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The Executive Coaching Corner:  Executive Presence Series

August 5, 2014  Blog Series 1 of 9:  Executive Presence:  Earning Your Seat at the Table

Whether you’re a frontline supervisor, middle manager, senior leader, or company president, you’re always in the spotlight. All eyes are on you. People are constantly observing you for consistent behavior patterns. They’re continually looking for clues to assess whether they can trust and respect you. If you’re consistent in appropriate leadership behaviors, people will forgive an occasional poor decision or mistake. However, if you frequently go into melt down when things get tense, you create uncertainty. Uncertainly causes people to raise their guard, which eventually erodes trust.

 To demonstrate this point, in the animal kingdom research has shown that in a troop of baboons, the lesser males check out the alpha male every 20 to 30 seconds to see what he’s doing (Sutton, 2010). The people in your organization are no different. They may not be checking you out every 20 to 30 seconds, but they’re watching you carefully. If you think you’re operating under the radar, you’re kidding yourself. Humans are wired to pick up on slight subtleties that give you away, such as telegraphing a mixed message, which occurs when your body language is inconsistent with your words. The consequence of these actions is that employees will lose faith in you and ultimately their trust.

 Defining Executive Presence

Let’s begin with the definition of executive presence. It’s a somewhat fuzzy concept and difficult to define, similar to when Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964) was asked to describe the threshold test for obscenity. In drafting his opinion, he stated, “I know it when I see it.” 

So the question is: “What do you see when you think about executive presence?”

 To answer this question, let’s examine some hard data from recent research (Hewlett, 2014) conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI). This organization wanted to crack the code of executive presence and conducted a study in 2012 of 4,000 college-educated professionals, of which 268 were senior executives. The researchers determined there were three universal components of executive presence: 

·         How you act (gravitas)

·         How you speak  (communication)

·         How you look (appearance) 

How you actGravitas was identified by 67 percent of the participants as the most critical factor. Just what is gravitas? It’s a combination of intellectual horsepower and grit. Gravitas signals that you know your stuff cold and can field any question in your domain of knowledge. But intellectual capacity is not enough. It must be combined with grit: your ability to project confidence, credibility, and grace under fire. This includes getting others to buy into your ideas when the going gets rough and influence them to take action. Gravitas requires decisiveness and the courage to be a truth-teller. That means being bold and going where others may not venture, all the while never breaking a sweat—essentially staying cool under pressure. 

How you speakCommunication skills were identified by 28 percent of the vote as the second universal component. These skills ultimately support your gravitas. They include both your verbal and non-verbal behaviors: For example, how you speak, tone of voice, body language, and eye contact. 

How you look–Your appearance was considered relatively inconsequential, since it was rated by only five percent of senior managers as important. There’s an interesting twist with this component. Although it wasn’t valued as high as the other two, in reality it becomes your ticket to get your foot in the door.   We’ll discuss more about in the later issue of the blog.  Stay tuned!

 Stay tuned:  In the next insertion we'll discuss your personal brand.

For additional one to two-minute sessions on other topics,  go to the Executive Coaching Corner Archive.