Is a Lack of Presence Sabotaging Your Career?

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If you're the kind of person who commands attention, admiration, and respect the moment you walk into a meeting or a social function, you're the very example of what's known as executive presence.

We've all encountered those natural-born leaders who capture the awareness and respect of everyone they interact with. They radiate what's known as executive presence, a powerful combination of style, substance, and character that sets people apart.

Some people seem to have been born with that combination, but if you weren't one of them, don't be dismayed. Just as you can sharpen the other skills needed to succeed in business, you can enhance your executive presence. It involves developing an understanding of what people expect to see from leaders, conducting an honest appraisal of how effectively you project that image, and addressing any gaps.

Executive presence isn’t deception, because people aren’t easily fooled. Yes, you have to dress and look the part, but you also have to deliver the substance that goes along with it. It isn’t hard for people to tell whether you really know your stuff. The same is true for character. People can tell whether you have a genuine interest in them or are just trying to make them think you care. Presence demands deep knowledge and authentic character.

Consider the story of a real executive I’ll call “Mike.” He was a brilliant guy whose expertise brought the entire department of his Fortune 50 employer to a new level. On paper, his career prospects looked great. But despite his brainpower and proven success as a leader, Mike just couldn’t get promoted.

While he had more than enough knowledge and experience to move up the ladder, Mike lacked the poise and influence that were crucial traits for executives at his level. In fact, the presence he expressed worked against him. In situations that involved anyone senior to him -- whether that was members of the management team, customers, or colleagues -- Mike’s confidence simply evaporated. He physically shrank and withdrew. When he had to attend a work-related social function, he found it impossible to sustain casual conversations. Although he was highly intelligent, he became a quivering fish out of water in unfamiliar settings. In simple terms, Mike was stuck in his current position, with no prospects for advancement.

His boss encouraged him to work with us. We started by assessing his emotional intelligence and leadership communication skills. That allowed us to pinpoint areas of strength and weaknesses. We videotaped him in a variety of work and social situations where having the right presence was critical. When we reviewed the videos with him, Mike immediately recognized how his body language was interfering with his ability to be taken seriously. Although he had plenty of substance, it wasn’t showing up in useful ways.

Like most people, Mike initially obsessed about his weaknesses. We suggested a different mindset: leveraging and exploiting his strengths, so they would overshadow any perceived flaws. We helped him craft internal messages that reminded him to carry himself with confidence, and shared strategies for approaching a room, how to enter, where to sit, greeting others, and how to take cues from the body language of those around him.

Most important, we shared the power of preparing for every meeting, every function, and every interaction so he approached each with intention. Instead of simply showing up at the appointed time, he mentally prepared for each contact, thinking about his objectives, who he needed to connect with, and the information he needed to share. Before walking into a meeting or a reception, he’d pause to repeat his internal messages and refine his posture. He entered with an infectious smile and immediately made eye contact with the right people.

It wasn’t magic. As with any skill, Mike had to practice. But as he used these steps again and again, they became familiar habits. At long last, Mike felt comfortable in his own skin, and his growing confidence became contagious. Within a few months, he accepted a role a couple levels higher on the organizational chart, with a salary nearly three times what he had been earning. He hadn’t acquired additional knowledge -- he simply learned how to present himself in a manner that was appropriate for his new position.

If you’ve been running into unseen obstacles in your career, maybe it’s time to make polishing your own presence a resolution for the new year.

Ellen Dunnigan is CEO of Accent On Business.

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