How To Have Executive Presence: It’s All About the Intangibles

I recently visited with an elite leader—Paula Costa Bravo—because I was curious to find out how this well educated Brazilian-born woman navigated the dicey waters of corporate America, particularly as someone who is relatively new in her leadership role. I asked her how she was surviving since her company had just laid off hundreds of people. She looked at me and, without missing a beat, said that it’s all about mastering the intangibles and establishing an executive presence. I sat staring like a deer in the headlights, then realized that she was about to share some pearls of wisdom. I took out my iPhone and feverishly started taking notes.

She started by saying that during times of uncertainty, executives must transfer security and confidence to their direct reports, other departments, peers, and customers. Paula went on to share five critical intangibles she’s learned—not in business school, but in the trenches.

Command the room – When you enter a room, what is your posture? Your shoulders should be erect, not slouched. Your pace should be swift but not hurried. These subtle adjustments send a micro-message that what is about to transpire in this meeting is important. Additionally, eye contact and a simple greeting should be given to set the tone for the meeting. When appropriate, an authentic smile loosens the tension in the room and invites everyone to relax as you proceed with business.

Visual appearance speaks loud and clear – Have you ever seen someone who always appears frumpy and disheveled? Someone who is smart and has a good work ethic, but always looks like a “hot mess”? I remember years ago when one of my adopted sisters told me, “Simon, you can always judge a woman by her black pumps.” She told me that if the heel is scraped and the shoes look run-down, it speaks volumes about how much a woman cares about herself and maybe even how she runs her business. The same goes for men. This isn’t a new idea. If you have read the classic book by John T. Malloy, Dress for Success, then you are familiar with proper dress code.

However, nowadays, with more people telecommuting and working virtually, do you think how you dress impacts your attitude or approach to work? It really does make a difference in how you are perceived.

Connect first and communicate last – When she said this, I was stunned because I have often wondered why some people with okay credentials get ahead, get promoted, get added to a committee, or become the go-to person, while others who have the right pedigree seem to stay stuck in neutral. Then I recalled that women have two problems with men: We don’t talk, and we rarely listen. When we do talk, it’s all about us, and when we do listen, it’s selective hearing. I am guilty on both counts, and I’m working on getting better.

The bottom line is very simple: You have to connect through asking vs. telling. Giving vs. receiving. Having a phone conversation vs. e-mailing. Why? Behind content is intent. The delivery system is as important as the message. I know that this is old school in the midst of instant messages and texting. Yes, you can communicate using these quick methods—but is there really a connection? You be the judge. I’m just sayin’…isn’t there still room for the “high-touch” in the midst of high-tech euphoria?

Content flows from a congruent spirit – Paula then almost knocked me out of my chair by saying that when one masters the intangibles, he or she discovers the secret sauce: that success is about 60% presence, 20% visual, and 20% content. She said that the presence part is the most believable—right, wrong, or indifferent—because there has been a ton of upfront time put into whatever message is being transferred during every interaction. This doesn’t mean that one slacks off in preparing substantive content. Bottom line, a congruent spirit seeks to serve and give instead of force-feeding his or her message.

Executive presence is a daily choice. It doesn’t matter if you lead a team, are an individual contributor, are self-employed, or are in transition. Just remember to think about how you are showing up every day. The intangibles create the foundation that establishes the brilliant difference you make.