Think about the best leader you’ve ever seen. What made her/him compelling? Many of us would say, “They just had ‘it.’ Their charisma was off the charts.”
It may be hard to believe, but “it” — that combination of confidence, authority and personality that makes an executive engaging and inspiring — isn’t necessarily an inherent trait. Sure, some people are born with a natural talent for engagement. But for the rest of us, practice and preparation can help cultivate that “it” that we might also call executive presence.
Executive presence is about connecting to an audience, building credibility and inspiring action. It doesn’t have to be in the form of a presentation or a speech; it can be in the way you conduct a conversation in the hallway, in the way you handle a phone call, or in your day-to-day interactions with your peers and your reports.
I think of executive presence as a building — one that is built on three pillars. As you work to bolster your pillars, your building can become more stable and robust. But if any of the pillars is missing or weak, the building is in danger of falling down.
THE FIRST PILLAR: COMMUNICATION
Think about the context of with whom and why you are having a conversation. Think about what information you have that might be interesting or relevant to your audience. Many of us get stuck in a mindset that if we have information, we have to simply relay it in its rawest form to whomever we are speaking. But a leader takes the basic information they hold and communicates it in a way that is meaningful for the audience and makes that person feel important and valued.
THE SECOND PILLAR: CONNECTION
Spend some time cultivating the ways that make others feel connected to you. Work on your ability to remember names, for instance. Listen attentively and respond with questions. Make meaningful eye contact and avoid multitasking. If you are a leader in your company because of your title, people will do what you ask because they have to. If you are a leader because you have worked hard to build credibility among your reports and they respect you, they’ll do what you ask because they want to. Who do you think ends up doing better work and reflecting well on your leadership?
THE THIRD PILLAR: CONFIDENCE
Sometimes, our habits undermine us. We bite our nails, stammer over “ums” and “ahs” or jingle our keys in our pockets. These small things have a way of making us look nervous, unsure or ill-prepared. Taking a hard look at the details — whether you record yourself speaking in front of a group or enlist a trusted colleague to give you some honest feedback — can help you project an aura of calm competence.
Like any skill, executive presence takes practice. The key here is to know that the more you practice and prepare, the greater your skill, and the more leadership you will project.
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