"Kristi spoke on Presentation Skills for our annual OPEN Forum and not only was the room completely full, but each participant...complimented Kristi and us on a very well planned and highly motivational session. Kristi is smart, articulate and engages her audience in a way we have seldom seen other speakers do. She is extremely energetic, inspiring and very knowledgeable about the subject matter."

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OPEN Silicon Valley

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Coach's Notebook: Executive Presence for Leaders

(posted: May 13th, 2024)



Owning the room.

The IT Factor.

Executive presence.

We all know it when we see it, the leader whose people will do anything for her, the man at the gathering that draws people like moths to a flame. But what is executive presence? Are people born with it? Is it just conferred upon you along with a leadership title?

In part it's your ability to project 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 leaders. It’s also an ability to align, motivate, and inspire others, especially during times of organizational change and uncertainty.

Some people may be born with presence, but most have to cultivate it. Executive presence develops out of a collection of skills and abilities, and you can consciously choose to build yours.

The good news is, these are skills that support becoming a great leader in general!

I recommend finding an accountability partner or a coach to help you stay focused and to keep you clear as you work on building these skills, as it helps to have some candid feedback on your progress.

We'll dive into the ways you can build your presence in a moment, but first, let's talk about the Four C's.

What are the Four C's?

These are four traits that are foundational for the leadership skills you want to develop, supporting and enabling them, and at the same time enhancing your leadership presence. So, what are they?

  • Competence
  • Confidence
  • Credibility
  • Courage

In a nutshell, strong Competence...
Leads to increased Confidence...
Which supports your Credibility...
And that leads to Courage.

When your Four C's are strong you can show up as your true, vulnerable self in the office, in meetings, and elsewhere. You'll see that elements of the Four C's show up in the suggestions below.

5 Ways to Build Your Presence

#1 Trust & Connection
It is surprising and frustrating to learn, especially when you are new to leadership, that your title only gets you obedience or loyalty if you're lucky. Winning hearts and minds requires demonstrating that you are someone others want to trust and follow.

People need to feel comfortable enough about your motives and credibility to invest in you as a person. The more trust, the larger the investment. Without trust you'll have suspicious, anxious employees who do the bare minimum.

Trust is built by nurturing connections with people, being vulnerable and approachable, while still clearly being competent as well. When you show your humanity along with your power or authority, others will connect to you. It's the combination that creates great presence.

Try this exercise to understand what makes a great boss, or colleague:

First, think of who has been influential in your career: Bosses, peers, colleagues, mentors. Which of them would you work with again, if given the opportunity?

List five qualities to describe them.

Now, divide those qualities into two categories: “competence” or “connection”. Competence refers to the hard skills, such as intellect or functional expertise. Connection refers to social skills, like emotional intelligence, empathy or shared values.

Finally, what is the ratio of Competence to Connection? Do you find that Connection is more prevalent? Most of us do.

I like to say that the greatest gift you can give is your attention.

#2 Listening Skills
Listen to people. The best communication is based on listening, not talking. The best communicator isn't the most articulate person; it's the one who pays attention so that others know they've been heard.

  • Be intentional in how you communicate, be curious when you are in conversations
  • Really listen. Don't interrupt or tune out. Don't be in your head preparing your reply while they are talking.
  • Acknowledge other people's issues. People want to know that you heard them. Listen without offering a solution, unless they explicitly ask you to.
  • Ask questions to get more information, but avoid "why" questions; they tend to put people on the defensive.
  • When needed, rephrase and repeat what has just been said. "So what I'm hearing is..."
  • Make sure your goal is to learn rather than to be right.
  • Listen for what is not said. Read between the spoken words, listen for the emotional component.

When you are in conversation, take a moment, as Peter Bregman says, to "notice the difference between speaking to connect and speaking to make yourself look and feel important."

Until people feel heard, they will fight to be heard. But once they are heard, there is little left to fight for, and then we can move on, no conflict, not us vs. them, simply, US. Listen in a way that conveys trust and curiosity.

#3 Presentation Skills
Look for opportunities to hone your presentation skills. As an executive you'll need to speak in public, for practical purposes and to inspire or persuade. Your public speaking skills also can be seen as an indicator of your ability to handle pressure.

  • Always hone and clarify your message before presenting.
  • Keep it short and concise.
  • Tell stories to illustrate your points and to hook your audience's emotions.
  • Use your gestures, body language, and voice appropriately.
  • Practice and rehearse until you are relaxed and natural with your presentation.
  • Practice the Q&A portion, since your ability to think on your feet helps project confidence.

#4 Smile
Nearly all professionals need to smile more. It's the easiest way to have a more gracious, approachable presence. Body language and mood have a circular effect, so not only does a positive intention create positive body language, but the reverse is true as well. Smiling helps to solidify a positive intention.

This is the easiest nonverbal strategy to implement, and if you enjoy what you do, it often comes naturally.

Here are some reasons why you should smile more to build your 4C's:

  • It triggers the reward center of your brain which boosts your mood and confidence.
  • It reduces stress.
  • People naturally mimic facial expressions so when you smile, your audience is likely to smile as well.

#5 Your Leadership Voice
Identify your unique voice as a leader. How you act and react when difficult decisions have to be made or when the pressure is high. Your presence may be gregarious, warm, and effusive, or it can be quiet, calm, and composed. What matters is that it is genuinely based in your strengths. What are you good at? Where do you shine?

In addition, keep in mind the concept of "emotional contagion." We can make people feel good or bad by something as simple as a gesture, an expression, a word, or a smile. Like the common cold, emotions are contagious.

Caroline Bartel at NY University studied 70 work groups across a variety of industries and found that people who worked together ended up sharing moods, good and bad. Moods converge. The good news is that positive moods are just as contagious as negative moods.

This is particularly important for leaders -- they set and spread the mood. If the boss is in a bad mood, conflicts increase. If she's in a good mood, people lighten up. Positive moods improve cooperation, decrease conflict and increase performance.

Executive Presence is a Skill You CAN Master

Executive presence is a characteristic that we expect in the best leaders, and it plays into the hiring and promotion process for senior executives and C-level positions in all organizations.

Presence has always been seen as a mysterious, intangible trait that people either have or they don't.

But now you know the secret: Executive presence is a set of skills that you can learn and practice!

Challenge Yourself
  • Who do you know (not a celebrity) with executive presence? How have you experienced that presence?
  • Does your current boss exhibit executive presence? Why or why not?
  • What might change for you if you developed your executive presence?

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