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Executive presence: why rising stars fall short

Jul 21, 2016 | BRIEF

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Executive Presence
A few years ago I met an aspiring business consultant with all the signs of a rising star. Let’s call her Grace. Grace was leading strategic client engagements and had the undivided attention from most of her colleagues and bosses. But she confided in me that her role was unexpectedly becoming marginalized. She started to see signs that she was being tuned out by a few colleagues during meetings, conversations and conference calls. People she worked for started talking over, around and behind her. Even though Grace was experienced, it was like she was becoming invisible. She didn’t know why this was happening or how it started. Although it took her completely off guard, it wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a rising star fall short due to a lack of executive presence.

Where rising stars fall short

There are several reasons careers stall. If we don’t perform there’s no way to see growth. But if you’re consistently being tuned out by decision-makers during important conversations, you might be missing a key quality that every rising star must have to succeed: executive presence. According to Forbes “executive presence often determines whose career takes off like a rocket and whose doesn’t.” There isn’t a formal definition listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, but most people think of executive presence as the ability to command a room. Simply put, when you talk people listen.

Star power: The ARC of executive presence

People mistakenly think that executive presence, like celebrity status, is pure charisma. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of the book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, this invaluable strength is far more than just projecting a strategic aura that select power brokers seem to possess. When it comes to conversation, executive presence depends on three core “ARC” traits:
Awareness to think incessantly about the needs of those around you. Are you considering first what matters to them, over your own reward? Do you consider the value of their time and protect it? Do you feel connected to their need?
Restraint to practice self-control when communicating. Do you care more about saying something versus listening closely to what’s being said? Are you verbally messy and long-winded? Do you show all your cards by saying everything, rather than what they need to hear?
Confidence to project your preparation, knowledge and self-assurance. This transcends being Type A or cocky and has more to do with having done your homework. Can you frame an issue quickly without having to dive into the weeds? If you go deep into the details, can you quickly elevate to the big picture? Is what you’re saying and doing connected to someone else’s need?
Hewlett says that almost one third of executive presence depends directly on communication skills, particularly being concise. Failure to make a quick point and stay connected with your audience may translate to getting – and staying – tuned out.

The Executive checklist

So how can we make sure that we’re communicating with executive presence? The good news is there are a series of simple missteps that can pretty easily be corrected. Check to make sure you are doing the following:

  • Thinking before you speak
  • Earning someone’s attention instead of expecting it
  • Respecting the value of people’s time
  • Knowing what matters to those around you
  • Practicing active listening – letting others speak
  • Taking time to prepare the most essential points
  • Sending a follow-up note to summarize meetings and discussions
  • Trimming out excessive and confusing details that might be distracting

After a quick conversation with my friend Grace, it was pretty obvious she was skipping a few vital steps. I encouraged her to have a conversation with her boss using the checklist above. They quickly identified the areas she needed to improve and I’m happy to report she’s back on track.
Most of us aren’t born with executive presence. Although the greatest leaders make it look easy, it’s usually carefully constructed and takes time to perfect. The opportunity is that it’s something we can work on and improve. And if you’re a star on the rise, there are practical steps to ensure you bring executive presence to every important conversation.
What about you? Ever feel like you’re being tuned out or overlooked during important conversations? Were you able to turn it around? Please add to the conversation and let us know!

About the author: Joe McCormack is on a mission to help progressive organizations master concise communication. Joe works with fortune 500 companies and elite special operations units, is the founder of The Brief Lab and author of Brief: Make a Bigger Impact by Saying Less. Follow us on Twitter @TheBriefLab
Looking for a few simple, practical tools to help get started on the path toward brevity? Check this out. It’s our BRIEF Essentials toolkit. You can sign up and download with the form below. Or send us a message [email protected] to learn how progressive Fortune 500 companies and elite military units are embracing lean communication at The Brief Lab.



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