Annual Roundup: Executive Presence

The first theme in the 2014 Round-Up, “Executive Presence,” is not a new topic this year (in fact, I reference it even here, in my highly sporadic blog). One’s executive presence, or lack thereof, is a combination of qualities that conveys to others that you are in charge (or can be/deserve to be). Executive presence is not a measure of performance or merit; it’s a measure of whether your performance and merit is telegraphed to others—whether your behavior and words signal that you have what it takes to make the tough decision, sit in the board room, take on the tough client, etc.

Because this area comes up so frequently in coaching, this past year I designed a new workshop (recently rolled out at Kellogg) entitled “Executive Presence: Deconstructing Gravitas.” I chose the word “deconstructing” because being told, or telling someone, that they need to “develop executive presence” is about as helpful as telling a writer that they need to “be more clear.”  The response? “Um. Ok…how do I do that?” The feedback must be deconstructed to be helpful.

The upshot? Executive presence is an equation involving credibility, ease, and ego:


Though I cannot condense hours of teaching into a simple blog post, I do want to offer a few solid resources that support exploration in each of these areas.

Credibility: I assume deep and broad experience and subject matter expertise in the executives I work with. If you (or those you are leading) do not have that—it is where you must begin.  Expertise is the entry ticket to the party–it’s what earns you the right to be concerned about communicating that expertise out. Once you have that, here are some easy-to-access resources on communicating expertise with credibility:

  • Leadership Presence by Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern has an excellent series of exercises that discuss voice, story and emotion and their role in effective presentations—(works for “ease” category as well)
  • Second City has a series of very popular classes for corporate audiences to refine their presentation skills. (note: Chicago local)
  • I frequently refer folks who need to work on this intensely to Turpin Communication, Speaker’s Choice, or the work of Rob Biesenbach.

Ease: Ease is a measure that combines the qualities of “grace under fire,” congruence, authenticity, and connection with others. There is so much interesting work in this field (and I will cover much more when discussing emotional agility in a later post). To get you started:

  • Exercise and sleep are among the most well-established interventions for overall physical and mental health—both of which are key for regulating stress, anxiety and reactivity–and developing “grace under fire.” If you need any convincing, read Spark by James Ratey, MD (Harvard). Another classic in the field is “The Making of the Corporate Athlete
  • Own the Room by Amy Jen Su and Muriel Wilkins—focuses on connection with other people and developing signature “style” with one’s presence

Ego:  Remember that Ego is the divisor in this equation. Reflect: what happens to your quotient when you divide a number by zero or a negative number? Answer: The quotient is zero or negative. We don’t want that; so, too low of an ego is a problem.

On the other hand, if you’re “over-ego’d” and have a very high number as a divisor, it cuts into your quotient as well. When working on ego issues, I like to call to mind Aristotle’s “golden mean” of “proper pride” (from book two of Nicomachean Ethics for those of you so inclined). You are going for a “+1” here—in other words, you believe you have something to bring to the table, but you also believe that others have something to bring too.

For those who need to tame outsized egos, see Robert Sutton (Stanford), The No A**holes Rule (2010) and “More Trouble than They’re Worth” (HBR 2004). I am also a huge fan of the classic Porras Article, “Level Five Leadership: The Triumph of Humility and Fierce Resolve.”

For those needing to amp up their ego from zero or a negative number, see:

My hope is that these resources are helpful to you and those you lead. Enjoy!

Next up in our 2014 Round Up: Attentional Overwhelm.


Annual Roundup

At the end of every year, I do a personal and professional step-back. Part of this process is hardwired, as I routinely do an “annual review” with clients and have led a half-day reflection retreat every December for the past five years. In order to prepare and to do those activities with integrity, I evaluate my own life and business as well.

From a business perspective, part of this process is identifying themes that have popped up again and again with clients. These, in turn, help me to see shifts in the workplace and how they are impacting the lives of executives. The topics then represent areas of additional research and teaching so I can best serve my clients.

For 2014, client engagements touched on a wide variety of topics, but three top themes appeared again and again:

1)   Executive Presence

2)   Time Management and Dealing with Overwhelm/Overload

3)   Emotional Agility

In the coming weeks, I will address each of these areas, sharing resources that my clients found helpful as they made progress in these arenas.  My hope is that this series will be helpful to you as you do your own “step back” and development planning this year.


Executive Presence and “Power Posing”

My favorite research when I’m helping clients develop “Executive Presence” comes from Amy Cuddy (social psychologist at Harvard Business School). Amy focuses on the non-verbal aspects of presence and impression setting. Happily, the crux of her most recent research is now presented in an engaging 20 minute TED Talk, so you don’t even have to read her articles (though her work is fascinating and her life story is truly inspiring). See her TED Talk here.

Cuddy’s research is helpful for those of us who are not usually the Alphas in the room and/or are routinely dealing with social settings where someone else holds most of the power–e.g. when presenting to a large, more senior group that has evaluative role; when job interviewing; when pitching an idea to an unknown client. Even if you consider yourself a huge alpha in almost any setting, think of Prof Cuddy’s research as something you can share with those who work with or for you to help them develop their own confidence and “presence.” (I use it w/ my daughters too, but you’re on your own there…)

Watch the talk and give power posing a try for two minutes to see how it changes you.