Do you have executive presence? Have you heard of it?
Executive presence describes a set of soft skills an effective and beloved leader has. And you don't have to lead a Fortune 500 company, or even any team, to benefit from displaying it.
I spent ten years as an executive recruiter. When interviewing candidates, a good recruiter is surgical about extracting the details of someone's tangible experiences and accomplishments. But the other big piece of the interview process is determining whether the candidate has the presence required for the role.
You can be brilliant at coding, scheduling, graphic designing, social media marketing, writing, creating Excel spreadsheets, writing legal briefs, etc.
But if you don't have a strong professional presence, you won't be called on to grow into more interesting opportunities. People won't trust you enough to hire or promote you.
Strong executive presence, at its core, inspires confidence. The client is confident that you as their lawyer won't embarrass them in the courtroom. Your potential coaching client sees that you are adept interpersonally, and probably know a thing or two. Your Instagram grows because people trust what you're saying.
Here are a few ways to improve your presence:
1. Keep your heart open. This is a literal physical posture. Are you stooped over, protecting your heart chakra? (This often happens if you went through tough stuff as a kid and never addressed it). You don't have to have stiff, super formal posture. But taking a deep breath and standing or sitting up straight opens your heart, makes it more likely you'll speak with compassion instead of defensiveness, and makes you appear more trustworthy.
2. Speak deliberately. This often means - speak way more slowly! A lot of people have a habit of talking a lot when they're nervous. Be concise. You'll stand out if you choose your words judiciously and listen more than you speak. It's also important to speak from your navel. What does this mean? Think about people who speak from the head - the pitch is high, breathy, and the words don't really land. Now envision speaking from the navel. Words come out with more confidence and authority.
3. Read the room. It's not a betrayal of your authentic self to match the pace and tone those around you are displaying. Rather, it's polite - and it shows you have range. If you have a very soft-spoken client, you might not want to barge in like a bull in a china shop. Or maybe you do, because you're trying to shake her up in a productive way - but at least be intentional about what you're doing. Dignity is not dead. Executive presence can be a little old school in the best way. Push in your chair, sit with dignity, hold the door open for the person behind you, walk with poise.
4. Stay calm under pressure. This is when presence is most important. In stressful times, practice becoming even more aware of how you conduct yourself. It's not that you don't need to move with urgency. But how disciplined can you stay around not nervously babbling, not lashing out at others, not freaking out and creating a lot of busy work? Executive presence is tested under pressure - and others won't forget how you handle yourself.
5. Appearance matters. I understand the urge to bristle against this one, because a lot of the expectations around what “professional” looks like demean women and people of color. It's not so much that you have to conform to someone else's strict dress code - although you might, if your job is important to you and your goal is not to draw negative attention to yourself. It's more about making an effort. Making an effort is a gift. It's an act of kindness. It says: I care enough about you that I brushed my hair for this. Or I put on my most favorite, outlandish thrift store jacket that adds a little beauty and intrigue to a drab beige world. Again, it's not about conformity. It's about effort.
Sometimes, executive presence means lightening up. Formality is not always the vibe.
But in an overly casual world, those who retain a little poise and dignity will stand out in the best possible way.
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