Presence: The Secret Sauce?

Having a career as a CEO is a risky business.  Over the past decade, the rate of dismissals has increased by 300% and turnover now exceeds the normal attrition rate for all employees. Forced exits from the C-suite occur for a multitude of reasons ranging from poor cultural fit to misaligned skill sets. At least 40% flame out in their first 18 months. The primary reason, not surprisingly, is underperformance (which accounts for a third of all departures). The second reason, perhaps surprisingly, is lack of “executive presence” – CEOs who neither act nor look like a leader.  

Executive presence is easy to see yet hard to define.  Which may be why there is precious little in today’s voluminous literature on leadership indicating exactly what it is or how to acquire it. Do a Google search and you’ll find articles that talk about confidence, communications, appearance, maturity and other factors but that aren’t much more helpful than that. It’s what the French call “je ne sais quoi.” Yet, ask any group of senior managers who aspire to the top job “what it takes” to get there and, invariably, they’ll mention executive presence. Then ask them what it means. You’ll either get blank stares or unhelpful bromides in response.

We know when we are in the company of someone who has “it.”  We’ve witnessed that moment when someone walks into a business or social event and instantly attracts intense, positive attention. Heads turn. People gravitate toward them. They’re the ones with that magical, commanding aura called presence. When you have it, people want to promote you, do business with you, recommend you to others and ultimately follow you.

In essence, presence is knowing what to do when others around you don’t have a clue.  You’re not born with it; it’s a learned skill. When you possess it, you’re more likely to get to the pinnacle and stay there longer than most. Because this “secret sauce” is knowing how to think on your feet, project poise under extreme pressure, take control of difficult situations, make tough decisions in a timely manner and hold your own with other talented, strong-willed members of the executive team. 

Presence is primarily conveyed through one’s body language – projecting your authenticity with non-verbal gestures. Life is not fair. Most senior executives, for example, are tall people. Presence is knowing how to “stand tall” when you’re not. Tall is not about inches; it’s about how you feel about yourself. Powerful people believe they’re taller than they actually are. So think: “I am here. I have arrived. I am in charge.” 

Beyond non-verbal awareness, presence is understanding how to deliver on-point presentations – speaking less but saying more. It’s demonstrating appropriate (not over) deference to others, having a good sense of timing (like knowing when to talk and when to listen) and a calm, unflappable demeanor, especially when those around you are “losing it.”

Presence is being aware that little things convey powerful messages.  Take the handshake – the most common way to make a powerful initial impression in the world of business. According to Patti Wood, author of Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma, it takes about three hours of continuous face-to-face interaction to develop the same level of rapport you can get instantly with a good handshake. But most people (men especially) have no idea how to shake hands – research tells us upwards of 87% of men have handshakes that send the wrong signals. The first impression of your presence is made in less time than it takes to snap your fingers. 

Like all skill sets, you start by learning the basics.  Ask trusted advisors to give you unvarnished feedback about your grooming and the level of self-confidence you project, especially in challenging or emotionally charged situations. With appropriate guidance, take the necessary corrective measures to hone your presentation skills – being able to “stand and deliver” to an executive audience is a clarion indicator of how well you handle pressure. 

Story telling is performance art and a core leadership competency.  So learn how to differentiate yourself without the encumbrance of annoying verbal tics that undermine your credibility. Master the power poses that don’t intimidate but exude assuredness and approachability. “Schmoozing” Yiddish for friendly, heart-to-heart talk – is an invaluable skill in engaging others thoughtfully.

When your boss or a board member tells others you are “an incredible asset to the company  but I just can’t envision putting her (him) in front of a key client,” your leadership brand is impoverished. Clearly, you do not have that defining quality so critical to your promotion to and longevity in the C-suite. Alternatively, you know you have it when people stop, seek out and listen deferentially to your views.

This article was written for and published in The Financial Post, April 30th, 2013.