Executive presence is an inside job

It’s not unusual for an executive to be puzzled that they’ve been told they need to develop “executive presence” in order to move into executive levels in an organization. The question on their mind is “What is executive presence?”

Rightfully so. In scanning articles and information on the topic by bloggers, coaches, writers and executives themselves, you’ll an excess of information about how to look and act the part of an executive. Attire and behaviors (including communication styles, body language, carriage) are top of the list.

Yet none of these things can be pulled off as “presence” without some individual inside work. And the behaviors that are needed for each person to be seen to have executive presence are unique to each individual and organization. Some examples:

  • Listen better
  • Be commanding
  • Speak with clarity
  • Make higher quality or more timely decisions
  • Be more intentional in words and actions
  • Be more confident
  • Be more strategic/visionary
  • Inspire others
  • Influence others
  • Show more empathy

If you consider any leader you know, and ask yourself “what would make this person an even better leader?”, we could add those attributes to the list of items that are encompassed within definitions of executive presence.

The truth is that “doing” isn’t enough because “presence” is a way of being, something that comes from the inside and radiates outward. If you want to pull off any of the behaviors listed you have to work on yourself.

So let’s borrow a new definition from Doug Silsbee, in his book “Presence-Based Coaching: Cultivating Self-Generative Leaders Through Mind, Body and Heart”:

“Presence is a state of awareness, in the moment, characterized by the felt experience of timelessness, connectedness, and a larger truth.”

This is your first step. So how do you get THAT? I would argue that you’ve been there whenever you became self-aware enough in the moment to:

  • Be purposeful about what and how you wanted to say something
  • Make a decision based on a belief or value
  • Chose to take the higher ground
  • Do the ethical or moral thing, even if it imperiled you

These experiences mean that you were fully connected to something and noticed an internal voice. It’s in that momentary millisecond of awareness that a choice can be made to continue on a path that you’re on or to choose to do something different.

That momentary presence is an instant of clarity and joy. And you can have more of that with practice by:

Self-observation: Learning to observe yourself in real time as you speak and act. Develop a practice of this by “splitting yourself in two at the same time” with one part of you acting in the world while the part observes. Sounds strange, but intentionality to do this will show you it’s possible.

Reflection: Pausing and/or blocking out time to reflect after an action and consider the motives behind them. This can be accomplished through a series of self-reflective questions to answer or journal: “What did I do?” “How did I do it?” and “Why did I do it”. You can follow with “Does it need to change?”.

Self-correcting in real time: The ultimate gift to you as you practice self-observation and reflection is your ability to be present real-time and change course in the moment to choose the action(s) that will be the most effective and beneficial to you and those you lead.

Some leaders find it helpful to work with a partner, coach or friend to hold themselves accountable to these practices. Eventually, these practices can help you to develop the new habit of executive presence.

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Mary Jo Asmus is the founder and President of Aspire Collaborative Services LLC, an executive coach, writer, internationally recognized thought leader, and a consultant who partners with organizations of all kinds to develop and administer coaching programs. She has “walked in your shoes” as a former leader in a Fortune company.

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