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The importance of building executive presence

Katie is part of the leadership team at Kernel Global, Dartmouth’s parent company, and has over 20 years’ experience in HR, legal, compliance, and corporate governance in both private practice and the staffing sector. Katie’s leadership, people management, and boardroom experience provides a unique perspective on the importance of executive presence for employees at all levels in gaining the trust and respect of key stakeholders. Here she shares her insights into how you can develop an effective executive presence. “They need to work on their executive presence”. What does this actually mean? Many people say executive presence is something they know when they see it but find it difficult to define.

What is executive presence?

Executive presence first entered the mainstream business lexicon in 2014 when Sylvia Ann Hewlett published a book of the same name. She defined executive presence as how you act (gravitas), speak (communication), and look (presentation of yourself).

Why is it important?

Executive presence helps you convey determination and assurance leading to greater trust and respect – characteristics which can set you apart with clients, candidates, peers, and other stakeholders. How you act, speak, and look connects you to your personal brand. A personal brand is not about pretending to be something you’re not, and nor is it about how visible or active you are on LinkedIn or other social media (thankfully, as my LinkedIn activity is sporadic at best!). Your personal brand is about what you do and why; it’s your elevator pitch. Executive presence is the way you embody that pitch; how you show up, interact, and communicate. In short, when you have executive presence, you elevate your personal brand.

Building and maintaining executive presence

Some people have natural executive presence, for others it takes perseverance, experience, and commitment. And that’s the great thing about executive presence, it comprises skills which you can practice and develop. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
  • Develop your self-awareness – how others perceive you is the first step to developing your presence. Ask trusted colleagues for honest and direct feedback on what they perceive to be your strengths and vulnerabilities, and how you present yourself.
  • Practice clear and concise communication – most people talk more than they listen meaning their words carry less weight. Practice active listening, plan what you’re going to say and how you will say it, learn to manage your tone of voice and body language, and rehearse with others to ensure your message is clear and concise.
  • Prepare and maintain your composure – knowing your stuff and preparing properly helps you stay calm under pressure, avoid emotional outbursts, and demonstrate quiet confidence. Identify and practice strategies to help you maintain your composure in stressful situations.

How I build executive presence?

My approach to developing executive presence focuses on demonstrating credibility, being direct and transparent when communicating, and displaying confidence:
  • How I act: people turn to me for specialist advice - they don’t want chapter and verse on the law, they want to know what they can/cannot/should do in the situation. I must know my stuff, be credible, know my limitations, and when I need help, act with integrity and deliver on my promises.
  • How I speak: if I can’t communicate my knowledge in a way others understand, it’s wasted, so I must provide advice in a compelling and concise manner. Further, my role often involves delivering difficult messages, telling people what they don’t want to hear, and considering worst-case scenarios, meaning I must communicate openly and honestly.
  • How I look: for me, this is about displaying confidence. I don’t mean being an extrovert or the loudest person in the room but rather being confident in the words I say and how I say them, my body language, and how I use my power. For example, I try to:
    • Use direct and concise language - replacing under-confident phrases such as “can I just say” or “I’m probably wrong but…” with more direct phrases like “I have a question “or “my recommendation is…”
    • Be aware of my body language - I gesticulate with my hands a lot when I’m feeling under-confident, so have been known to sit on my hands to stop this!
    • Adapt my surroundings – small things like raising the height of the chair in meetings increases my confidence levels and others’ perception of me when I speak.
    • Appropriately use my power – I try to rely on ‘soft’ power, encouraging and influencing others to act aligned with my intent rather than relying on ‘hard’ authoritative power.
Ultimately, being mindful about your personal brand and building executive presence is ongoing work that requires commitment, patience and consistency. When cultivated properly, however, it can be a powerful force for personal success.

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