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10 Easy Tips For Building A Stronger Executive Presence At Work

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For the best part of corporate history, we’ve liked our bosses to be tough and charismatic. 

Expectations for this ‘control and command’-style of leadership were clear on both sides. As a manager, you were expected to be a benevolent arsehole who micromanaged their minions. As a worker, you'd reciprocate by doing as little as possible and being too helpless to take the initiative.  

Thankfully, things have changed a lot in the workspace. Aside from a few dinosaurs clinging on for dear life, most drill sergeant bosses have been replaced by slightly more enlightened managers. 

Nowadays, we prefer our leaders to be calm, confident, and steady. We still want them to be authoritative, but we also need them to be approachable, smooth and inspiring. This steadiness – or poise – would have been laughed at as pure kumbaya only thirty years ago. Yet, today it’s a vital skill for those who want to forge ahead in managerial positions. 

Poise and executive presence 

Combining charisma, groundedness and authority, poise is hard to define yet bleedingly obvious to point out once we spot it. Those who have it behave with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi – the workplace equivalent of the X-factor in showbiz. 

Poise is often defined as a type of equilibrium. The dictionary poetically refers to it as an ‘easy self-possessed assurance of manner’ and ‘gracious tact in coping or handling’. Lovely. 

Unfortunately though, along with ‘mucus’, ‘moist’, and ‘slaughter’, poise is right up there in the list of dreadful-sounding English words. The eggnog of leadership skills, poise does sound rather disgusting. Just like the ice cream flavour, though, you’ll want an extra scoop or two once you have a taste for it. To protect your ears and make myself sound a little cleverer, I’ll also refer to poise as ‘executive presence’ henceforth. 

In a work context, having poise/executive presence means purposely putting up a controlled and confident facade and doing it in such a way that others admire you. 

What’s behind that facade needs to be authentic of course. Having executive presence means being aware of your personal power and being comfortable enough in your skin to work with others rather than to dominate them. 

In a previous article on confidence, I referred to executive presence as a form of self-assurance which, as long as it’s matched by the correct verbal and non-verbal cues, will make people flock to you. If you put on a genuinely self-assured posture (as opposed to fake it ‘till you make it), people will often assign you a higher social status – even if you lack the actual competence. Yes, that means that even if you’re not particularly good at your job, people will buy into you as long as you genuinely believe you’re the bees’ knees. 

The verbal and non-verbal cues I’m referring to here relate to how you act, what you say, and how you look. In her 2014 book, Executive Presence: the missing link between merit and success, workplace expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett defines these as gravitas, communication, and appearance. 

To act with poise, all three need to be in alignment. 

Gravitas (how you act) 

The first set of verbal and non-verbal cues relates to how you act at work. Executive presence requires you to show attitude. Not by being a shitty office diva, but by showing up as inspiring, trustworthy, and capable. It means presenting yourself in a way that shows off your talents, knowledge, and skills without being boastful. Get that right, and boom! You have gravitas. 

People with gravitas are often seen as heavyweights in their domain because they demonstrate substance and authority with ease. Gravitas is also often referred to as 'grey hair', even though there's nothing ageist about it. It's a leadership quality that can be developed at any age if you master the following behaviours. 

Showing grace under fire 

People with gravitas are great at handling adversity. They keep a cool head and give off a vibe of somehow always being in control – especially in a crisis. They bounce back quickly and admit to their mistakes. And while age is not a barrier to showing grace under fire, having plenty of experience certainly helps. 

Being assertively decisive 

I've written at length about the benefits of assertiveness. Being assertive means getting clear about what you want and then asking for it. It requires you to be decisive but without being authoritarian or aggressive. People with gravitas are great at influencing because they negotiate for what they want rather than imposing their will. 

Speaking your truth 

Gravitas means being comfortable owning up to your views and having the courage to share them with others. It involves standing up for what you believe, even if it goes against the majority opinion. It also requires you to give honest and constructive feedback when asked for it. But rather than being annoying know-it-alls, those with gravitas make sure to pick their battles and carefully choose which opinion to push. 

Emotional intelligence

Being good at your job doesn't automatically make you a good people manager. Employees are often moved into leadership roles before they've developed the level of emotional intelligence necessary to manage other people. To have gravitas and executive presence, you need to inspire others and build positive relationships with them. Without having developed the required emotional intelligence, you'll never be able to pull that off. 

Strong personal branding

At the risk of sounding like a Pinterest quote, gravitas requires you to show up as 'your authentic self'. Not just a hyper-polished 'office you' who chews each word twenty times over and never has a hair out of place. The 'real you' who makes piggy noises while they laugh and whose husband farts loudly in the background while you're on a Zoom call. People are attracted if you have a strong self and a clear personal brand, even if your personality won't set a room on fire. 

Your husband's farts still might though.  

Communication (how you speak) 

People with poise have a way of talking that engages people and gets them to open up. Whether we like it or not, we're drawn to great orators. We want a piece of their passion and conviction, and often we kind of wish we had developed the same gift of the gob.

How we speak is often seen as more persuasive than what we're actually saying. Here are three critical components of communication that all good speakers have mastered. 

The sound of their voice

Given a choice, perhaps you'd have picked a different voice box than the one you were handed. But even if you don't like the sound of your voice, you can train yourself to make better use of it. If you squeak like a door handle in need of a spit of grease or if you've taken on Kim Kardashian's vocal fry, you probably picked up some lousy pitching and breathing habits. Time to invest in a voice coach who'll help you use your instrument a bit better. 

Commanding the room

People with executive presence are great at making excellent first impressions and connecting with their audience. They know that robotically bombarding people does not make them look authoritative. Instead, they've mastered the use of storytelling, anecdotes, small talk, and even a bit of humour. They don't use filler words such as 'like', 'okay', 'basically', 'right?' because it makes them sound like a Love Island reject rather than a thought leader. D'you know what I mean? 

Body language

Your body language is a direct reflection of how you feel inside. Research says only seven per cent of a message is conveyed through words, with 38 per cent dependent on your voice and the other 55 per cent on facial clues. Some easy rules to remember when speaking in public are to keep your head upright, stand in a relaxed manner, distribute your weight evenly, and use open hand gestures.  

Appearance (how you look) 

We all like to judge a book by its cover. Even if what's inside that book is worthy of a Booker Prize nomination, nobody will want to read it if the outside looks like a cheap Boones & Mills romantic novel. Unless that outside shows a bit of skin, in which case you'll probably have my attention. 

I'm being slightly facetious here, but when it comes to executive presence, your appearance does matter greatly. 

Dress for the occasion 

"The clothes maketh the man", said Mark Twain. "For without them, he is a cypher, a vacancy, a nobody, a nothing. There is no power without clothes." 

A notorious slob myself, I find this one hard to swallow. Yet, man, woman, or person, your appearance matters greatly in a work environment. Being polished and groomed for the occasion shows you're happy to comply with the organisation's codes. It also signifies consideration for the people you interact with. By making sure to look your best, you show how much it matters to look your best for them. 

Being fit

Beauty may well be in the eye of the beholder, but let's not ignore this sexy elephant in the room: attractiveness in the workplace comes at a premium. Indeed, according to Economics Professor David Hamermesh, beautiful people earn three to four per cent more than those with average or below-average looks. Luckily for most of us, it's not about looking like a model when it comes to executive presence. What matters more is that you present yourself as someone who takes excellent care of their health and feels comfortable in their skin. This sends a subliminal message that you have the strength and resilience you need in a leadership position. 


10 easy tips to build your executive presence 

Now that you have a better understanding of the unique ingredients that make up executive presence, here are a few straightforward tips for developing it. 

Tip #1: Use this formula to speak more persuasively

People with executive presence speak with precision, while those without it get lost in detail. Practise speaking more intentionally by following these four steps. Always start with a 1) brief but clear statement of your opinion. Then 2) support that view with facts and ideas, followed by 3) an example or an anecdote that illustrates your previous point. Now 4) close your argument by summarising it in one single sentence. This formula will give you a clear structure and stop you from boring people to death. 

Tip #2: Know how to move a conversation forward

Nothing worse than being on a call or in a meeting when half of the delegates have no idea why they’re there. Even if you don’t play a starring role in the call, you can still come with at least a couple of talking points. Decide beforehand which points you definitely want to make and how strongly you want to make them. Coming prepared will also make it easier for you to move the conversation forward or bring a discussion to a resolution. 

Tip #3: Take a stand

As explained earlier, people with executive presence are assertive. They’re also not afraid to take a stand, particularly on controversial matters. As a leader, you can’t come across as wishy-washy because it makes you look weak. Taking a stance doesn’t always involve choosing sides. Sometimes, it’s about making sure all sides feel heard. Other times, you may need to press the pause button or insist on gathering more information. Either way, don’t sit on your hands. 

Tip #4: Commit to what you communicate 

Always follow up on your commitments. You’ll be surprised how quickly you lose the respect of your team if you’re inconsistent – or worse – hypocritical. This is where authenticity comes in again. What you say and how you act always need to be in alignment. If you’re preaching the company’s values of integrity, trust and openness, you better damn well ensure you live by those values yourself. 

Tip #5: Practise thinking strategically 

Once you rise through the leadership ranks, your role will shift from an implementer to a visionary. If you have your eye on a future leadership position, begin practising those strategic skills now. Start by focusing on the why rather than the what or the when of anything you do. Consider the future two, five, or even twenty years from now. Get into the habit of listening, observing, collecting and then using all that information to form your own well-defined opinion.

Tip #6 Master your body language

Acting with executive presence requires you to communicate with confidence. The way you move your body is a crucial indicator of how you convey that confidence. Anchor yourself by imagining you have the roots of a tree and make your gestures bold when you speak. Avoid shuffling and jerky movements because they indicate nervousness. This is a meeting room, not nineties MTV. In her popular TED talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy, talks about how your body language shapes how you feel inside. You can actively change your internal dialogue by taking on a so-called power pose. Might want to do that in private though.  

Tip #7: Let your voice fill the room 

This is particularly important for those of us with soft and low voices. There’s nothing that undermines your presence and authority more than when people need to ask you to speak up every five minutes. If you’re in a meeting room, always talk at least 30 per cent louder than if you were speaking in a one-on-one situation. Even if you worry about being over the top, in all likelihood, you’re still not projecting your voice enough. Find a target object in the room to direct your voice to. When you give your voice an aim, you’ll project more naturally. Also, speak with enough clarity and volume to fill the entire room, as this will regulate your voice. 

Tip #8: Avoid voice boredom 

As a part-time voice-over artist, I’ve noticed something quite annoying. No matter how animated I think my voice sounds when I’m reading out a script, once I listen back to the recording, nine times out of ten, I sound like I double-dropped two valiums. Record yourself reading out loud and practise your pronunciation and intonation. Notice what happens to your voice when you add the slightest hint of a smile. Start working with some of these diaphragm exercises for teachers. If they help in getting the attention of little brats, they’ll more than likely work on your team members too. 

Tip #9: Crack a joke (but never at your own expense)

There’s a persistent myth in the corporate world that professionalism equals seriousness. But lightheartedness and humour allow leaders to show how humble, human, and clever they are. A bit of comedy shows confidence, although beware of underlying gender politics here. While the witticisms and off-the-cuff banter typical of men in the boardroom is often welcomed, research shows that the particular brand of self-deprecating humour women often use mostly falls flat in that environment. So, by all means, crack a joke, but do it at someone else’s expense.

Tip #10: You have two ears and only one mouth 

Being a good listener will be of greater value in your career than being a good talker. Instead of planning what you’re about to say next, genuinely pay attention to the other person when conversing. Listen and watch for clues using your intuition. Notice if you can pick up emotion or sense signals from the other person’s body language. See if you can gauge their energy and pick up on some of the things they’re not saying. 

Summary - Executive presence counts

Whether we like it or not, executive presence is often the missing link between merit and success. It really doesn’t matter how good you are at your job. Unless you exude authority in the way you act, people will not take you seriously as a leader. Likewise, unless you speak and move in a way that exudes self-belief and self-assurance, it’ll be hard for others to believe in you too.  

Fortunately, gravitas, communication skills and emotional intelligence are not personality traits. They’re all skills that can be built and practised throughout your professional life. 

And once you get them right, you’ll be just like a powerful eggnog ice lolly that everybody will want to nibble on.