Executive Presence Is a Top Priority for Leadership

High-potential and leadership programs are a top priority as companies focus on succession planning and the development of future leaders. And, as companies define skill gaps, Executive Presence has become a hot topic and an urgent priority.

While it is a part of every assessment and curriculum, many development managers struggle with what it is and how to build it into a leadership program. The concept of Executive Presence is not a new one. People have talked about the aura of leaders and the need for leaders to have presence for some time. But the gap is wider because future leaders just haven’t followed the same development paths or had the same mentoring opportunities their predecessors had.

Presence isn’t something you give yourself. It’s something you earn from those around you who respect your right to speak and your ability to lead. Some have called it an “earned authority.” It is a combination of behaviors and attitudes that present a sense of confidence, competence, commitment, and authenticity.

Although we’ve coached presence for thirty years, we were intrigued to understand the impact of presence within an organization and to gather perspective through a lens other than our own. So we commissioned a survey on Executive Presence with nearly 400 CEOs, C-level executives, corporate communications executives, and professional development managers. The results were confirming and surprising.

We found them confirming in that senior executives see presence as an essential part of their job. In fact, 89 percent of survey respondents believe that presence helps you get ahead. All of the executives interviewed believe presence can be a differentiator. And 78 percent say a lack of presence will hold you back.

Why? Because while many struggle to define it, everyone agrees presence is easy to spot. Presence fits a person like a well-cut suit. People who have presence fill a room and command attention as if they simply have a right to be there.

Surprisingly, 98 percent of the executives also admitted that their skills were not innate. That’s surprising because most development managers are quick to say that future leaders either have this trait or they don’t. While they definitely value the impact of presence, development managers are skeptical about whether or not it can really be developed.

In fact, the gaps in perspective were highlighted when we asked senior executives and development managers for the most effective ways to develop presence. Executives leaned heavily on three concepts:

1. Observation: 70 percent of the executives observed presence early in their careers.
2. Coaching: 65 percent of executives say executive coaching can help a leader develop presence. Only 20
percent of the development managers believe this.
3. Training: 55 percent of executives say that leadership programs are a great way to develop presence; only 33
percent of those who run these programs believe this.

All of the executives we interviewed said they were aware of the impact of different leaders in their organizations and they made note of what set them apart. All of the survey participants felt they had worked on their own presence, and approximately 35 percent thought they could benefit from more work. Most said they think intentionally about how they need to come across, and they work hard to deliver an authentic, succinct, and relevant message. In fact, they believe their ability to do so can calm unsettled issues, inspire unfocused employees,
and convince skeptical audiences.

This strong buy-in to presence by the C-suite explains why senior executives need to be involved in developing presence in others. Some companies do this by rotating a portion of the curriculum among senior leaders; others use executives to set the tone for a program and to offer feedback at the completion of it. Executive participation also speaks to what future leaders really want out of leadership programs, and that’s exposure. Many rising stars believe that if they get exposure to the senior management team, they can create their own fast track and their own potential. The personal stories we heard through our research suggest this may well be true.

We recommend three key elements for a program or curriculum on Executive Presence:

Assessment: Presence is about perception, and the critical starting point for any future leader is to have a clear understanding of how he/she is perceived. Feedback and evaluation set the stage for where you are today and where you need to be in the future. It’s also the acid test for feedback. The executives we interviewed said feedback was an important part of their own development. They were open to it and sought it frequently.

Core Skills: There are fundamental skills of presence tied to how you use your body and voice. Every future leader needs to know how to develop and deliver thoughts with confidence and conviction. Our research defined key attributes of presence and revealed that these skills can be developed and fine-tuned in any individual.

Coaching and Practice: Ultimately, it takes practice to turn initial impressions into lasting ones. Many structured programs use a case study or simulation to give future leaders an opportunity to apply skills to a business situation. This is the point at which existing leaders are willing to engage and support the program with feedback. Coaching
ensures that this high-profile exercise is a high exposure and high payoff for future leaders.

Ultimately, these three ingredients help future leaders develop skills for immediate success and long-term results.

According to senior executives, Executive Presence is a priority because it’s one of the leadership traits that can’t be supported by anyone else. When you step into the C-suite of an organization, you go from being a specialist in an area to being a generalist. Your messages broaden, your audiences expand, and you have to engage and influence every one of them.

We’re here when you need us!