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What is Executive Presence and 3 tips to develop it

Develop executive presence by honing your listening skills, learning to tune into the field and developing empathy.
Stefania Montagna

Stefania Montagna

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Have you also run into the mistake of focusing too much on “doing your job,” and not enough on how you’re showing up at work, on whether you’re demonstrating Executive Presence?

We are drawn to leaders and organizations that are good at communicating what they believe. Their ability to make us feel like we belong, to make us feel special, safe and not alone is part of what gives them the ability to inspire us. Those whom we consider great leaders all have an ability to draw us close and to command our loyalty.

Simon Sinek

The words of Simon Sinek do summarize well what Executive Presence is. Not a single skill, but a set of soft skills that, combined, give us the ability to make others feel seen, understood and taken care of such that they end up looking up to us for leadership and guidance at challenging times.

Because “Executive presence” is more like a construct, than a single skill, it’s easy to believe it is something innate, something you either have or don’t.

Instead, executive presence can be trained.

Let’s take a look at what we mean by it and at some exercises that can help you to nurture it.

What do we mean by Executive Presence?

Research from the Center for Talent Innovation suggests that Executive Presence is the ability to be seen as a leader, communicate with impact and demonstrate Gravitas—the ability to handle difficult situations with integrity, vision and emotional intelligence—. According to the same research, Executive Presence accounts for at least 25% of what it takes to get promoted, and while, in itself, it is not enough to guarantee career success, it can be the things that holds you back even when you’re performing above your level, especially if you’re not a straight white man.

Why you should develop Executive Presence

At work, knowing how to show up so that your opinion matter can make a huge difference in terms of the opportunities you’re offered. For example, executive presence has been linked with higher chances of promotion and more opportunities to climb to higher levels of leadership, speak publicly, and more.

But that’s just half of the story.

The work of developing Executive Presence, in fact, is the task of taking responsibility for the way you re-act to the world and act in it. In fact, developing executive presence requires the type of inner work that will not only make you into a better leader, but also a better person at home and in your community. Striving to develop presence will invite you to develop self-awareness and a deeper level of trust, that’s going to serve you well no matter where you decide to bring your attention, energy and focus.

From Tactics to Inner Work

When trying to spell out what Executive Presence is, some articles focus on tactical tips, such as “Communicate clearly,” “Speak with purpose,” or “Use more active and less passive language.”

Communicating clearly, with vision and purpose, however, is the kind of tactic that will fail you, as long as you haven’t mastered a certain level of inner clarity.

For example, let’s say you’re involved in managing a project, and are trying to navigate a conflict as to the strategy that should be pursued. Having clarity in such a context means more than simply having a clear idea in mind of what your intended outcome for the project looks like. Instead, you should be clear on what’s driving you into this conflict in the first place. What are your underlying feelings, or ideas of right and wrong surrounding this particular project? What’s driving you as you push for one solution versus another?

Ideally, as you engage with others in the context of the project, you would want to find yourself as often as possible in what Robert Dilts and Stephen Gilligan call COACH state. This is a state of Curiosity, Openness, Awareness, Connectedness and Holding (You’re able to Hold that which arises).

For example, you might be the kind of person who is, however subconsciously, trying to get everyone to agree, however subtly or implicitly.

The question is, are you aware of it? Are you able to observe where the need to get everybody on board is coming from? Are you able to observe how this need is pushing you to act in a certain way, and possibly even at the detriment of the project you’re trying to give life to?

Executive presence, in other words, isn’t a function of how well you can play a tactic. Instead, it’s a function of how self-aware you ultimately are.

Three tips to help you develop presence

In this post we’ll look at three critical areas to tackle if you’re serious about becoming the kind of person people look up to when in need of a leader:

  • Practicing Biodynamic Dialogue to develop your listening skills
  • Learning to Tune in to the field in order to be able to act from a place of integrity
  • Developing empathy to become a better communicator

1. Develop your presence by honing your listening skills

So much of our interpretation of the world gets filtered by our life experiences, and even more so by those decisions we may have made about life and the world in the past.

For example, if an experience in childhood painfully taught you that you must have everybody’s support in order to go ahead with your decision, you might be the kind of person who is looking for everybody to agree before acting. This, in turn, will affect your communication: you might, for example, turn your statements into questions, as you’re implicitly asking others to corroborate what you’re saying. But instead of coming across as someone who’s inclusive and a team player, this behaviour makes you appear as though you’re weak or unsure of your proposition.

That’s why you might want to practice active listening, leveraging biodynamic dialogue.

This healing and psychotherapeutic technique first emerged in the realm of Biodynamic therapy, developed by Norwegian psychotherapist, clinical psychologist, and physiotherapist Gerda Boyesen (1922-2005) and inspired by the work of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich. Biodynamic therapy rests on the theory that life energy, in a healthy body, flows naturally. However, life experiences—both inner and outer—can alter such flow, causing both physical and psychological symptoms.

The question is: can you listen and observe where your energy flow is blocked?
To practice, you should be listening deeply to what another is saying for a significant period of time (No interruptions!) The goal is not to answer back, but to relate back to the other exactly what you have heard.

Biodynamic dialogue:

the art of listening deeply to what someone else is saying, not with a goal of answering back, but in order to relate back to them exactly what they have said.

How deep listening allows you to demonstrate Executive Presence

By helping you to focus on what’s being said, rather than on what you’re contributing, biodynamic dialogue naturally moves the focus from defensiveness or righteousness to a collaborative attitude.

It’s easy to get the impression that success at work depends solely on your inputs, but being a great sounding board can make you more of a team player than crushing your targets. Crucially, developing the reputation of a great listener makes you appear as someone who presents as an executive, rather than as an employee.

Deep listening also connects you to the field of frequencies.

Think of frequencies as those of the radio. At any time, in your living room, you could tune into any of the numerous radio stations that are playing in your area. It’s key to understand that all radio stations are playing in the room at the same time, and you are the one who chooses what to tune into.

The same when it’s the time to show your executive presence: choose to tune in to what others are saying. Being the person that’s truly listening and getting everyone’s viewpoints will make you into a leader, especially if you’re curious and open to their opinions, aware of what’s driving conflict, and able to hold those conflicting views. That is, if you’re in COACH state.

How deep listening can help you develop self-awareness

Staying with the example of frequencies, regularly practicing biodynamic dialogue, for instance with a trusted friend, can be a great way to develop self-awareness.

The exercise by itself will invite you to observe what frequency you’re regularly tuning in to. Some of the frequencies you might be tuning in to include: 

  • Nobody around me can see the great work that I am doing.
  • Life is fundamentally unfair.
  • Life is fundamentally easy.
  • If only I had the same circumstances as X, I would be… (Fill in the blanks)
  • I’m sure this project will succeed because I’m giving it my best energy
  • If only my parents/my boss/my husband had been different, I would have become/been (happier, healthier, less angry, etc.)

You’ll notice that not all of these frequencies are equally empowering.

Practicing biodynamic dialogue can help you to recognise in yourself and others the types of frequencies that are destructive or generative, all while teaching you to be there in an entirely new way for others who might find themselves with a problem at hand that needs to be spoken out, before it can be solved.

How to practice biodynamic dialogue

To practice biodynamic dialogue, invite a friend or colleague to speak freely for about 20 minutes about what’s going on in their life (No questions and no interruptions!)

Then, gently tell them what you’ve heard them say. The key is for you not to interpret what they’ve said, but rather to repeat back exactly what they’ve said. Most likely, they’ll end up feeling very grateful. They might suddenly hear, amidst your words, what they’ve been thinking all along but might not have been ready to acknowledge.

If your colleague or friend is willing, you can then switch.

When practiced over a period of time (Once a week for several months), this exercise will transform the way you relate. You’ll find yourself listening deeply, and therefore be the person that’s showing up, at work and in life, in refreshingly new ways.

Don’t have a colleague or friend that’ll join you?

Do this by yourself, by write down your thoughts unrestrained in your morning journal.

This technique, popularized by Julia Cameron, involves stream-of-consciousness journaling, i.e., writing down all of your thoughts without filtering. The recommendation, as the author shared in The Artist’s Way, is to handwritewrite at least three whole pages, or to keep writing for half an hour.

Do this on the regular to understand the frequencies you’re often connected to. But don’t judge yourself. The goal is to listen and become aware, so that you can transform your presence: at work and in life.

2. Develop Executive Presence by learning to “feel the field”

We live in a society that’s so fast-paced, it seems we seldom have the energy (Or the time!) to stop and feel.

But epigenetics shows us that it is precisely our ability to feel that allows for our survival.

As Bruce Lipton wrote in The biology of belief, the reason why multicellular organisms developed was precisely to team up in order to feel more. And, as Stefano Mancuso writes in The Revolutionary Genius of plants, there’s evidence that plants have distributed their ability to perceive across all of their organs to increase their chances of survival.

We, as the human species, seem to be going in the opposite direction.

Perhaps it’s because we rely on tools so much.

But the truth is, it’s also personal. Maybe you’ve grown up in a culture that invites the suppression of feelings (Typical of Northern Europe, for instance). Perhaps you’re the child of a culture where oversharing is the norm, but not with a few of actually listening. In Italy, for example, the culture I’ve grown up in, complaining is tantamount to a national sport, but it’s not about feeling at all. Instead, complaining deals with teaming up, with creating alliances.

If you’ve been affected by trauma, including early childhood and attachment trauma, you may have learned to suppress your feelings as a coping mechanism.

Whatever the reason, listening to the field is an ability we might have to train. And it starts with observing what’s going on.

Need help to start observing what’s going on? Check out 7-questions-guide to help you reflect on how you’re showing up right now and what’s stopping you

Improve the way you show up at work by taking note of your surroundings

There are lots of ways to enhance your ability to feel the field, yet all require paying attention.

Attention, etymologically, means “tending towards,” and that’s exactly your invitation: tend to what the environment is offering you.

To start with a simple exercise, commit for a week to observe what you feel in the room at the start and end of each meeting (You can also do this with a virtual room).

Observe how you feel before and after. If you have the time, take notes. Do this, as much as you can, without judgment. Then ask yourself:

  • What energy or frequency am I contributing?
  • Am I empowering the field?
  • Is this field empowering me to be at my best? Why? Why not?
  • How are people showing up?
  • How am I showing up? What’s the archetype I’m inhabiting?

Reflect back on a field that you found particularly empowering: what made it so?

Develop presence by taking note of what’s arising

After you’ve tried the above exercise for a week, try and take mental notes of the energies and inputs that you receive.

For example, what if somebody tells you about reishi in the morning, and when you turn on the radio, there they are again—Reishi being the topic of conversation?

Reflect: What are reishi telling you about yourself? Are you…

  • Skeptical?
  • Interested?
  • Annoyed by all the hype around health and food?
  • Or maybe you’re feeling suspicious?

Tell yourself that Reishis, just like anything else, are a totally neutral topic. But your own filter is coloring the way you see them.

What’s the filter you’re looking through? How is is affecting the way you’re showing up, at work and otherwise? Why?

3. “Like me” — developing presence by developing empathy

This is a great exercise to practice if you feel that you’re struggling to meet others at the same level as you are.

if you’re anything like me, you might find yourself placing others on a pedestal (e.g., Sasha feels so much better in her skin than I do, this is why she got promoted!), or down below (e.g., But of course I can’t trust Dory to do my accounting: she’s never going to be as precise with numbers as I am!)

Sometimes, what we might be putting on a pedestal is a certain level of ambition, and therefore, others who embody that ambition. But the opposite also applies: we might put down a certain way of seeing the world, a particular need that we have, a certain way we’ve been—a given way someone else is.

To use a more prosaic image, we might look down at pee, but the water we drink today was likely a dinosaur’s pee a million years ago. And that doesn’t make it less than. In fact, it’s the one thing that can make us feel connected to the very origin of life.

Whatever the rationale, as Matthew McConaughey shares in an interview with Tim Ferriss, putting the world on a pedestal or down doesn’t allow us to see it as it really is. Instead, we must bring things at eye level. It is at that level that the “I” meets the “We”, and that we can meet the world. 

And that’s where “Like Me” shows its power: as a wonderful formula to bring yourself back to eye level and show up as an equal. 

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

“Like me” then, is a formula to bring yourself back to eye level, to the idea that everything is on the same level.

Changing the way you present yourself at work by setting yourself on the same level as everyone else

To bring this practice to life, bring to mind someone you either tend to put on a pedestal or down. It could be a difficult client, a manager that’s very senior to you, someone who you find intimidating, or even somebody you have a crush on. Then silently repeat in your head some of these sentences:

  • This person wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me
  • This person has a body and mind, just like me
  • This person has experienced pain and suffering in their life, just like me
  • This person worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me
  • This person wishes to be free from suffering, just like me
  • This person wishes to be happy and loved, just like me

Repeat this exercise over a few days, and observe your interactions with this person.

Are they changed?

If so, how?

Developing Executive Presence: Conclusions

To hone your Executive Presence you’ll need to develop several skills. Rather than focus on the tactics, you should focus on Executive Presence as a practice and understand that to develop it will take time.

But it’s an exciting journey! One that will give you so much more than a promotion.

So, be curious, open, connected and aware. You’ll be able to hold anything that might arise!

Enjoy the journey.

If you need support or would like further inputs, consider booking a discovery call.

I’ll be delighted to support you in this journey!

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