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Executive Presence: What Is It, and How Do I Get It?

I was attending the national meeting for the American Medical Association Alliance, Confluence, a fitting title. There were hundreds of members from across the country, each of us Presidents-Elect for our local chapters, gathered one cold and dreary February afternoon at the posh Drake Hotel overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago. I was excited to represent […]

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Heidi Dulebohn

I was attending the national meeting for the American Medical Association Alliance, Confluence, a fitting title. There were hundreds of members from across the country, each of us Presidents-Elect for our local chapters, gathered one cold and dreary February afternoon at the posh Drake Hotel overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago. I was excited to represent my group, and I was especially looking forward to the opening session, a luncheon to hear the National President welcome us.

We were seated in a gilded ballroom at tables of 10, all of us well turned-out. I wore the best outfit I owned, trying to be respectful to the organization, my chapter, and in tune with the three-day meeting’s semi-formal atmosphere. I scrutinized the room and thought I looked pretty good; I was young but holding my own in this esteemed group.

Soon, the organization’s Executive Director, an older woman who’d held the post for four decades, and projected an air of absolute authority, summoned our attention from the head table. Our President’s flight was late. She would join us directly from the airport, not even stopping to check into her room.

The ED told us to chat among ourselves as we waited. So, we made polite small talk, which became loud and more boisterous as time stretched on for nearly an hour. We grew hungry and bored.

All eyes on Patty

Suddenly, the elaborate ballroom doors opened and in floated the most incredible woman I’d ever seen. Her shiny hair bounced like waves on the ocean, her magnificent coat — oh that coat — billowed above the floor. The cacophony in the ballroom faded to total silence.

The newcomer strode briskly past the attendees. Heads turned, wide eyes followed as she glided toward the head table. Was that fairy dust sparkling in her wake? She tossed off that fabulous coat like it was nothing, ready to get down to business. The coat’s absence revealed the most stunning, perfect for the occasion outfit ever, and yes, it was expertly tailored. Who in the world was this person?

Her name was Patty, our President, a pharmacist from South Dakota. She immediately addressed our group without sitting down, and her voice, demeanor, her presence was captivating. She was funny and apologetic as she regaled us with her travel woes getting to Chicago. She was enchanting as she told us about herself, and energizing and motivating as she told us her ideas for our organization. She reminded us why our mission is vital and how we could succeed, and she encouraged us to reach beyond our expectations; we could be or do anything.

Her flight delays left her no time to prep, primp, or perfect, but she didn’t need it. She easily commanded the entire room. She empathized with our mutually busy lives and told us how she balanced her own. We learned her plans to galvanize our membership initiatives, which had waned in recent years. We laughed, we cried, we fell in love with Patty. Through the gates of hell, you say? We were ready to march.

I was mesmerized. Afterwards I remember looking down at my outfit thinking, “Why the heck did I wear this dumb thing? I’ll burn it when I get home, and I need to use bigger words. Be funny! Why aren’t I funny?” I wasn’t sure what it was about Patty that was so enthralling, but I knew I wanted it, big time.

It’s not magic, it’s EP

Today, I know that Patty has exceptional executive presence, or EP. She’s a great example of that “it” factor that’s hard to put your finger on, but we know it when we see it. In her book, “EP,” leading researcher Sylvia Ann Hewlett said that executive presence is “an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be.” As a leader you want that, and you need it. You won’t get far in your career without it. Luckily, you don’t have to be born with EP. It’s something you can learn and earn.

In her book, “Executive Presence,” and her extensive research while at the Center for Talent Innovation, CTI (now Coqual), Sylvia Ann Hewlett broke EP into three areas; gravitas, communication, and appearance. The three dimensions are not equal in importance, but one of the first steps to build EP is to understand what these three areas entail. Then take inventory. What qualities do you have, and which do you need to gain?

For instance, gravitas is fundamental. In her book, Hewitt wrote that 67 percent of your EP depends on it, and Patty has serious gravitas. She was cool under pressure, flying in late for a meeting she worked for months to plan, organize, and execute. It was her most crucial moment as National President, yet she handled being late with grace.

Her message was also on point. Patty was able to show teeth by addressing our group’s shortcomings. She spoke truth to power by hitting our membership shortcomings head-on with brutal honesty and integrity, yet she left us inspired, not defeated. She empathized with our busy lives, understood our challenges and shared some of hers. I dare say Patty’s emotional intelligence is as off the chart as her charisma.

Communication is also paramount to executive presence. Hewitt said it makes up 28 percent. In our example, Patty spoke clearly and confidently, she commanded the room, but she also read it. She interjected just the right amount of humor, and her tale of traveling through a South Dakota blizzard to get to us had her audience in stitches. Patty also delivered serious material competently in the right tone. She told us what we needed to hear, but respectfully.

Patty’s body language was also memorable. From her glide across the ballroom floor, to the flippant flick of her coat, to how she stood, tall and proud, yet leaning in at times, warm and infectious. When she spoke, we were spellbound because the culmination of these traits and skills, words, and actions is confidence. Confidence is almost always attractive.

Appearance is the least essential aspect of EP, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Hewitt’s research shows that while it’s only five percent of EP, appearance is the “filter through which gravitas and communication skills were evaluated.” Basically, if you don’t have the right look, you won’t get out of the gates, let alone win the race. You won’t be considered for top-level positions without the proper appearance, despite having considerable gravitas and excellent communication skills.

Fortunately, being nicely put-together and well-groomed is more important than being physically attractive. Although it doesn’t hurt; neither does being fit and slim. The other aspects of good appearance include wearing well-fitting and appropriate attire. The old saying, “Dress for the job you want,” is always a good idea.

When I think of Patty’s appearance that frigid day in February, wind howling off Lake Michigan, she seemed to emanate warmth. She obviously made an effort with her appearance, but she made it look effortless. Her five percent was spot-on.

How is your executive presence?

How do you act, talk, and look? Do you have gravitas? Are you calm in the face of adversity? Do you act with integrity? Can you speak truth to power with respect, and be tough when needed? How’s your emotional intelligence? Are you empathetic toward others? If you can answer yes to all of these questions, you’re well on your way to great EP. If not, decide which areas you will begin to work on first.

Are you a good communicator? Your body language can speak volumes before you’ve said a single word. Check it out, then begin to talk. Do you speak with confidence? Can you command the room? How about a little levity? Do you have good posture? Do you know when to add humor? Can you read a room? These skills are essential to good communication.

How is your appearance? Again, you don’t have to be a great beauty to be attractive. But it’s vital that you dress well and appropriately, that you are neat and groomed, and that you present yourself with confidence. You’ve heard about inner beauty. But be mindful of your appearance and remember, fair or not, your ticket to the next level may depend on others’ perceptions of how you look.

It takes the total package. Be honest with yourself as you assess which qualities you may have or need to gain to exude executive presence. Listen to what your friends and colleagues say about you, and take action.

Begin the hard work; it’s worth it. Remember, you cannot reach the highest levels in your career without EP. If necessary, consider engaging an executive coach to help you with any area of gravitas, communication or appearance you need to achieve your goals.

Looking back, I don’t believe Patty was a great, physical beauty. It was her presence that made her extraordinary. She likely wasn’t born with EP. She worked and honed her skills, and so can you. With a bit of effort and the right coaching you too can be like Patty. However, I can’t guarantee you’ll find that fabulous coat.

This piece was originally published in Management Matters.

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