Executive Presence

I know it when I see it: The Skinny on Executive Presence

Whenever I get a request for executive coaching, one of the top objectives of the client is invariably to develop ‘Executive Presence’.  My response is always, “Great, that’s what I do.  What do you mean by executive presence?”  And the response is typically along the lines of, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.”  It is very difficult to achieve an objective you can’t define.  Turning to the internet, words like ‘gravitas’, ‘charisma’ and the ‘it factor’ are often used to describe executive presence.  Unfortunately, these terms are just as fuzzy and abstract as the original term and provide very little by the way of clarity.  Suggestions on how to achieve it are many and mostly wildly inconsistent: be still; speak up; make others feel special; understand how others experience you; reflect on your habits; learn how to operate effectively under stress; be a high performer; don’t let your appearance be a distraction.  These are quotes.  And I would suggest fairly unhelpful ones, at that.

My background is theatre.  I was trained as an actor, spent fifteen years on stage and another decade as a director.  Theatre is all about presence.  When you walk on stage, you need to be able to capture the audience and hold them.  If you can’t do that, you won’t have a career.  There are actors that you can’t take your eyes off, even when they aren’t speaking.  They have presence.  The reason they have presence is that they are wholly present in the moment.  It sounds obvious to say, but ‘being present’ is the root of the word ‘presence’.  Actors talk about it all the time.  The term actors tend to use is ‘being in the now’.  This sounds simple, but it’s actually incredibly challenging.  You have memorized lines and it can be very difficult not to jump ahead and think, “What’s my next line?”  Your director told you that you need to be a foot further upstage for this scene.  The lights are hot and a bead of sweat is trickling down your temple and you wonder if anyone can see it.  Someone in the front row is unwrapping a candy incredibly slowly and you are wishing they would just GET IT OVER WITH!!  The common thread?  The voice in your head.  When we are caught up in the swirl of our thoughts, we are not present in the moment at all.  We are removed from it.

The voice in our heads presents the exact same challenges to presence in our daily lives.  When we are in a meeting, we are often thinking about what we are going to say next, or still stressed about the previous meeting, or distracted by our phones that are showing there are new messages waiting.  The key to achieving executive presence is in learning to be wholly present and the key to being wholly present is in learning how to manage the voice in our heads.  I am going to walk through five ways you can become more present, and in so doing, have more presence:

  • Be prepared
  • Pause
  • Breathe
  • Make eye contact
  • Listen

These are generally good things to do in any situation, but I am going to specifically describe how they help you achieve presence.

Be prepared

I can’t overstate the importance of being prepared.  I was recently teaching a group of risk professionals at a financial institution and one of the VPs in the group summed up his daily reality: “I dial into a call five minutes late because they previous call went over, I spend the first ten minutes of the call trying to get up to speed, then I dive in and respond before heading to the next meeting five minutes late.  In between I try to get to the bathroom and respond to whatever urgent e-mails came in while I was in the meeting.  I’m in constant reaction mode.” 

I coach clients to prepare for every situation.  Before you attend a meeting, ask yourself who is going to be attending and what the main point you need them to walk away with is.  Before you dial in to a call, jot down a couple of bullet points for yourself on what you would like to get across during the call.  When you are preparing to present, focus on what you want to convince your audience of. Preparing your main thoughts in advance will allow you to be more present in the situation because you won’t be forming your thoughts on the fly.

Many years ago, I presented with a sports psychologist who talked about full engagement.  This gentleman relayed a story about a study that had been done on the mental activity of golfers over the course of 18 holes.  Apparently, most golfers don’t do a lot of thinking in between holes.  Instead, just prior to making a shot, their mental activity would ramp up and would remain elevated until the shot was completed.  He said that for the top golfers, the opposite was true.  In between holes, they would do a lot of thinking, about what they learned from the previous shot, about what was coming next.  But when they went to take their shot, there was very little mental activity: they simply let their body do what it knew how to do.  I’m not a golfer, (in fact I inspire to pass through this life without ever swinging a club), but this example made a lot of sense to me: being present (or in the zone), is predicated on being prepared.

Pause

There are many good reasons to pause, some of which I explore in other articles.  But the main reason, as it pertains to presence, is that a pause will help connect your brain and your mouth.  Very few of us are actually thinking about what we are saying while we say it.  We are often tracking ahead in our minds, trying to figure out where we are going with the point.  A classic example of this is in how people answer questions.  The responder will often start with, “That’s an excellent question” and continue to answer the question until the finally figure out what their point is, at which point they stop talking.  By immediately starting to talk, the speaker is forcing a separation of mouth and mind – my mouth is speaking in the present, but my brain is trying to figure out where to go with the answer.

By pausing, we are giving ourselves a chance to think in silence, so that when we do speak, we can inhabit what we are saying in the moment.  Pauses don’t have to be long.  If we pause briefly between sentences, we give our thoughts a chance to collect themselves before moving on.  Incidentally, pausing between sentences requires the use of short sentences.  If we get caught in a run-on sentence, we are forcing the separation of mouth and mind.

Breathe

Have you ever had a deer-in-the-headlights moment?  One where you forget the name of a colleague who you have worked with for ten years and is standing right beside you?  I will guarantee that you were holding your breath.

 Forgetting a line is one of the worst experiences an actor can have.  It happens to all of us at some point in our careers.  An inexperienced actor will usually panic and blurt out the first thing that comes to mind.  The more experienced actor will pause, breathe, and usually remember the line without anyone in the audience ever noticing.  Or, they will think of something to say that fits the scene and everything will progress as normal.  When we breathe, we allow our brains to function.  Time slows down.  We feel present in the moment.  When we hold our breath, we become tense and our brains freeze. 

Unfortunately, it’s usually in important situations where we want to exude presence that we tend to tense up and hold our breath.  We take short, shallow breaths in our upper lungs.  In order to be fully present, we need to drop the breath down.  Easier said than done.  Maybe some of you do yoga, but most of us don’t spend much time thinking about where we are breathing.  We’re still alive, so it must be working, right? 

Here’s a very simple exercise you can do every day that will help you learn to breath in a way that will help you be more relaxed and more present.  If you are sitting in an office chair, chances are there is some lumbar support – a spot where the chair curves inwards and touches the small of your back.  It is much easier to drop your breathing down if you have a touch point to focus on.  Pay attention to the spot where the chair touches your back.  Try to breathe into it, so that the small of your back gently pushes against it.  Do this a couple of times a day, after lunch, before a stressful meeting.  It will help ground you in the present.  And you have to breathe anyway, so it doesn’t take any time out of your day!

Make eye contact

Trying saying “ummm” while making eye contact with someone.  It’s an extraordinarily unnatural thing to do.  We say “ummm” when we are thinking but still committed to speaking.  It’s an indication that we are not wholly present.  It’s very difficult to make eye contact while having a separate soundtrack going on in our heads.  In other words, eye contact shuts the voice in our head up!  This is a useful skill, as the voice in our heads is usually saying unkind things to us and it is what pulls us out of the moment.  Whether when listening, or speaking, eye contact connects you to the person in front of you and prevents you from going off into the voice in your head.  Of course, to be able to connect with eye contact, we need to pause to allow us to form our thoughts.  The use of the two in conjunction with each other help us manage the voice in our heads, which allows us to be present.

Listen

Very early in my actor training, a well-known actor who I respected very much told our class that the best actors are the best listeners.  While it seems obvious to me now, at the time it was a revelation.  I had thought that acting was all about me and my ability to emote.  But acting doesn’t happen in a bubble.  Neither does leadership.  I needed to stop thinking about my next line and really listen to what the people on stage were saying to me.  Then, if I had prepared properly, I would be able to respond appropriately in the moment.  Executive presence requires exactly the same thing.  If I want to be heard, I need to truly listen.  All of the points we’ve discussed so far – preparing, pausing, breathing and eye contact are also the basis of good listening. 

Conclusion

Executive presence is a product of being present.  Being present means not being trapped in our heads, but connected to the moment.  This is true both when speaking and when listening.

I grew up in the Canadian Prairies, which meant eight months of winter and very little to do other than play and watch hockey.  I always loved goalies.  Goalies face a lot of pressure and have a reputation for being somewhat odd.  Over the years, I have always loved watching goalies and have wondered why some nights they seem to be ‘on their game’ and some nights they can’t stop a beachball.  There is one goalie in the NHL in particular that I love to watch.  Before the game he can be seen in the stands, doing eye exercises, running through in his mind all the things that he is going to face in the upcoming game.  In the game, he always seems to be calm and focused.  And when he lets in a bad goal, he takes the water bottle from the back of the net, squirts it in the air and focuses on a single drop of water as it falls to the ice.  What he is doing is refocusing so that he doesn’t get caught up in the voice in his head which is criticizing him for letting in the bad goal.  We’re all going to let in the odd bad goal.  All we can do is ensure we are prepared, focus on the moment and try to make the next save.