Executive presence: Polish your inner self and impact others better (Guest commentary)

Presence about confidence, courage, humility

At the recent Human Resources Professionals Association (HRPA) conference in Toronto, I conducted a session on executive presence. It was sold out and people were lined up at the door to replace any last-minute dropouts.

What a sea change from one decade ago when I published a book on presence. It sold well, but the topic had zero interest in corporate Canada.

So, what’s changed? Traditional command and control leadership is dying, slowly but surely. Employees no longer follow a leader simply because of title and position — leaders at every level of the company must earn the following.

That’s because talented employees have options baby boomers didn’t have. Technology and social media mean leaders can’t easily hide behind a facade of disinformation and image. Staff want to know who they really are.

Another factor is greater wealth. Living with parents or a working life partner means more freedom to quit unrewarding jobs. Members of generation Y were raised to be far more involved in decision-making than previous generations — they don’t know what it means to follow orders and not ask questions.

Who would want that kind of employee in a rapidly changing world anyway? It all adds up to leaders who need to gain respect and trust or face career and business failure.

So what is “executive presence?” It’s a leader’s ability to be present when the pressure is on. In practice, it’s the ability to keep thoughts and feelings focused on the moment, without flitting ahead nervously to what could go wrong or remembering past failures. Self-doubt and over-aggressiveness are two strong signs of one’s inability to be present. It shows itself in the moment and others sense it.

Presence reveals itself in the hundreds of little things that distinguish a respected leader from an ordinary task manager. In the end, it’s about courage, confidence and humility. Jim Collins, author of Great by Choice, identified the greatest examples of top leaders of this calibre. He called them Level 5 Leaders and found only 11 in a pool of 1,400 corporations over a 30-year period.

Despite these daunting odds, every person has presence. The only question is can they draw on it in the situations that matter?

Many salespeople show great presence when socializing with customers. But can they show it when a deal is on the table, a client is negotiating hard and their boss is breathing down their back to get it done at the right price?

At one point in my career, I was a director of marketing in the consumer products industry. I needed to make a motivational speech at a company-wide conference in Arizona. I prepared my slides and practised my pitch. But when the big day came, I was flat. Some people congratulated me on my ideas, but my “presence” was missing and the crowd was not stirred. This was an early indicator to me I lacked something important that I desperately wanted but couldn’t find.

A couple of years later, I was vice-president of sales. After returning from a major customer incentive trip to Europe, I blacked out on the living room floor for a few seconds. It was just long enough to scare me into realizing something was seriously wrong. I was stressed out and had been denying the symptoms for at least three years. I quit my job one year later and began my search.

It took me more than two years to discover what I was missing was presence or being present. My mind was virtually never in the present — the here and now. I was consumed with thoughts about the past and the future. Indeed, my mind seemed like a runaway freight train, uncontrollable and unstoppable.

Over the next two years, I did a deep dive, taking courses and looking in the mirror. I quickly learned the present was a frightening place for me. To be present is to be real and I was definitely not real.

Over the years, I had carefully and unconsciously developed a facade I thought I needed in order to land senior roles and be a senior leader. In reality, it was a facade I felt I needed in order to be accepted.

Five years later, I wrote a book about my experiences and lessons. I called it What’s Important Now. I had experienced a kind of liberation from what I realized was a self-created prison designed to shut out my feelings and rely solely on my intellect. Around that time, emotional intelligence became a corporate buzzword and I was glad. Mine had been very low — but no longer.

To grow your executive presence, you need to be willing to face certain personal fears. During my workshop at the HRPA conference, I had participants do a two-way speaking-listening exercise that stretched them. They were taken aback.

I asked, “How did you feel?” and they said, “Awkward and uncomfortable.”

So I asked them, “And do you ever feel awkward and uncomfortable as a leader? Because when you do, your presence is absent.”

In that moment, I believe 150 HR leaders got it. You get executive presence by becoming comfortable in places you used to find uncomfortable.

John Kuypers is a Toronto-based leadership change expert and author of Who’s the Driver Anyway, published by Carswell. He can be reached at johnk@performanceshift.com. For more information, visit www.johnkuypers.com.

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