Leadership presence: You know it when you see it, yet it’s difficult to define what exactly “it” is. That’s because leadership presence isn’t one isolated quality but a powerful combination of personal and interpersonal skills that elicits confidence from others, builds trust and motivates those around you to rally behind your ideas and vision. It’s a product of how you show up, how you communicate (verbally and nonverbally), and the impression you leave on others – and it matters!
When you first enter the workforce, you’re more likely to be hired for your knowledge and the concrete set of skills that you bring to the table. However, as you progress, these skills alone won’t be sufficient to move you up the ladder to senior leadership. In a survey conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, respondents stated that “executive presence” accounts for 26 percent of what it takes to get promoted into leadership positions.
Whether you realize it or not, your presence is always working either for or against you. It can set you up for the next big promotion or be the reason that your career stalls. At HNS, we’ve seen the power of this repeatedly, as women in our programs show up more powerfully and receive new opportunities and promotions as a result.
Could your leadership presence use some polishing? If you’re ready to put yourself on the fast-track to advancement, we invite you to follow these practical tips to improve your leadership presence now and in the future.
Conquer Your Inner Critic
At the root of presence is self-confidence. But it’s hard to exude confidence outwardly if internally, you’re listening to that little voice that’s constantly dwelling on what you could have done better and questioning your ability to navigate new challenges. You have the power to believe whatever you want, so why would you choose to listen to disempowering stories about yourself? For many of us – women in particular – this happens unconsciously. Your inner critic may have been running on autopilot for so long that you didn’t even realize that you had the ability to choose something different.
Silencing your inner critic begins with listening. Take note whenever your inner critic begins to show up with negative or self-deprecating thoughts and ask yourself, is this thought useful? Is it helping me evolve into who I want to become? When you encounter a negative thought, come up with an equally true statement that is positive. For example, if you think “I’m not qualified to take on this role”, re-frame this as “I’ve overcome big challenges before.”
To make this practice even more powerful, Executive Coach Dana Theus recommends sharing your positive truth out loud with a trusted friend or colleague, as “our logical left brain understands things abstractly, but our emotional right brain won’t fully believe the positive story until we practice hearing ourselves say it and receiving feedback from those we trust.”
Define Your Unique Contribution
A strong leadership presence is firmly rooted in authenticity, but if you don’t know who you are, what you stand for or what you have to offer, how will others know? Identifying and owning the unique value you bring to your company helps you to turn down that inner critic and reminds you of your worth. By intentionally defining your leadership brand, you shape the way you’re perceived by others and clearly communicate what you stand for as a leader, both important aspects of leadership presence.
How do you define your leadership brand?
You can begin by asking yourself:
1. What are you good at? What strengths set you apart?
2. What are you passionate about? What gives you energy, meaning and speaks to your values?
3. How do your strengths and passions connect to the organization’s goals?
Communicating clearly and concisely with senior management is a fundamental aspect of gaining respect and influence, so not only do you need to know your unique value proposition, but you also need to be able to articulate it succinctly.
For a more detailed step-by-step breakdown on crafting a brand statement, check out our post How to Create Your Leadership Brand.
Do you find yourself frequently battling Impostor Syndrome? Try This
Imagine you’re being featured in a national newspaper for your professional achievements. What would you like the article to say about you?
Write 1-2 paragraphs using third person explaining who you are, what you’ve achieved in your career, and why you’re so successful.
Eliminate Minimizing Behaviors
When you step into a room, the impression you make is the result of far more than what you verbally say. In fact, research by Albert Mehrabian, psychology professor at UCLA, found that the actual words you say account for very little – a mere 7 percent – of how you are perceived. The other 93 percent is a product of elements like your tone of voice, posture, body language and mood. Often we put all of our focus on what we actually have to say, not realizing that how we say it is even more important.
Are you unintentionally engaging in behaviors that are minimizing your presence and detracting from your message? In our feedback-rich women’s leadership program, we make sure women get helpful feedback on what behaviors and habits are adding or detracting from their presence. You may not even be aware of the habits that are getting in your way, so ask a colleague to give you honest feedback on how you can improve. Some common communication traps that you may be falling into include:
- Softening statements by inserting words like “kind of”, “maybe”, “just”, or “actually.”
- Undermining your own credibility by prefacing ideas with “You may have already thought of this…” or “This may not work but…”
- Raising the pitch of your voice at the end of a sentence as if asking a question when you’re really making a statement.
- Fidgety behaviors like tapping your foot, twirling your hair, playing with jewelry, or rocking back and forth.
Read our blog post 10 Common Habits That Minimize Your Leadership Presence for more damaging habits to watch out for.
The goal is to strike a balance between exuding confidence and power with showing warmth and openness. If you’re confident without warmth, you may come off as cold or arrogant. If you’re warm without confidence, people may question your ability to drive results.
You can demonstrate both by bringing your shoulders back and holding your head high while making eye contact, smiling and sharing your wisdom.
Focus On Others
Ironically, one of the best ways to increase your visibility and presence as a rising leader is to focus on others. Having a strong presence isn’t about being the loudest person in the room but rather about knowing when to speak up and have an opinion and when to ask questions and actively listen. Enter each conversation with the goal of finding some way to help the other person. The minute you take the focus off promoting yourself and put it on making others feel comfortable, valued and supported, you dramatically improve your ability to connect and make an impact.
Move Forward With Intention
Growing as a leader requires you to constantly push beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone. This means you may repeatedly find yourself having to silence that inner critic and step into your power as you rise to meet new challenges. Before going into a meeting or having an important conversation, take some time to ground yourself with a few deep breaths and think about how you want to show up and be perceived. This preparation can make the difference between appearing scattered and indecisive or powerful and persuasive.
When you feel nerves or self-doubt begin to creep in, think about a time when you successfully navigated a challenge or got great feedback. Focus on what happened, how you felt, and what that experience was like. Research shows that recalling a time when you felt successful or accomplished can increase your level of confidence in the present moment.
Another helpful strategy is to think about a leader who you admire and ask yourself:
- What qualities and characteristics do they exhibit?
- How do they communicate and interact with others?
- What would they do in your situation?
Now that you’ve silenced your inner critic, defined your leadership brand and strengthened your communication skills – it’s time to take action! Set specific goals that challenge you to overcome your fears and be seen as a leader. As you continuously overcome new challenges, your confidence will grow and you’ll expand your capacity to lead.
“Women rarely do something unless they feel 100% certain they can, and men only have to feel like they’re 60% certain. But if a woman and a man go and take the same exam, women will do just as well or better. As women, it’s easy to opt out of things that make us nervous, but we should develop a mindset of, “I’m going to say yes,” and then go freak out in my office or stairwell and figure out how to make it happen. Say yes. Act like the leader you want to be.” – Allison Kluger, Lecturer at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
HNS Case Study
Keisha was a marketing director at a global entertainment company and a participant in our ACCELERATE program. She was hard-working and had formed great relationships at work. But her 360 revealed that she would often clam up in meetings with senior leadership. Keisha’s coach helped her gain awareness of the self-limiting beliefs that were impacting her presence. Keisha began challenging those beliefs and set a goal to contribute multiple times in every meeting, no matter the level of participants. And she found that people welcomed her ideas and solutions. She realized her colleagues needed her input and that having a more confident presence made it more likely that others would listen to her input. By the end of the program, the CMO had noticed Keisha’s enhanced presence and had short-listed her for a promotion.
Remember that developing your leadership presence is an ongoing process. While many of the world’s top women leaders make it look effortless, it’s often the result of years of deliberate practice, intensive feedback and real-world experience. Start today by taking a few small steps and pay attention to the results. As your influence increases, others will begin to treat you with new respect and before you know it, you’ll be a role model for others.