Have you ever heard one of these comments from your bosses?
"You're not ready for the next level yet. We can discuss this again next year."
"You need to speak more/less in meetings."
"You're too direct/too soft."
If you have ever been held back from a promotion (or haven't been offered a role) because you failed to demonstrate leadership potential you may have an executive presence ("EP") problem.
But first, let's try to better understand what EP actually is.
So, How Do Executives Define Executive Presence?
On my quest for answers, I interviewed successful executives from different industries and countries to better understand what qualities contributed to EP. To my surprise, the range of definitions I got from them spanned self-confidence, decisiveness, speaking truth to power, transparent communication, carefully managing perceptions, authenticity and treating people with respect. One thing became clear: there was no universal understanding of EP among even the most seasoned executives.
Business literature offers us more objective definitions through the corporate, the psychologist and the actor views of EP:
Three Views of Executive Presence
1. The Corporate View
Economist and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, shares in her book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, the following definition:
“Executive presence is the 'it factor,' a heady combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we are in the presence of someone who’s going places. [..] Executive presence is not just a measure of performance. Rather, executive presence is a measure of image: whether you signal to others that you “have what it takes,” that you are leadership material.”
In Hewlett’s universe, there is an objective set of desired behaviors that you could emulate in order to project a strong EP. Her research highlights that according to corporate leaders EP rests on three pillars: gravitas (67%), communication (28%) and appearance (5%).
2. The Psychologist’s View
Famous Harvard psychologist, Amy Cuddy, in her bestselling book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, takes another approach:
“Presence is the state of being attuned to and being able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential.”
Cuddy’s Presence is built from the inside out. When you have a high level of awareness and confidence in who you are and what you represent, you project this confidence to others. Cuddy has demonstrated that humans are psychologically attuned to this type of behavior, and treat this authenticity with respect, according to her research.
3. The Actor’s View
Former actresses turned executive coaches, Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern, present the third definition in their book, Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate, and Inspire:
“Leadership Presence is the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others, in order to motivate them and inspire them towards a desired outcome.”
Lubar and Halpern borrow from the actor’s toolkit and show that leadership presence is about effectively tapping into your own experiences and, through storytelling, help others relate to you and therefore connect with you on a deeper level.
What Is The Right Definition Of Executive Presence, Then?
All three definitions are helpful as you work to improve your leadership skills.
The corporate view forces you to investigate how EP is defined by your organization and management team and identify where you have gaps.
The psychologist’s view requires some soul-searching and self-assessments to better understand your own strengths, passions, and what matters most to you.
The actor’s view implies that you need to map out your life story and identify the experiences that shaped your leadership style and turn them into stories and lessons learned that you can share to connect more deeply with others.
Bringing all of the above together will help you become a better executive.
What If The Feedback You Get Seems Unfair?
Given that the definition of EP is not universal, it can easily become a "go-to" term to hold an employee back from a promotion. It's also important to note that research shows that women are more likely than men to receive vague feedback about their performance and qualifications—and be held back by it.
If you are getting vague feedback about your EP, push back to better understand the definition that your evaluator is using in his or her decision criteria. If you are still unable to get concrete answers and suggestions from improvement, try to better understand if you have a gap in how you are communicating your skills and potential and eventually consider switching jobs.
If you'd like to dive deeper into your EP and get some useful feedback, consider joining our EP Lab for professional women.
This article was originally published in my column for Forbes Careers.