Improving Your Executive Presence

23 Sep

For a few years now, my mother has been my source for business wisdom and conduct (so she thinks). She bought me a Harvard Business Review (HBR) subscription in high school and constantly shares the lessons she learns. Through all the lectures and dramatic pauses over dinner (complete with an “I know you can hear me” stare), my mother was definitely right about some things. After going to business school, I started to see the same features that differentiate leaders and those that succeed. I recently found several of her key takeaways in a few HBR articles:

  • Effective communication is not about slick animations or smooth transitions. Effective communication is about connecting with an audience. This means that you should not only understand but also be aware of your audience.
  • Furthermore, what you say must be poignant and relevant to everyone. This means a presentation, no matter what or who for, needs facts and figures as much as a good story.
  • Be self-aware (note: not self- conscious!) at all times. This will both protect you and save you time. There are countless stories of careers being seriously harmed by one seemingly trivial email or mistake. You never know who is listening, so make sure that whatever you say – whenever you say it – is, for lack of a better word, kosher. Additionally, if everything you say or email is easily “forwardable” then you are not only going to be safe, but you will save yourself time. According to HBR, “even if you only send three emails a week that need to be “forwardable,” then you’re likely wasting 10 hours a month on communications rework.”

I have watched my mother speak publicly, and I have seen her grip a dinner party. Her number one asset is her presence, and I would even call it an executive presence. Though this term is widely used in business literature, I am yet to find a universal definition. That being said, there are a few commonly used traits including sincerity, confidence, intelligence, and passion.

An interesting story regarding executive presence is Ken Lewis’s, the CEO of Bank of America, which is the largest bank in the United States and second largest in the world. He has been described by others as “quiet,” “someone who likes to keep to himself,” and “the most competitive person in the history of the United States, including the Union Army.” To me, these descriptions don’t sound like the characteristics of a typical “charismatic” CEO.

However Ken Lewis has tried hard to mask his natural personality traits in order to succeed. “He practiced smiling, which is not Ken Lewis’s default expression. He started wearing glasses to soften his features. He would talk, and tape himself while talking to catch the pauses.” However, his efforts have not been very successful. The example of Ken Lewis reveals one key point: though it may be hard to define, you know executive presence when you see it.

Think of someone you know that is leader; someone that has a “je ne sais quoi” that makes them special. Now think of why they are so effective and watch how they use that quality. Then try to emulate that characteristic into your communications, interactions, and daily life. You will be amazed at how quickly you see your presence transform.

by Daniel Duggal

*This post was inspired by the following two articles. While I think reading them is insightful and worth it (under five minutes I promise!), they are by no means necessary.*

For Reference: Articles on Executive Presence

For Reference: Background on Ken Lewis


2 Responses to “Improving Your Executive Presence”

  1. Katie Bush September 27, 2011 at 4:51 am #

    I certainly enjoyed this blog post, but what I enjoyed equally much was reading the articles and then returning and reading the post again. One article stuck out in particular, when it discussed focusing on others as a way to improve your own performance. As a current Management Communications student, hearing that the pianist felt communicating, rather than proving or performing, was most important meant a lot. As Daniel mentioned, it is important to be self-aware but not self-conscious, because this can be detrimental to a performer. Many times in my own work, I feel I do focus on perfection, not connection, as the author called it. Hearing that I need not prove myself or put on an act is reassuring – rather I should work on effectively, and assertively, conveying my message.

    • Kyle Bank September 30, 2011 at 2:51 am #

      Daniel, I found the content of this post to be very relevant to today’s business world. Knowing your audience is the number one key to unveiling executive presence in any situation. Similar ideas must be portrayed in various ways depending on who the message is directed towards. Executive presence in this sense relates directly to the field of marketing, where understanding and developing a deep connection with customers is essential in building brand loyalty. You want your customers (audience) to not only listen to what you have to say, but anxiously anticipate every word you have to offer. “Sincerity, confidence, intelligence, and passion” absolutely contribute to executive presence once the audience is well understood.

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