Episode #5 - Your Leadership Persona and Executive Presence by Executive Coach Mary Lee Gannon for The Still Space Podcast
Leaders with executive presence build trust. Those they influence aspire to emulate them, becoming high performers, better salespeople, converted purchasers, more aligned, collaborative, and innovative. Executive presence is a persona that we project to others through our behavior. It is not mysterious. It is simply the manner in which we conduct ourselves – how we act (the way we speak, carry ourselves, body language, tone of voice, eye contact, listening, leadership) – and the way others perceive us. So, if we want more executive presence we must project more of an executive leadership persona. This focus on persona behavior instead of the expectations that go with an executive title demystifies executive presence. Think of a leader you admire. Their persona is unique to them. You want to know and develop the executive persona that is authentically unique to you.
After having spent 19+ years in CEO roles and 10+ years as a certified executive coach I am absolutely certain that leaders are identified by and qualified on their presence. Can people trust them? Are they competent? Will others relate to them? Can they influence? Will they be effective?
Promotions and hiring are based not as much on what leaders can do as they are on how they will do it. Will the culture stay engaged or will they take no prisoners in the process? Will people follow their lead? Or will there be disinterest or mutiny. Achievement is situational. Presence is sustainable. Executive presence affects retention, engagement, vision, strategy and everything else a leader is measured against.
Executive presence is driven internally – not externally. It isn’t something somebody teaches you, it is something you discover because you WANT to and are focused on to build your efficacy. It takes humility. It is easier with a coach fast-tracking you to that discovery. Coaches offer the third-party perspective – see what you cannot see and know how to help you see it with acceptance and a strategy to grow. You must be able to admit that you don’t have it all figured out but that you are willing to dig deeply to uncover what in you stands in the way. It takes emotional maturity and self-control.
Leaders with high executive presence also have high emotional intelligence – the awareness of and responsibility for the effect you have on others. They also have empathy to be able to step into the hearts and minds of others without judgment. It takes deep listening and intuition and curiosity without judgment to interpret what lies under the surface.
As we develop our self-awareness we begin to see how we project ourselves. Do we use the pause? Are we hurried in the pace of our speech? Do we notice the tone of our voice and vary the cadence to make a point? Do we notice the tone of our emails and other electronic communication? What is our image and appearance brand? Who do we admire and study?
Confident people project optimism and assurance that influences others to trust them. That trust draws people to them. People follow leaders with executive presence because they have convinced the masses that they know what to do and can succeed. They take action when others don’t.
Challenges to executive presence are not in a person’s ability to learn the behaviors, but in their ability to see themselves from a third-party perspective and like what they see, even if it is not what they yet want to see. I cannot underscore this enough. Those with great poise and presence don’t need to be right – they want to get it right. And sometimes that means that they don’t have it all figured out yet have the humility to admit that they want to grow. They can make space for self-observation. They know how to be with their discomfort without reacting to it. They can set a deliberate intention and follow it. And the more they refine this superpower the faster they can pull it off in a high stakes moment.
Charismatic leadership does not always make for sound executive presence. Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini were charismatic leaders who were liked at first and whose true character ultimately brought them down. Strong character is the backbone to great presence. Strong character carries with it the ability to speak up honestly without pretense. Strong leaders anticipate threats and opportunities and articulate expectations. They are open about what they sense in themselves so as to humanize process and build deep connection. Yet often leaders with good character do not make it to the executive office because they don’t have confidence. And often leaders without good character do because they have charisma.
Certainty is very important for executive presence. I see a lack of this often in people who have self-doubt. Be deliberate. No uptalk at the end of sentences. You either “had cereal for breakfast?” (almost asking for approval by raising your voice in question) or you “had cereal for breakfast.” Period. Say this out loud now both with uptalk and without so you know the difference.
The perfect match for the leader to prevail in high level roles for the long term is a purposeful persona grounded in executive presence underpinned by noble character – not shallow finesse.
Solid leaders encourage a sense of responsibility and commitment in employees by setting the example. They care about the development of their team. They reduce stress and let employees take more control.
Watch a TED talk of someone you respect and has great presence. At first you will notice the emotions that they exude – passion, confidence, joy. You’ll likely notice their values – honesty, diversity, family. Look again and discover the behavior that is behind their poise – their eye and brow movements, the turn of their head, the pause, the way they move from the podium, speech cadence, hand movements, a power pose, how their eyes scan the audience. These are not traits but behaviors.
To build presence we start with a self-awareness and acceptance of our emotions (good and bad), an awareness of the people we are with, an ability to self-regulate our emotions in the moment and then focus on the behavior we will project. It is deliberate. It is purposeful. And it becomes habitual.
If we don’t have a vision for our authentic leadership persona and continually invite feedback on it, we leave our persona to chance. We have accidental careers. Highly effective leaders do not do this. They have defined their true north.