Building a Strong Executive Presence: A Bolder Leader’s Guide

“Executive presence then is the leadership currency
that creates the conditions for results and long-term success.”
― Clara Conti

As an Executive Coach and someone who has been on a long journey to understand what it means to “own the room” as a speaker, I’ve learned a few things about what true Executive Presence is – and isn’t. Executive presence isn’t about checking boxes, pretending to be something we’re not in the name of putting on a good front. Executive presence isn’t strictly about our unique body language – for congruence between our nonverbal cues and inner worlds are key. Most importantly, executive presence isn’t just a buzzword – it is a vital tool that can make or break a leader’s ability to inspire and support those who follow us.

So, how to get there?

Understanding Executive Presence

“People are felt rather than seen after the first few minutes.”
― John Steinbeck

The first thing to embody (no pun intended) in executive presence is the “presence” part. Without question, those of us who are fully present can draw people in, unlike those of us whose thoughts and actions dart in all directions. Presence is literally where it’s at.

When it comes to being present in an “executive” way, this simply boils down to being as at ease in our skins as possible. Merely maintaining eye contact won’t cut it if our knees are knocking from fear. In a similar vein, having just the “right” words won’t help if our voice is trembling or shouting. Overall, then, executive presence means having a strong sense of presence within ourselves.

Executive Presence

In more specific terms, though, executive presence can be difficult to understand. It isn’t a single leadership trait, but a collection of behaviors that result in our ability to instill confidence in others. This includes both the tangible (the physical) and intangible (the emotional and intellectual) aspects of leadership. Leaders need to demonstrate confidence, poise, and general leadership competency, while also embodying ethical and emotionally intelligent behavior. Of course, appearance also plays an important role here: dressing professionally and appropriately helps us establish and maintain high credibility, which in turn lends itself to stronger executive presence.

The complexity of executive presence has created many misconceptions, but the most common that I’ve encountered is the sense that it is a matter of style over substance. Some of us tend to put a great deal of emphasis on the outward image of confidence and professionalism, usually based on dated and highly prescriptive leadership models. This often results in our trying to emulate other successful leaders, trying to adapt to our image of leadership rather than build one of our own.

Yet true executive presence needs to be built around our own unique personality and level of self-confidence. Otherwise, we can be seen as inauthentic and untrustworthy in our team’s eyes.

What Executive Presence Looks Like Now

While executive presence has always been important for business leaders, it is arguably more valuable than ever since the near-constant disruptions of the past few years. With many workers feeling disconnected from their organizations, the need for us as leaders to renew our efforts to rebuild these relationships is higher than ever. A strong executive presence can go a long way here, helping us serve as an example for our team and inspiring them to commit even more to their own growth, thereby also benefitting the organization. Approaching executive presence in this way requires a major change in mindset, however. While the core concepts of executive presence haven’t necessarily changed since the pandemic began, the specifics of how they are expressed in the modern workplace are still in flux and likely will continue to change.

For instance, as remote and hybrid work increasingly become the norm, we leaders need to adjust our communication approach and online image to build a strong online presence. From investing in a better microphone to making careful decisions based on remote teams’ varied schedules and preferences, there are many steps that we can take to strengthen our executive presence in the face of this new digital work environment. There are also several trends that have taken on heightened importance among workers, particularly diversity and emotional well-being.

Executive Presence in the Post-Pandemic Future 

“…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

A lot has changed in the working world over the past few years and more shifts will probably come, but one thing that remains constant is the importance of strong leadership. Executive presence is just one element that makes up one’s overall leadership style, but it is something that has the most immediate impact on those around us. When cultivated and leveraged effectively, our executive presence will serve as a vital leadership tool, encouraging employee engagement and empowering teams to meet and exceed organizational goals.

Just remember that for our executive presence to truly shine through, it must be authentic and built upon our own unique leadership style. After all, there are many leaders with a strong executive presence, but only you can be you. And thank goodness, because the world needs all of our unique personalities and takes on leadership to help make this a better place.

Stepping Up to Ownership: Why It Goes Hand-in-Hand with Bolder Leadership

Stepping Up to Ownership: Why It Goes Hand-in-Hand with Bolder Leadership

A sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organization can have.”
– Pat Summitt

  • He made a mistake, but he didn’t think it was his fault. He points the finger at someone else.
  • Months after being assigned the lead on a major project…results are lacking. Why? She wasn’t given a clear enough vision.
  • That challenge retaining employees for any length of time? “Nothing much we can do…it’s a sign of the times.”

Any number of us may have encountered any of the above scenarios at any given time throughout our careers. And while I’m surely not naming any names here (although I am pointing a finger at myself), we may have even been “guilty” of dropping the ball in our own ways at one time or another.

What’s wrong with that? You might ask. Well, nothing…if we are ok with not creating much impact in our companies, with not making much of a difference in the world, or with less-than-productive relationships.

But if impact, making a difference, and collaborative relationships are important to us as leaders (and, big hint here, they should be!), then we need to take a stronger step toward ownership of what it is we want to create.

Leaders, Make the Choice to Take Ownership

To ring in 2023, I wrote about the Power of Choice in Bolder Leadership.

This year, let’s take the concept of choice a bit deeper.

Let’s talk Ownership.

“Ownership is the essence of leadership.
When you are ridiculously in charge, then you own whatever happens in a company.”
– Henry Cloud

It’s said that ownership is leadership. After all, in leadership, we are owning our power to create our visions and to inspire others to do the same. Each of us has the power of choice. This means we must fully choose our outcomes – owning every step of the process.

The Dilemma of Ownership in Leadership

The biggest recurring intended outcome for the Top Team workshops I orchestrate is drumming up greater ownership of the results.

Identifying ownership as an important outcome is all fine and well, but how do we get there?

Perhaps the easiest way to describe what ownership looks like is to define what it isn’t:

Ownership is not about:

  • falling into the “It’s not my job” or “That isn’t my responsibility”
  • passing the buck to someone else to avoid being accountable.
  • talking the talk, but not walking it.
  • Waiting for someone else to rescue us. (This one has been my personal favorite – lol.)

Ownership as a concept is not complicated.

This statement from Infoglen via LinkedIn sums it up:

“Ownership … means being accountable, taking responsibility, being decisive, solving problems, delegating, not playing the blame game and basically, taking charge.

There are core concepts that make up ownership – and any of us can benefit from incorporating them throughout our lives and leadership.

The 3 Basics of Taking Ownership

Let’s start with 3 basics that can help us – or anyone we lead – become a master of taking ownership.

“The success of a vision is determined by its ownership by both the leader and the people.”
– John C. Maxwell

  1. Clarity. It’s impossible to truly take ownership of anything if a clear vision is lacking. Whether we have a strategic vision we’re working on or we’re focused on amping up our leadership, we’ve got to have a purpose and to know what it is.

As Stephen Covey suggests, “Start with the end in mind.”

And while we may have heard this before too, it bears mentioning again:

What’s our WHY?

Developing a clear purpose benefits us in so many ways. It can help:

  • Inspire us to stay focused on what’s important
  • Jump back on track when we’ve fallen off course
  • Set intentions that help support accountability
  • Empower smart, mindful choice-making
  • Save time and energy by avoiding pitfalls

The deeper we can get down on the “why” scale, the better. For example, if we have a mindset focused on “getting ahead,” we’re far less likely to take true ownership in our leadership. Why? (No pun intended here!) Because in that case our “why” lacks meaning. The more meaning for us – and our teams – the greater the ownership. In this case, then, making a difference or being of service are far more likely to engender ownership than merely wanting to get promoted ever could.

That’s one reason why so many of my Top Team workshops and leadership develop programs emphasize meaning: when we feel emotionally tied to the outcome, most of us will move mountains to make it happen.

  1. Accountability‘s definition, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.” Sounds simple enough, right? A Forbes article adds to that definition, “…regardless of the situation or how fair it seems.

Unfairness – or my perception of it – is certainly a value which can set off my hot buttons in a heartbeat. And, if you’re like me, then you might also be tempted to use this occurrence as an excuse to deflect accountability. That’s when the seemingly modest definition above can seem anything but.

To that end, here are some helpful pointers to cultivate accountability in the workplace:

  • First, ask what does accountability look like for us personally? And to those on our team?
  • Second, consider how we can role model accountability to others around us.
  • Third, once we’ve defined what we want accountability to look like, encourage honest feedback from the team. Part of that includes facing those times when we ourselves fall short of our own ideals.

Lastly, it seems important to outline here the points that demonstrate to others that we fully own what we’re doing and are committed to accountability.

BOLDER Tip: We can leverage our network to deepen our practice of accountability. Doing so is the infusion of support and inspiration helpful to all of us. It’s one of the 8 steps to expand our leadership development (read more about that here).

Taking Ownership is a BOLDER Leadership Move

  1. BOLDNESS! Yep, there’s that word again.

Boldness doesn’t necessarily mean “fearless.” Fear pops up for all of us much of the time. That’s part of our human journey.  So, when we can accept our fears as part of being humans, thank them for wanting to protect us (they have their positive intention, after all!), and invite them to step to the side because this time around, we are trying a different approach, they tend to subside.

In fact, if our fear is of making mistakes, we can be comforted in knowing that mistakes are an important part of learning. Without our blunders along the way, we would likely not be as wise as we are today.

Moreover, ownership is what gives our leadership ship a stronger gust of wind so that we not only learn from our missteps, but we also get to our destination faster and more effectively.

When we can look at it in this way, we can also see Ownership as where it’s at.

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