Donna had attended a leadership retreat, and the feedback from her peers and the facilitator was that she needed to work on executive presence. before they start their careers. Typically, people who have executive presence exude self-assurance, composure, and influence. They intuitively know how to bond with others. What’s more, they develop their individual strengths and are comfortable with their authentic self.
I noticed very early on that Donna gave very little eye contact, yet her voice was confident and unwavering. Her lack of eye contact in our first meeting left me wondering what impact this may have on others. We discussed what Donna’s definition of executive presence was.
“I know my contribution to the organization is highly appreciated and valued. My boss advised me to develop my executive presence to further my career path in the company.”
I asked Donna, “What would you like to get out of the coaching?”
I sensed that Donna had self-confidence, and she transmitted this through a strong sense of authority, albeit without charisma. I shared a definition of executive presence from author and leadership expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett. “Executive presence is something what you signal to the world, you transmit to the world.” According to Sylvia, developing this skill in leadership is not impossible, as much of it is very learnable.
“How are you signalling executive presence?”
“By being the best at what I do.”
“What does that look like, being the best at what you do?”
“Always showing up, always being in control, not letting anyone too near me.”
“What energy does that exude?”
Being conscious of your energy and its impact and making sure you are aware of people and that people are aware of you are all aspects of executive presence. The hitch is that women seldom do something without feeling 100 per cent assured. So, I asked Donna, “Think about the leader you admire. What does he or she do to radiate executive presence?”
She paused again and reflected for a moment.
“Isabelle, my old boss, she was authentic. She always looked at me when she shook my hand, and she put her other hand on my arm. I felt the warmth and care from her.” Donna was touched when recounting her story. “But she also gave me authentic feedback. She did not try to save me from the truth. Somehow, I did not mind. I trusted her judgement. I felt safe.”
“Is that what you would like to exhibit as a leader?” I asked.
“Yes. And I realize I am not doing enough of it. I recognize that for my team to be bold, I need to let them know I am there. I need to let them know that I have their backs, and I have to create the right environment for that.”
We looked at ways in which Donna could show more executive presence: punctuated practice, regular reflective moments, journaling, asking for feedback from trusted colleagues. And over time, the more she practised, the more easily it became part of her. She had to do the work to see the change.