A 3-Part Formula for Boosting Executive Presence

May 2020
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We hear a lot about “executive presence” these days, and I’ve always found the topic a bit murky — so many definitions, so many practitioners. 

So I was excited to have the opportunity recently to work with an expert on the subject: Brooke Vuckovic, an executive leadership coach and clinical professor of leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Vuckovic asked me to help transform her intensive three-hour executive presence workshop into a brisk 45-minute seminar. I learned a lot in the process, and invited her to share some of her insights here in an interview.

First off, what exactly is executive presence?

Executive presence is derived from a combination of qualities that communicate to others that you are “in charge” (or deserve to be). It’s not a measure of actual performance, but of how you’re perceived.

Can we control those perceptions?

Absolutely. Through behaviors and words, we have the opportunity to telegraph to others that we “have what it takes,” whether it’s to make tough decisions or to earn a seat at the table. 

How do you know whether you “have it” or not?

Clients often come to me because they’re told by someone (usually their boss): “You need to work on your executive presence.” That’s not very helpful — what do you do with that advice? 

Even if you don’t receive that kind of direct feedback, a possible indicator is when you find that your career is stalled — maybe your peers are consistently being promoted over you or you have trouble being heard in the workplace. 

How do you go about fixing it?

It’s not necessarily a quick fix. It goes beyond the tactical steps we often hear about the firmness of your handshake or “dressing for success.” Achieving true executive presence can involve fundamental changes to how we carry ourselves and relate to others. 

And how do you make those deeper changes? 

After years of studying all the factors that go into executive presence, I’ve reduced it to three basic elements: credibility, ease and ego. We can take specific steps to move the dial in each of those areas.

Let’s tackle them in turn. What goes into projecting credibility? 

First, expertise is the ticket for entry. You have to focus on getting good at something before you worry about looking good to others. 

Great point! Assuming that you have the expertise, what should you focus on? 

Much of credibility is centered on the voice. And that starts with inflection. A study of call center operators showed that one of the biggest keys to customer satisfaction was the amount of inflection, or variety, in the customer rep’s voice. A flat monotone, on the other hand, signals detachment and disinterest, impeding your ability to connect.

Speed is another important factor. When we rush through our words, we drain our credibility. A slower pace and occasional pauses lend authority.

What about pitch? 

Yes! Too often, women are advised to artificially lower their voices. But what it’s really about is vocal power and breath support. When you are able to maintain strong vocal power, you typically are perceived as carrying more authority — as opposed to a wispy or cracking voice, which conveys stress and discomfort.

And there are voice coaches who can help with that. Beyond vocal quality, what else goes into credibility?  

Excessive fillers (“like,” “um,” “OK”), diminishers (“just,” “know what I mean?”) and qualifiers (“sort of,” “I believe”) can severely undermine your authority.

And then there’s fidgeting — playing with your hair, stroking your beard, fiddling with a ring or pen, jiggling your foot — all of those are distracting and disempowering. 

So how do we work on these issues?  

I assess the client’s issues and have them “practice when it doesn’t matter” — around the house or with their office door closed. Recording yourself on video is another good way to identify your weaknesses and monitor progress. 

Moving on, what goes into ease?

A major factor is emotional agility. Do you react impulsively from a “hot” state or can you “unhook” yourself from negative emotions? It’s about exhibiting grace under fire.

It’s also about “congruence” — do your words and expressions match the occasion? Finally, another key is connection — being truly “there” for the other person, as demonstrated by eye contact and empathy, for example.

How do you work on projecting ease?

There’s a great quote from Bruce Lee: “Under duress, we do not rise to our expectations; we fall to the level of our training.” So practice is important. Getting to a place where you have “comfort with discomfort.”

That involves recognizing your triggers, tuning in to your physical senses (like a clenched jaw or a flushed face) and learning to “unhook” yourself in times of stress. Taking risks can also help. And it turns out that any risk will do — as long as it’s legal and ethical! The idea is training yourself to sit with and work through discomfort.

Finally, there’s ego. How do you manage that?

Ego is about striking just the right balance in your demeanor. You have true confidence — not too hot and not too cold. You don’t “puff yourself up” or diminish yourself, physically or verbally. You’re open and patient. You listen instead of talking over people or cutting them off.

Getting to that place takes introspection and feedback. For me, ego is best summarized in a favorite quote from C.S. Lewis: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.”

How can people get more help?

Obviously, we’ve just scratched the surface. In my workshops and coaching, we dive deep, score people on these different factors and plug it all into a formula I’ve developed: credibility + ease ÷ ego. 

But to learn more, people can start with this cheat sheet I’ve developed at this link.

Thank you, Brooke! These are great tips for helping anyone connect and communicate more successfully.

photo credit: martin barraud

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