In coaching I regularly see very talented leaders whose ideas are critical to a business, but who nevertheless have not yet been invited to the executive team. It’s hard to imagine anything more frustrating at work than making huge contributions, only to be held back. What can be particularly difficult in these situations is that often higher-ups explain the leader’s failure to move forward with one of the vaguest explanations in the business: “He/she lacks executive presence.”
Sorting out the meaning of this catch-all phrase can be quite difficult. That’s because the “executive presence” as a term seems to vary according to who is being told that they are lacking it. Usually, though, it’s not impossible. My clients and I can often sift through feedback, ask more questions, and figure out the areas we can work on to strengthen executive presence.
Here are a few reasons leaders I’ve met have been seen as having a less than executive presence:
- Coming across as “too soft”
- Seeming rigid
- Being emotionally sloppy, and leaving resentment in his or her wake
- Having a sloppy physical presence: awkward handshakes, unprofessional attire, unfriendly demeanor
There are many more possible issues that may fall under the umbrella of “presence,” but John Beeson, in the Harvard Business Review, asserts that the term “ultimately boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.”
Beeson also says that executive presence be developed, “if you have a baseline of self-confidence and a willingness to deal with the unpredictable situations that go with the territory at the executive level.”
I agree with this assessment, and it is why I work with clients on the issue. For some, this work may involve taking steps to make their voice heard and make sure their wins get attention. For others it may be about learning to handle anger and disappointment in a way that shows maturity and self-possession. Changing how a person acts may be done in small and large ways, and what is important is that those changes are authentic to that person’s true self. If someone has a gentle demeanor, taking steps to be more assertive will likely take a different form than for someone who is naturally tough. If someone has a sloppy physical presence, it doesn’t mean they should have an overhaul that makes them look dapper but uncomfortable.
In the end, I believe that executive presence is about projecting yourself as a confident, respectful leader in a way that is authentic to who you are.