September 15


Next-Level Leadership Attribute #5: Executive

By Sara Canaday

September 15, 2015

career success, emotional intelligence, executive presence, leadership

We see it happen in so many companies. Five or six mid-level managers all have about the same credentials and experience, but only a few of them seem to get more attention. And better projects. And greater opportunities. And the coveted promotions.

On paper, these leaders look very similar. In reality, only a few of them have that intangible quality known as Executive Presence. It’s the “business X-factor.” Tough to describe, yet remarkably obvious when we see it in action.

So what does it look like? Here are the types of behaviors and characteristics that can be found among professionals who exhibit executive presence:

They look and sound like leaders: strong voice, excellent eye contact, confident attitude, and articulate speech (avoiding language that might dilute their message like “Don’t you think” or “Maybe we should”); impeccably groomed with attention to detail when it comes to garment choice and condition (conscious effort to present a polished image).

They relate well to people at every level and from all walks of life: approachable; work to put others at ease; sensitive and patient when it comes to the varying confidence levels of others.

They have superior presentation skills: know how to build strong business cases with stakeholder input; use concise and efficient communication while being prepared with more details as needed.

They know how to “read” their audiences and adjust their communication styles accordingly: shift tone, pace, and even the message if they see that a more logical or emotional approach would increase their effectiveness.

They use diplomacy and tact: quickly analyze the political climate and gently defuse even the most tense situations.

They have the ability to see things as they really are: realistic; not skeptical, but no rose-colored glasses; understand their own limitations.

They take tough stands when necessary but remain humble: persuasive and influential, even when supporting unpopular decisions; remain willing to listen to objections and alternatives.

They face criticism with courage: internally secure; taking personal responsibility for decisions or errors and moving on.

They manage their emotional reactions: can depersonalize criticism or attacks and remain composed under pressure; maintain a sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously.

They project self-assurance: not threatened by others (even those with strong personalities or opinions); know when to add levity to a situation and infuse humor as a way of connecting (aren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves); have enough confidence to seek out and recognize the contributions of others.

Another interesting facet about those with executive presence is their ability to balance complementary (or even opposite) attributes in certain situations. Think about some of the greatest corporate leaders, and you’ll find examples of people who know how to display these seemingly contradictory characteristics with great finesse.

 Strong yet able to show vulnerability
 Decisive yet willing to be flexible
 Highly energetic yet calm in a crisis
 Competitive yet empathetic
 Task-oriented yet people-sensitive
 Strategic yet conceptual/creative
 Visionary yet realistic/practical

The good news is, you can take steps to improve your executive presence. This concept is closely linked to emotional intelligence, which (unlike IQ) you can actually improve. Find a few great role models and pay close attention to their speech patterns and demeanor (especially when they are under fire). Even better, identify a mentor who is willing to guide you in this area. Work on your presentation and communication skills. Recognize others’ contributions and express gratitude whenever you can.

Being seen as someone with executive presence isn’t linked to doing one particular thing; it’s about doing a lot of small things that combine to create the image of a polished, confident professional who is ready to move to the next level. The process of creating that image can take time. But you can start making it happen today by adjusting individual behaviors, knowing the cumulative effect will transform the way you are perceived and accelerate your success potential.

Let me know what you think!

This is part of a series about the attributes and behaviors of professionals who have elevated their leadership impact and reached the next level of success. To read previous posts about next-level leadership, please click here.

Sara Canaday

About the author

Sara began her journey working full-time while she earned an MBA. As she climbed the ladder of corporate America, she repeatedly observed a surprising phenomenon: the most successful people weren’t necessarily the ones with the highest IQ or best job skills. She recognized instead that career advancement was much more closely linked with how people applied their knowledge and talents — their capacity to collaborate, communicate, and influence others.

Today, Sara is happily fulfilling that commitment as a keynote speaker, author, and executive coach. These venues have given her the opportunity to mentor and support thousands of people in diverse situations, inspiring many of them to move from insight to action with dramatic career results.

  • These attributes take much practice consistently. It’s more a study in leadership and presence versus an exercise.

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