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Executive Presence: Three practices to believe you deserve to be in charge.

Updated: Feb 21, 2022

Have you ever been told that you need to show more confidence, or exhibit more gravitas? This type of vague feedback is often symptomatic of a lack of executive presence. So what is executive presence anyway, and why is it important?

In her book, “EP,” leading researcher Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes executive presence as an amalgam of qualities, centered around confidence and gravitas, that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be. So why is it important to project this je ne sais quoi of executive presence to advance your leadership career? Because if you want to be a leader, you have to get people to follow you. Not because of your position, or title, but because of how you make them feel. Executive presence is about the experience people have of us--how we are perceived by others. People want to follow leaders that are competent, trustworthy and authentic. Leaders who are calm in a crises, and who have a compelling vision that connects to a higher purpose.

Being able to inspire and energize a team is a quality of executive presence, and its kinda my brand. While the need to project more energy--to be an energy donator--is something many introverted scientific leaders struggle with, this has never been my problem. Quite the opposite actually. I project very high energy. I've been described as "a tsunami of energy," and "like walking out of a dark movie theater on a sunny day. At first you are overwhelmed and disoriented, but then you just bask in the warm glow." While all of this feedback was extremely positive, every strength exaggerated is a weakness. What wasn't positive was feedback I received from a senior leader (in a meeting of 30+ people) commenting on my style as being "overly-energetic." Ouch. While high energy is a key ingredient to rallying a company around a big audacious goal, it may not be the right tool in another context. In this situation, my high energy wasn't the right response and my style was viewed as unprofessional, or lacking gravitas.

Gravitas is defined as a dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner. If you've ever met me, these are probably not the first adjectives that come to mind. I'm loud, I'm opinionated, and I laugh a lot (loudly). And sometimes my language is not fit for sensitive ears. But I have learned to cultivate my own brand of gravitas. I talk less in meetings than I used to, and I work very hard to speak last (but this is a continuing challenge for me). I come correct--I know my stuff, I ask better questions, and listen more closely to the answers. So while I'm still me, I used this feedback as an opportunity to build gravitas by moderating my energy and better match it to the business need, audience and context.

While your journey will be your own, there are some common practices you can implement to improve the inner work of developing executive presence--"feeling the part." You can find great advice here, and here on looking and sounding the part. Paradoxically, looking and sounding the part will go a long way to helping you feel the part as well, so check out those links and the follow these three practices for developing self-awareness, self-management, authentic confidence, and gravitas.

  1. Get feedback: I can't stress this enough. While it was painful to be called out in front of my peers as "overly energetic," the point was made and I learned from it. You can't get better if you don't know where you're starting. And remember, advice from the great Marshall Goldsmith, the only appropriate response to feedback is, "Thank you for the feedback." Full stop.

  2. Mind your mindset: Your mindset is controlled by your thought habits, and your thought habits are controlled by your beliefs. Check out this great overview of a growth mindset vs. a fixed mindset. I think of my mindset as the stories I tell myself. Want a better mindset? Tell yourself better stories. I ask, "Am I telling myself empowering stories?" "How does this story serve me?"

  3. Challenge limiting beliefs: A belief is a feeling of certainty about something. Beliefs are shaped by our experiences and the stories we tell ourselves about these experiences (see #2). Limiting beliefs are challenging because they look like "reality" a lot of the time. This can be especially hard for women and visible minorities who have faced real discrimination in the workplace. I'm not asking you to gaslight yourself, but instead, work on reframing limiting beliefs to change your thought patterns and change your mindset. Beliefs control your thoughts, and thoughts feed the stories we tell ourselves. Better stories require better thoughts, which often require us to challenge our limiting beliefs.

This journey of self-reflection and inquiry will improve all aspects of being a leader, including the self-awareness, self-management, confidence and gravitas needed for executive presence. If you are consistent and persistent in these practices, you'll be owning the room in no time.

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