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Executive Presence: Critical to Your Success

Why Executive Presence is Critical to Your Success

How do you show up as a leader? How well do you connect with groups or individuals? How do other people perceive you?

Often, the answers to those questions are tied to your executive presence.

We may know that piece of information intuitively, but some recent research backs up this notion.

In a recent coaching study of large organizations, over half the organizations selected executive presence as a primary coaching need for leaders. It came in 2nd behind leadership development as a reason organizations hire coaches for their managers and directors.  According to the survey, 57% of organizations that hire coaches, and nearly 40% of coaches identify presence as “one of two top purposes for their coaching.”  (Baldoni, 2015; Asmus, 2013)

In addition, in the Harvard Business Review report, “The Sponsor Effect,” 52% of men and 45% of women surveyed said they believed "looking and acting like a C-suite executive" rather than qualifications contributed to promotions to senior management positions (van Paassen, 2013).

In another study of 268 senior executives, "executive presence" counts for 26% of what individuals need to get promoted into leadership positions (Goudreau, 2012).

These numbers stress the importance of executive presence to an individual leader or potential leader. This need extends to their businesses, their organizations and their employees.

In Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence,  Daniel Goleman states that "roughly 50-70% of how employees perceive their organization's climate is attributable to the actions and behaviors of their leader. A leader creates the environment that determines people's moods at the office and their mood, in turn, affects their productivity and level of engagement.”

We have looked at some of the compelling research about why executive presence is important. Now, let's look at how it all works.

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How Executive Presence Affects Others

Leadership and acceptance of authority are not only a function our title or how we dress. They depend on who we are, how we show up, and how we are able to connect with other people.

At the heart of winning people over is integrity and doing what you say you will do. However, trust and winning people over depend almost entirely on other people’s emotions.  Your body, your own emotions and your language affect the level of trust and how other react to you.

Brain research shows that people cannot make decisions of any kind unless their emotions are involved. I won’t go into the whole process, but people with injuries or disease that breaks the connection between the neo-cortex, the center of thinking activity, and the amygdala, the small part of the brain that controls emotions, cannot make decisions.

For example, individuals with brain damage of this type can have extensive information about what car they want to purchase. They can know gas mileage, resale value, performance, repair records and color but they can’t reach a decision if they cannot determine how they feel about each of those factors.

Decisions about how to react to other people also depend on emotions. One's emotions determine  willingness to accept someone as a friend, a leader, a politician, and obviously a lover.

In this Toolkit, we will focus on physical presence and how it affects a leader — how perceptions of a leader's presence color emotions and determine a leader's whether others perceive him as competence, capable and powerful.

Typically, before participating in an important discussion or presentation, we think about what we will say, but I suggest that what our bodies say is just as important. My goal is to convince you to think seriously about what your body is saying and help you use your body and voice with intention.

I have been amazed at the number of times in my coaching conversations that clients, both men and women, have expressed concern about how they can motivate people or gain the authority or power they need to do their jobs. In other situations, they show too much power and limit their ability to gain trust and interact productively.

People decide if you are competent in milliseconds. They decide if they are going to like you, to follow you or even to love you. They decide if you are powerful or if you lack power.

As leaders, it is important to consider how you demonstrate or do not demonstrate power or executive presence. Think for a minute about your own presence:

  • Do people who observe you believe you are in control? Do people accept your authority?
  • Do they see you as a leader, a trusty sidekick, a doormat, a tornado?
  • Do you exude confidence? Do you come on too strong?
  • Do you show respect? Are you able to generate respect in yourself?
  • Are you able to connect with your audience of one or one thousand?

One research study indicated that what you say about attitudes and emotions accounts for as little as 7% of what people come away with. Your body may account for the rest. When you talk about other topics, the percentages are different, but your body conveys much more than we may want to believe. In the same study, results indicated that if your body and language are not aligned, people tend to believe your body rather than your words. If they are not aligned, people also do not trust what you say.

We already know much of this.  Even other mammals use and recognize different body dispositions.

We grew up learning different physical cues and what they mean. We understand and use the body language of power, but we may not know we know it. We learn how to show respect and how to take charge. We learn that one body language is open to connection and another shows decisiveness. We learn that one physical stance is shows confidence and another is cold and uncaring. And, we begin to master only a few of the many body dispositions available to us.

We may unconsciously recognize body language in others and not in ourselves. We also learn what physical body others expect us to assume.

I have been surprised at the number of times I have coached leaders in large and small organizations who were giving off the wrong signals.

Possibly the most obvious example of this was an executive I once worked with. He was tall and powerfully built. Numerous people used the word intimidating to describe him.

Even with my office next door to his, I found myself intimidated. I was uncomfortable stepping into his office. One time he came to my office to talk with me and one of my male colleagues. When he walked out of the room, it was like the energy level dropped by 75%. My friend and I discussed how much power and emotional energy he generated in the room.

This CEO was so powerful that people sometimes did not share ideas or concerns with him.

On the other hand, some leaders show too little power. One time a woman in mid-management told me that even though she held a powerful position in the organization, she felt like the trusty sidekick to her boss rather than a leader. She was not showing enough power.

In this Toolkit, we want to recognize what body language tells other people and focus on using body language — executive presence — with intention.

Playing High and Playing Low

To simplify executive presence, I am going start with the terms researcher Deborah Gruenfeld used in an important video on this topic. She described the body language of power as Playing High and Playing Low.  I have provided a link to my article on this important topic. It includes her embedded video and a narrative description of Gruenfeld's findings on executive presence.

In addition of the descriptions of playing high and playing low n that page, notice the very significant findings  about how playing high and playing low affect a person's hormone levels, emotions and ability to function and my discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of each.

As you learn more about playing high and playing low, practice taking on these body dispositions. If you have an opportunity to practice with a partner, assume both roles. For instance, role play a situation in which you assume that you have hired the other person to run some errands for you. Practice playing high and then switch roles and role play what you will do as the employee.

My Own Experience with Playing High

When I worked for the Manatee County (Florida) School District, I was sometimes required to appear before the School Board for various presentations. For a variety of reasons, this was one of my least favorite things to do. I could speak in front of 3000 people at graduation or  10,000 people at a rival high school football game, and I was not at all concerned. However, speaking in front of these five people, the Superintendent, three Assistant Superintendents and the television audience caused great trepidation.

After studying leadership presence, I decided to practice what I preached in my leadership development classes.

Before my presentation to the Board one evening, I sat in the audience and took on a very powerful presence. With head up, shoulders far back and chest out, I mentally rehearsed my remarks and my body language—looking at each Board member, smiling and gesturing in a powerful way. I continued this mental exercise for about five minutes.

When it came time for me to speak, I breathed deeply and continued with the physical presence I had practiced. I smiled, stood with feet flat on the floor, used powerful gestures, looked each Board member in the eye and expanded my energy as far as possible.

My presentation ended just before the scheduled break. As everyone stood for the short break, one of the Assistant Superintendents whom I had known for a number of years, asked me to step outside for a minute.

When we could talk privately, he said, “I don’t know what you did, but I have NEVER seen you that powerful.” With those words, I thought my mission was accomplished.

However, it is important for women leaders to recognize they have a slightly different challenge. Women leaders must deal with the fact that men and women are perceived differently. This is not only my opinion. Research at Stanford strongly indicated it is true.

Executive Presence and Women

Professor Frank Flynn presented the case of real-life entrepreneur Heidi Roizen to his students. When he noticed some negative reactions to her story, he tried an experiment in which he gave his class a case study about this very powerful women. All students read the same case study, but for half the students, the name was changed to Howard.

After reading the stories, students were asked to rate Heidi and Howard on different areas of competence and likability. The students who believed the entrepreneur was a women rated her much lower in all areas of likability. They believed the woman, Heidi, was just as competent and effective as the man, but they judged Heidi more harshly. They saw her as power hungry and self-interested. They did not like her, they would not hire her, and they would not want to work for her. The only difference was the name.

Women leaders stand the risk of psychologically closing themselves off if they appear too powerful, but they stand the risk of appearing too weak to accomplish what they want if they play low too often. Sometimes it is hard for women to be taken as seriously and to have people accept their authority.

Women are socialized to use low body language. They are better versed in it and are usually more comfortable with it.  However, it is very important for both women and men to try different roles and be versed in different body languages and different language and emotional intelligence skills.

Knowing the challenge is half the battle.

In Conclusion

When something unexpected happens, I want you to know how to use your body to your best advantage…not to manipulate, but to accomplish your goals and the goals of those you lead or serve.

As leaders, you play many roles, and you must determine how to come off in each role.

Your challenge is to use this information on leadership presence strategically. It is about acting with power and intention. It is deciding when and where to play certain roles without being manipulative while you honor your own needs and wants.

The next time you have an important meeting, will you think about what your body and voice will say as much as what your mouth will say? Will you give yourself permission to try something new?

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