Whether you call it leadership presence or executive presence, it’s a term that’s being discussed widely at companies. One recruiting professional I know said presence is the second-most-sought-after characteristic on his evaluation scorecard for candidates. It’s a business “it” factor, equally powerful whether you’re a CEO, a company employee or a small-business owner. In fact, companies are routinely hiring experts to cultivate presence in their executives, wrote Joann Lublin of The Wall Street Journal.
But what exactly is it? And how on earth does one get it?
First, let’s talk about what presence is not. It’s not about unabashed confidence, power postures or innate charisma. It’s not about a group of stylistic traits or a set of powerful gestures and sustained eye contact. That’s where so many communications trainers who teach presence skills go wrong. They’re not only providing poor advice — they’re having the wrong conversation entirely.
Presence isn’t a set of tricks to convince an audience that you’re powerful. Presence is honest and authentic. I define it as the ability to connect with others and to inspire them.
Those with presence make others feel more than after an exchange versus less than.
Think about the people who’ve inspired you. I doubt it was because they exuded charisma. More likely, they inspired you because of their trustworthiness, empathy and competency. These people were authentic. They listened to you, and they reached out and connected with you. In turn, you performed better for them because you felt nurtured and respected.
Like many things in life, you know presence when you see it in others. It’s harder to find it in ourselves because we’re our harshest critics and can easily form destructive thoughts about our abilities. Plus, we get scant feedback on personal attributes like presence. We’re often flying blind.
The good news is when you understand what presence is about, you realize you can work on your own. Anyone can develop presence — even if they’re not a extrovert who loves to work a room. In my book, “The Power of Presence,” I outline a model I’ve used with scores of executives. It’s a practical guide to developing presence the sustainable way — from the inside out — by focusing on three areas.
- Intention. Know what type of presence you want to demonstrate and the values you want to convey. Your thoughts show up in your body language and in your actions. And science shows that humans are reading them — usually unconsciously — at all times. Knowing the reaction you desire before you say your first word will increase your effectiveness fivefold.
- Individual. It’s tempting to strive for perfection. But beware. You can be powerful, but you still need to be a real person. Perfection is more likely to alienate than draw others to you. You might have perfect oratory skills, deliver impeccable work and have the focus of a laser. But people have to be able to relate to you on a human level, or you’ll never win their trust. Successful leaders are approachable. Instead of trying to be the best, focus on getting the best out of others by cultivating empathy and trust. Remember, people don’t pay attention to what you say. They remember how you made them feel. It’s these connections that drive loyalty and success.
- Inspiration. A leader’s job is not to inform, but to inspire. Your goal is to motivate and move others to action. You have multiple opportunities every day to encourage changes and innovation, be it during meetings, at presentations or in one-on-one conversations. Every conversation a leader has that fails to inspire others is a wasted opportunity. Don’t let that happen to you.
Developing a strong leadership presence is a pay-it-forward proposition. When you inspire others you both reap rewards, creating momentum that carries on indefinitely.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, a speaker and the author of “The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others.” She is a Forbes contributor and writes about leadership @kristihedges and KristiHedges.com.
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