Lipstick on a Pig? 10 Ways to Improve Your “Executive Presence”

When I work with senior managers on their development plans, or facilitate talent review meetings, one of the most frequently mentioned development needs is a thing called “executive presence”, or “leadership presence”.

“Presence” is one of those mysterious leadership competencies, and is a label that’s often used to describe a myriad of behaviors, including image, confidence, command skills, influence, high impact communication, authenticity, and yes, even a firm handshake.

A CEO once described it to me as “when they speak in the boardroom, do people listen? Can they command a room”?

It’s a competency that becomes increasingly important the higher a leader moves up in an organization. It’s less important for a working supervisor; critical for a CEO.

While putting a label on it and being able to describe what it looks like (and what it doesn’t) certainly helps, knowing how to improve it is even harder.

Fear not, it’s not impossible. Presence is not something babies are born with, it’s not some latent gene that comes alive when promoted. While it’s one of the harder leadership competencies to develop, it can be done.

It’s taken me a while, through trial and error, to come up with solid development actions to address this need. So if you aspire to be an executive, or already are and have been told you are lacking presence, here are 10 things you can pick from for your development plan:

1. Get feedback. And don’t just ask anyone, because presence is often defined differently. Find out from those that are making promotional decisions, either directly or indirectly, what it means and what it looks like. Every company culture is different. I mentioned the CEO example – his definition may not be perfect, but it certainly described what he was looking for.
Your friendly neighborhood HR Director or VP will often have valuable insight in this area, and would be glad to tell you in a tactful way what it is and how you stack up.
And by the way – when you ask for feedback, be prepared to listen. See 18 Tips for Receiving Feedback.

2. Get advice. Knowing where you stand against the target is important; so is getting advice on what to do differently. Your manager, mentor, HR pro, or trusted colleagues are all sources of advice.

3. Observe role models. Start paying attention to those that look and act the part. Watch how they conduct themselves, and see if there are things you can pick up.

4. Hire an executive coach. External executive coaches are often used to help prepare high potential leaders to get ready for or transition into senior positions, and are often called on to assist with presence.

5. Take a presentations skills course. A lot of leadership presence has to do with forceful presentation skills. Giving good presentations is a known technology, and there are several workshops you can take, including:
– Blessing White’s Leading Out Loud
– Communispond’s Executive Presentation Skills
Dale Carnegie has a number of programs
– Join your local Toastmaster’s

6. Take a media training course. While learning how to deal with the media is something only the highest ranking executives will need to learn, you can use the same techniques to improve how you field tough questions thrown at you in the board room.
There are also executive presentation and media training coaches, sort of a combination of 4,5,and 6.

7. Hire an image consultant. This is a resource and industry I’ve only recently become familiar with. I was asked to find help for a rising senior manager that needs a bit of a “makeover”. After some research, it turns out there’s actually an Association for Image Consultants International that provides professional certification and a consultant directly. Who knew? Although I haven’t quite figured out how to make the referral… wish me luck on this one.

8. Take acting lessons. I’m serious. There’s a company called The Ariel Group that uses techniques developed and honed in the performing arts to help business leaders develop leadership presence. The programs are all are led by facilitators from theater backgrounds. Many of the leading university based executive education programs use them.

9. Learn how to lead meetings. Meetings are where we “show up” as a leader. Like presentation skills, there’s a science to meeting management that can be learned. And honing your meeting leadership skills helps you become a better meeting participant. Ask a skilled trainer to teach you “facilitation” (how to lead a discussion) skills.

10. Read. I’ve listed this last, because it’s probably one of the least effective development methods for improving leadership presence, but when combined with others, sure can help. Looks for books on leadership, presentation skills, and biographies of role model leaders.

Are there other ways to improve leadership presence? Please comment with your ideas.