“Executive presence” has been a buzzword lately in our executive coaching sessions and workshops. Sylvia Ann Hewlett wrote the book on it, outlining 3 pillars of executive presence. In Episode #58 of our Executive Leadership Podcast, Chris and Perry share their insights on these 3 pillars, warning of potential pitfalls to your executive presence that must be avoided.
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Welcome to the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast, where our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, increase your ability to influence others, and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell facilitator and coach. And I’m Chris Goede, Vice President of the John Maxwell Company. Welcome and thank you for joining. Just as a quick reminder, if you’d like to learn more about the 5 Levels of Leadership or bring a 5 Levels workshop to your organization, please go to johnmaxwellcompany.com/podcast and, while you’re there, if you have a comment or question for Perry and me, we’d love for you to leave it there.
Well, today’s topic is titled “You May Have Presence, But Is It Executive Presence?” I really liked the sound of this. It comes up a lot in our coaching work. More and more, I’m noticing that the leaders we coach are asking about the topic of executive presence.They want it, but I’m not sure they know what exactly it is or how to get it. I think it’s something that every leader should possess, and I don’t think you need to wait till you get to the C suite to think about executive presence. And I think some of the things that we’re going to cover today will kind of lead to the fact that it’s important for every one of us as a leader to have this type of presence. Executive presence is how you are viewed when you come in a room, how you interact with people more senior than you and people at your level. It can be a game changer in how people see you.
There are many great resources on the topic. I know I’ve really enjoyed Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. There’s some great information there. She says there that executive presence rests on three pillars: how you act (what she calls “gravitas”), how you speak, and how you look. I can see this in myself and others. Sometimes I’ve heard it said, “Oh, well he or she just has the ‘it factor.'” What we’re going to talk about today is more than just having “it.” It’s a learned behavior that hopefully, through this podcast and other resources, you’ll be able to develop. We want to teach you how to align your behavior with the three pillars above. In doing so, you will build trust with your people.
One of our facilitators gives a great example of executive presence. They said, “The most effective leader, the one that probably has the most powerful executive presence, is the leader that walks into the room, and when they leave, although they probably were the smartest person in the room, and they probably had the most executive presence, I feel smarter. I feel like I have a better executive presence.”
So, the first pillar that Sylvia Ann Hewlett talks about is “gravitas.” It’s a really interesting word. If you’re not familiar, what it means is having an air of dignity or seriousness. The word gravity is associated with heaviness; gravitas means you carry weight. When you come in the room, you’re noticed. And I love that. When you come into a room, and you know your stuff, if somebody rejects what you’re saying or disagrees with you, you’re not rattled. You stand strong. You don’t have to think you’re right, but you can defend yourself because you’ve got self-confidence and a bit of a grace under fire. I love that. If things start falling apart around you, you don’t even flinch. Another quality of executive presence is you don’t mind “showing your teeth” when making a decision. Other qualities are integrity, emotional intelligence, good reputation–those types of things. With all this in mind, we’d like to get into what gets in the ways of these characteristics.
What can derail you from exhibiting strong, executive presence? When you talk about gravitas, there’s a couple of things that come to mind that could derail a leader from achieving that. A big risk is making others uncomfortable. I want to make sure everyone knows we’re not talking about inflating our ego or being a bully. You might have the “it” factor, but you don’t need to walk in and tell everybody you have the it factor! It should just come across. How many time have you been around a leader and you’re thinking, “I didn’t ask how you made the watch. I just asked you what time it is.” You can derail your gravitas by talking too much or about the wrong topics.
Another way to derail executive presence is blaming others. “Sorry, we missed our number. It was my sales team over here.” We can’t pass the buck. Lastly, the final risk we like to talk about is just being distant. Like we said, when you’re in the room, people should be able to feel it. Another big risk factor and kind of the opposite of the last one is inappropriate behavior. Unfortunately, we see this come up over and over and over again lately in the news. One of the fastest ways for you to lose your entire team’s trust is to display some type of inappropriate behavior. This includes inappropriate humor. This is an easy way to lose your team’s trust and distance yourself from them. I once had it written on my wall that “it’s okay to be humorous, but without folly.” People appreciate humor, but not folly. Don’t be silly or inappropriate.
That was the first pillar: how you act, or “gravitas.” The second pillar is about how you communicate. We’ve already touched on this a bit. We mentioned talking too much. The most effective communication is concise and compelling. So, if you’re talking about things that are meaningful, and you are concise with your words, you can command a room. Remember to facilitate, or read the room. You should know if you’re being received well, and if you’re not, you know to stop, slow down, or change directions, because you’re reading and everybody’s on their cell phone! Be assertive in your communication. Again, sense of humor comes up. People love that. But, again, make sure it’s appropriate. A big part of communication is body language. How do you present yourself in the room? Like we said, don’t appear distant. Be sure you’re standing with good posture, you’re making good eye contact, and you’re paying attention to what you’re doing with your hands. When you walk into a room, you’ve got gravitas, and people will notice. What I want our listeners to be thinking about is that when we say “walk into a room,” you could be going in to talk to your team, you could be going in to have a one-on-one conversation. When you go into that room, no matter how many people are there, these lessons apply.
You mentioned cell phones earlier. All of us have smart phones and devices and all kinds of gadgets with us everywhere. Constantly checking your device is a huge way to derail your executive presence. We’ve all been in meetings before where you wonder whether someone is even paying attention in a meeting, whether they’re “checking their email” on their laptop or they’re on Facebook. It doesn’t feel good to wonder that, especially when you’re the one presenting in the meeting. So, we need to make sure that we’re in the moment. When John walks into a room, whether it’s 1 person, whether it’s 5, 500, or 5,000, he has the innate ability to make it feel like he’s talking directly to you. So, how do you have conversations with people to where they feel like they’re the only person in the room? How do we get that executive presence? Again, these are learned skills that maybe we’ve got to work on to improve our communication. I was just leading a session recently on the topic of “Good Leaders Ask Great Questions.” John connects with people in the audience by asking great questions and being interactive at an individual level. He draws people in with his eye contact, with his voice, with his questions. It really does make you feel like he’s speaking straight to you.
Pillar number three is about appearance. It’s the third and perhaps the least important, but your appearance is the first aspect about yourself that is noticed. When you walk into a room, whether you’re entering a team meeting or the C suite, people will notice your appearance right away. So, how you look can either jumpstart or derail your gravitas. While your appearance should not make or break your success, it is worth it to make sure you are groomed and polished. Have you taken a moment to put yourself together? Do you clothes fit right? Do you carry yourself well? Are you slumped over? Are you shuffling your feet? Is that dress appropriate for the audience you’re going to see? I know so many people are showing up to events today in blue jeans and sport coats. I actually love that, but I’m not sure it’s appropriate for all audiences. Consider that what you wear becomes your personal brand. If you’re a brand, what do you want people to think when they see you?
As we move towards the end of this podcast, we want to share some final suggestions on how to work on your executive presence. Number one: it’s always good to have feedback from those you trust. John talks a lot about having an inner circle. You should feel open to asking your inner circle if they feel like you have executive presence. If not, ask them what you are missing. Additionally, maybe you have a coach or mentor, just like we provide here at The John Maxwell Company. You can ask them, “Hey, how do I improve my executive presence?” Don’t be afraid to ask that question. Lastly, just make sure you have humility. None of this will happen over night. It takes time and intentionality to develop it.
Thank you for your great insights, Chris, and just a reminder for our listeners: if you’d like to learn more about this topic or the 5 Levels of Leadership, or look into having a 5 Levels workshop at your location, you can always learn more about that on our website at johnmaxwellcompany.com/podcast. We always enjoy hearing from you ,and we always enjoy having you listen along to our podcasts. Thank you very much. This has been the John Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast.
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