If you ask a group of managers who aspire to the C-suite what it takes to get there, they'll invariably mention executive presence, but they aren't always so clear about what it means. Not too long ago I conducted a series of off-the-record interviews with senior executives responsible for executive placement in their organizations. I asked them about the "make or break" factors they consider in making C-suite promotion decisions. Executive presence was one of the handful of decision criteria they cited, but even these experienced executives struggled to define what it is and why one person has it and another doesn't. In an increasingly diverse world where senior executives are no longer all 6 foot 2 inch tall males who look they were sent from central casting, what does it take to create a commanding executive presence? The right clothes? A firm handshake? Those matter, but they don't tell the whole story.
Although executive presence is highly intuitive and difficult to pin down, it ultimately boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team. If that's the nub of the issue, what style, what behaviors combine to signal that level of self-confidence to others? For some answers consider three talented managers — two of whom didn't make it to the executive level and one who did.
Every manager would love to have a Frank Simmons on his or her management team. Experienced, results oriented, collaborative, and committed to the company, Frank showed up on succession lists for a number of years — but was never promoted. Although a top performer in his area, Frank always looked a little rumpled and his posture was a bit hunched. When he made presentations to the executive team, he was invariably well-prepared, but his lack of comfort was evident in his body language. Normally highly articulate, his presentations were long-winded and rambling. In the Q&A portion of his presentations, he tended to be overly deferential to members of the executive team, and he was hesitant to insert himself into the conversation when the executives got into a debate. As one senior executive said privately, "Frank's an incredible asset to the company, but I just can't envision putting him in front of a customer."
Alicia Wallace was a highly-trained marketing manager who had succeeded in every assignment she'd had. However, when it came time to select high-potential people for promotion to more senior levels, she always missed the cut. As much as the senior marketing executives liked and respected her, they were never quite comfortable moving her to the next level. The reason: her apparent disorganization. People would talk about "Alicia being Alicia" when she arrived late to yet another meeting: rushed, harried, and with her files askew. Was this trivial and petty? Perhaps, but on a visceral level it caused senior people to question her "bandwidth" to manage a larger staff and maintain the necessary focus on implementing key priorities.
If you entered a room filled with twenty managers, Lydia Taylor, a member of the legal department, wouldn't stand out — but that would change once the dialogue started. Although soft spoken and not terribly aggressive, she was highly respected by her peers as well as the executives with whom she worked. Lydia possessed outstanding listening skills and had an unerring sense of when to enter the conversation to make her point. Unrushed, straightforward, and unflappable, she maintained her calm, even demeanor when others got emotional, and she used her dry sense of humor to defuse difficult situations. When challenged by others, she stood her ground in a firm, non-confrontational way. Although highly supportive of her internal customers, she was prepared to put her foot down if anyone advocated a position that might put the company at risk. As a result, Lydia was identified as a top candidate and groomed to succeed the company's General Counsel.
The age-old question is whether executive presence can be developed? The answer is yes — if you have a baseline of self-confidence and a willingness to deal with the unpredictable situations that go with the territory at the executive level. Start by addressing the basics. Find a couple of trusted people who will give you unvarnished feedback about your dress and grooming and the level of self-confidence you project. As noted, dress and grooming aren't the whole deal, but major problems can create an impediment. One highly talented female manager was privately described by her peers as dressing like a "school marm" while others said a hard-charging manager came off like a "used car salesman." The connotations aren't flattering nor are they insignificant. People tend not to trust a used car salesman, and school marms aren't typically thought of as creative and risk taking, two qualities central to leading innovation and change at the executive level.
Look for opportunities to hone your presentation skills. Not only is public speaking an important executive requirement, but your ability to "stand and deliver" to an executive group or large audience is frequently viewed as an indicator of your ability to handle pressure. Rehearse major presentation until you can come off as relaxed and in command, and pay special attention to the Q&A portion since your poise when questioned and ability to think on your feet help you project a sense of self-confidence.
Most important, find your voice as an executive: that is, identify your assets and leverage them to the hilt. Some people are naturally gregarious and can fill a room with their personality. Others, like Lydia Taylor, rely on their listening ability, sense of timing, and ability to maintain their composure when others get emotional. In an increasingly diverse world, executive presence will look very different from one executive to another. However, the constant is building the confidence of others that you can step up as a leader when times get tough.