or accessories.

The credibility issue can also be addressed. The manager would be coached to over-prepare for meetings and show that he is an expert on the topic. He should have supporting documents and materials to back up what he says. He should also anticipate questions. Being prepared and authoritative is one way to increase your credibility.

The manager with the core issue of not listening or valuing others can also sharpen those skills. Her coaching would include arriving to meetings on time with her iPhone turned off. She can practice listening to others, including waiting a few beats after she and others speak to see if they have anything else to add. She can also work on encouraging and validating ideas within the group. Her core values may be influenced by changes in her external behavior.

The key is that this is a continuous improvement model. It is not a singular event. One new suit or being prepared for a single meeting isn’t going to change perceptions. It needs to be a consistent improvement until the change is happening more often than not, and people’s perceptions are influenced.

Whether an HR manager wants to work on her own executive presence or that of her team, there is a framework for identifying the need and addressing it. When the external, acumen and core work in tandem, true, authentic leaders emerge.

Elaine Varelas is Managing Partner of Keystone Partners in Boston.

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