Do you have it? Can you command the room? Do people stop and listen when you speak? If so, you have likely mastered the illusive art of “executive presence,” a term that’s been buzzing around leadership circles recently. If not, you may be in for a rude awakening.
According to a new study by the Centre for Talent Innovation, a non-profit research organisation in New York, being perceived as leadership material is essential to being promoted into leadership positions. In fact, the 268 senior executives surveyed said “executive presence” counts for 26% of what it takes to get promoted.
So what is executive presence? The ability to project gravitas–confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness—seems to be its core characteristic, according to more than two-thirds of the executives surveyed. Furthermore, communication—including speaking skills, assertiveness and the ability to read an audience or situation—and appearance contribute to a person’s perceived executive presence.
Communications expert Karen Friedman says oftentimes people who exhibit executive presence exude a “wow factor,” or magnetism, and are able to easily influence others. They often speak up, use strong and clear language, communicate with passion and energy, and display positive body language by standing tall, making eye contact, offering a firm handshake and using an authoritative tone of voice. Moreover, nearly 60% of the executives surveyed said sounding uneducated negatively impacts the way others perceive you.
Appearance represents just a small part of it, but those surveyed said major mistakes in appearance can be detrimental. More than three-quarters said unkempt attire detracts from both men and women’s executive presence, and among women specifically, 73% said too-tight or provocative clothing undercuts it.
The study authors say the findings offer new insight into why fewer women make it to the C-suite. Women and racial minorities were found to struggle more with executive presence, likely because corporate culture has long been a bastion of white men. Some 56% of minority-race professionals feel they are held to a stricter code, compared to 31% of white professionals. Meanwhile, women said feedback on executive presence is often contradictory and confusing, which may be why a whopping 81% say they’re unclear about how to act on it.
John Beeson, principal of management consulting firm Beeson Consulting, says executive presence can be developed “if you have a baseline of self-confidence and a willingness to deal with unpredictable situations” that come with executive leadership responsibilities. He recommends asking two or three people you trust to offer honest feedback; looking for opportunities to hone your presentation skills, as public speaking is an important executive requirement; and finding your executive voice, meaning identifying your communication assets—like listening, thinking and speaking on your feet, or maintaining composure—and leveraging them.
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