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Executive Presence—How to Connect With and Become Part of the C-Suite

In order to have significant impact as a leader in your organization, you need the other members of the C-Suite to include, consult and listen to you. Your title as general counsel gets you in the room. To be truly impactful, however, you need the other C-level executives to see you not as a narrow subject matter expert to be consulted only on legal matters, but rather as a peer and adviser who also brings specialized knowledge. You need to demonstrate that elusive quality known as executive presence, or “gravitas.”

Of course, your specialized legal knowledge is essential to the business. Just as important, however, is your unique approach to business problems. Your challenge is to demonstrate the business knowledge and judgment necessary to earn the role of strategic business adviser.

We define executive presence as the ability to make others believe you are capable and ready to be a leader. Before you can demonstrate your substantive expertise, you need the C-Suite members to listen to what you have to say. Executive presence is what will get their attention, and authentic executive presence will help you sustain that attention.

Our formula is simple: Presence + Connection = Authentic Executive Presence

Let’s break that down.

  • Presence

Presence has both verbal and nonverbal aspects.

According to Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of ”Silent Messages,” 38 percent of any message is conveyed through tone of voice, 55percent through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture) and only 7 percent through words. Other studies come up with different percentages, but it is well established that the majority of face-to-face communication is comprised of elements other than the words spoken.

 

  • Dress the Part

“Looking the part” is shorthand for cultivating a physical presence that is consistent with other leaders in your organization. If they are in business attire, so are you. If they are very casual, you are too. Of course, clothing choice should also reflect your personal style. The key is to match the general level of formality so that your physical appearance says you fit in. Dressing in a way that is outside of the cultural norm sends a signal that you are not “one of them” and impacts your ability to be heard.

 

  • Use Your Body Language to Convey Leadership

There is no single look for a leader. One common denominator, however, is that a leader looks confident. There are some universal guidelines for demonstrating confidence and leadership in your nonverbal communications.

Begin with posture and gait. A confident person stands tall and walks with purpose. When sitting at a conference room table or a desk, a leader claims space by sitting with chest up and arms open. They take up space because they have earned the right to be in the room and they know that they add value.

When a leader speaks or listens, they make eye contact. They are confident in their message and they want to convince others to follow them.

 

  • Speak Like You Mean It

A common mistake, especially among lawyers, is to assume that being professional means speaking in a monotone. If you want people to listen to what you have to say, your tone of voice should convey the emotion and urgency behind your words. Modulate the tone of your voice and your speaking tempo to enhance your message.

When you are challenged, stay calm, listen and respond calmly and firmly. A good leader is not afraid of debate or other ideas, and is open to changing course.

 

  • Choose Your Words Well

Verbal presence is about choosing words that convey your message clearly, concisely and convincingly. Avoid using jargon or going off on tangents. As the legal expert in the room, it is your job to explain legal issues in language that is easy for the nonlawyers to understand, but is not overly simplified or condescending.

Exert your influence not by the amount of time you speak but by the clarity of your message and the power of your ideas. Use pauses to give yourself time to think rather than saying “um.” If you are giving a prepared presentation, take the time to practice it and seek honest feedback.

 

  • Make Your Executive Presence Authentic Through Connection

Most articles about executive presence stop after advising on how to develop presence, and advocate a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach. But in order to serve as a solid foundation for important relationships, executive presence needs to be authentic and grounded in a connection with others. Without that connection, your colleagues may find you impressive, but not genuine and possibly not trustworthy. Connecting with others requires emotional intelligence—a thorough understanding of your own emotions and those of others.

 

  • Self-awareness and Self-control

Pay attention to the effect you have on other people as well as your own emotions and how they impact your communication and decision-making. Ask for feedback on how you are “landing” with others from people you trust. If you have the budget, get a coach or take a self-assessment, such as the EQi 2.0 or the Hogan Personality Inventory.

Self-control means understanding and managing your emotions. You will be more effective if you use your emotions to support your work rather letting them eclipse your message.

 

  • Be a Good Listener

The ability to read and connect with others begins with listening. Learn to listen actively, put your own thoughts on hold and pay attention to what the other person is saying and how they are saying it. Try to come to the conversation with a true sense of curiosity. Consider why they are taking the position that they are and ask open-ended, honest questions.

 

  • Be Approachable

The more approachable you are, the more likely you will be to connect with others. Try to keep your door open when feasible, smile and demonstrate openness and authenticity through your actions and body language.

 

  • Navigate the Emotions of Others

By being observant and analytical, you can determine what is causing the emotions of others and make an intelligent decision about how, or whether, to address them. When confronted with high emotions in the C-Suite, listen carefully and try to understand where the emotion is coming from. Is this person embarrassed that they have made a mistake? Do they feel strongly that the company is off track? Is there a personality or power struggle going on? The answers to these questions will guide you to a calm, authoritative understanding that bolsters your executive presence.

Your knowledge and judgment are important, but it is your executive presence that will get the C-suite to seek your input and listen to what you have to say. To develop a sustainable executive presenceit needs to be authentic and based in emotional intelligence.

The good news is that executive presence can be learned. It takes coaching, feedback and practice.

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