A client, one of the largest health systems in the country, has identified executive presence as a critical hiring and development focus. The senior team is unanimous that the trait is vital for success. They are not alone. Even in the world of technology, a survey of CIOs conducted by Gartner put executive presence second on the list of the top 20 leadership traits. By comparison, technology skills ranked 12th. Another survey found that senior leaders think executive presence accounts for 26% of promotion decisions (Center for Talent Innovation, 2012).
But what is it? Can it be measured? Can it be taught or developed?
What is Executive Presence?
I’m reminded of the phrase from a famous Supreme Court case – where you may not be able to define something but you “know it when you see it.” This is true of executive presence. Even experienced executives struggle to define it.
There was a time when it probably had a lot to do with being a tall man with the right clothes, posture, a firm handshake, and alpha male personality. (Think Don Draper from Mad Men). Fortunately, we’ve evolved from that limited view.
Successful executives come in all shapes and sizes, and they all can display executive presence. This still doesn’t tell us WHAT it is, though. I like this summary from a 2012 Harvard Business Review article “Deconstructing Executive Presence.”
[I]t 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.
Some would say it has something to do with gravitas – conveying a sense of seriousness or intelligence – but that seems like a pretty narrow definition, doesn’t it?
Our team wrote an interesting paper on the topic and considered executive presence as a combination of three dimensions: Style, Substance, and Character.
Style has to do with first impressions based on mannerisms, image, and interpersonal behavior.
Substance includes social presence, demeanor, gravitas, confidence, and practical wisdom.
Character gets at traits like authenticity, integrity, and humility.
Can You Measure It?
This is a tough question. You can find a few “executive presence indices” out there, but I think you almost have to look at a more subjective rating. When we talk about measuring leadership performance and potential, we’ll measure intrinsic attributes like personality traits, past performance data, and “perception” data – i.e. how the person is perceived by peers, colleagues, subordinates, and leaders. I tend to think that executive presence, by definition, needs to fall in the perception category. The only real measure of whether you display it is whether you are perceived as having it!
Now, that doesn’t mean that certain components of executive presence can’t, indeed, be measured. It’s somewhat like the way we look at emotional intelligence. EQ is a “super construct” made up of sub-components including empathy, communication skills, and social and self-awareness. Each of these can be measured. They all contribute to global EQ.
OK, so what attributes make up executive presence? There is no definitive list but I think this one is a good place to start:
As I stated, there is no single look that accomplishes the goal and while some may consider this to be trivial, there is no doubt that first impressions matter. We’ve all seen brilliant leaders who distract from their talent and intellect with an appearance that just doesn’t fit the situation. Maybe if you live in the world of Mark Zuckerberg, you can get away with jeans and a hoodie, but generally not. No doubt, different situations warrant a different look and being smart enough to recognize it is a skill. I’m reminded of a colleague who insisted on wearing a suit and tie to meet with senior leaders of a hospital in Hawaii. He was politely told NOT to come back the next day dressed like that – the work culture there frowns upon that level of formality. (He had to run to the store to buy new clothes for the trip – me, I was thrilled to work in Hawaiian shirts and slacks!) You don't need to be the best-dressed person in the room, but at least never wear anything that is distracting because it's out of place. The reality is you need to look the part.
Teams value a leader who can control his or her emotions, even under stress. The ability to manage one’s own emotions, recognize the emotions of others, and control them is critical.
The ability to engage others, communicate with them, and make them feel comfortable. Obviously, this requires a level of emotional intelligence.
Confidence and Humility
These may seem contradictory but far from it. Highly confident and secure people are comfortable with humility. At the same time, though, their team can feed off of their confidence. I’m reminded of the Colin Powell quote, “Perpetual Optimism is a force multiplier.” At the same time, I think of the Brene Brown quote, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.”
Successful leaders are good communicators. What does this mean? They have relevant points to make and they make them clearly and concisely. Verbosity, contrary to what some may think, is not a sign of intellect or leadership. People respond best to good points, well-made.
Nothing establishes credibility in a room more than knowing your stuff. Some people, by the nature of their expertise are seen as credible. If they can communicate effectively, that expertise can translate into executive presence.
Can It be Developed?
The answer is a qualified yes. You have to start with a level of self-awareness and adaptability. You have to be observant and have trusted advisers who are willing to give you unvarnished feedback. Then, you need to be willing to adapt and improve. Hopefully, some examples from my own experiences will illustrate how this can work:
Be prepared. This should seem obvious, but knowing your stuff inside and out puts people at ease and allows them to see you as an expert. Executives don’t always need to be THE expert in the room, but there will be situations where you establish credibility by having key information ready when it’s needed. It only took me a few meetings early in my career to learn how hard it is to overcome NOT knowing something you should!
I worked for a respected managing partner at a law firm who exuded executive presence. He had a solid legal mind but, more importantly, he commanded the courtroom and the boardroom. It was impressive to see him sit in chambers with a judge who spoke to him more as a colleague than as an attorney. I learned very specific mannerisms he used in meetings to convey a sense of comfort and confidence, and also to say very little early in situations until it was time to make important points concisely and powerfully. (A secret: sometimes while others are talking, I’ll make a note of a specific sentence or statement I think I need to make but then deliver it as if it just came to me.)
I worked with a physician leader so well-known and respected that it could be intimidating. Yet, he was brilliant at putting people at ease. The way he introduced himself, the way he made people comfortable with his handshake, supported others’ ideas, and then with great humility reminded people how brilliant he was by summarizing a situation and making his recommendations (He probably knew we were going to implement his idea from the moment the meeting started!).
Related: Emotional Intelligence - A Conversation with a Physician Leader
I’ve learned countless lessons watching other people do presentations. Sometimes I pick up on something I want to add to my repertoire. Other times I make a note of something that definitely DOESN’T work that I want to avoid. I constantly ask for feedback after presentations from peers, subordinates (they are always surprised by this), and even my wife (who is more than happy to provide feedback!). I end up giving thought to how and where I want to stand or sit, the best way to open or close a presentation, and how to connect with the audience. For instance, I’ve learned how you can leverage speaking from the back of the room rather than the front in some situations.
I worked with a woman who was incredibly bright but disarmingly gregarious and friendly. Most groups she met with were keenly aware of how brilliant and accomplished she was but rather than starting off as serious and intelligent, she focused on connecting with everyone in the room. As the meeting progressed, her intellect became readily apparent. I learned that this doesn’t work for me. I am naturally an introvert, so while I can often connect with a group, my default strategy is to enter situations thoughtfully and logically, and where I can connect, I do so deliberately.
This last point gets at something important. There is no single approach to developing executive presence. There may be common threads, but each executive must find his or her voice and approach based on strengths and weaknesses.