5 Core Strategies for Cultivating Executive Presence

Here's how to lead with influence, rather than authority.

learn more about Karima Mariama-Arthur

By Karima Mariama-Arthur

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When people discuss the importance of making a good first impression, they're acknowledging our profound predisposition to judgment, and our innate vulnerability to being judged. The way we present ourselves to the rest of the word--our ways of being--provide context for how others perceive and engage us. Therefore, being intentional about this process is key.

Here's where executive presence comes in. Often described as the "missing link between merit and success," executive presence is the ability to manage perceptions in professional contexts. It is a powerful skill set that helps leaders at every level successfully navigate the business world.

If you want to cultivate your executive presence, consider adopting these core strategies:

Strategy 1: Improve your emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to express one's emotions and to perceive and influence others' emotions. Organizations with an emotionally intelligent leader at the helm have low turnover and high buy-in. But organizations headed by leaders deficient in EQ often flounder. Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick failed as CEO because he lacked the necessary EQ. After he was caught on film berating an Uber driver, he was asked to resign.

If your EQ needs a workout, try increasing self-awareness by challenging yourself to experience a broader range of emotions. You can also work on controlling your thoughts through mindfulness practices like meditation. And you can foster empathy by engaging more intentionally with others.

Related: Why You Need Emotional Intelligence to Succeed in Business

Strategy 2: Develop a deliberate executive voice

A leader with an effective executive voice is like a comedian with impeccable timing and a sublime feel for the audience: she knows what to say and when to say it for maximum effect. Purpose, rapport and expert-level execution shape every dialogue. If you're struggling with developing your executive voice, you might need to expand your understanding of the collective vision, along with improving your verbal and non-verbal communication skills. Think about how a particular message fits into your organization's long-term goals. If it doesn't, scrap it and develop a message that does. In some cases, introducing a new vision may be in order. When Elon Musk first announced that Space X would take people to Mars, he was mocked mercilessly. Now he's winning NASA contracts.

When crafting your narratives, remember that executive communication is the icing on the effective communication cake. It considers what people already know, what they need to know and what they want to know. It also promotes key mechanics such as: stories over status, plain speak over jargon, outcomes over activities and proposing solutions over reporting problems to assure that the core message is relevant and resonant. Watch any general deliver a military briefing to better understand the look and feel of a well-developed executive voice.

Related: How Successful Leaders Communicate with Their Teams

Strategy 3: Mind your physical appearance

Here's a quick exercise in free association: What five words come to mind when you hear the name "Mark Zuckerberg"? You're not alone if "hoodie" popped into your head. Zuckerberg is infamous for his casual wear, which would be a serious problem for anyone who hasn't founded a multi-billion dollar company or whose company culture frowns on its executives being too buttoned-down. Our physical appearance sends all sorts of messages to the outside world. If you're not well groomed and sharply dressed, those messages could hurt your career.

Consider what messages your current grooming habits are sending to the world around you and ask whether your influence is being diminished by your physical appearance. Even small tweaks can have an unanticipated impact on how you are perceived and thus create a new opportunity to maximize your influence.

Related: Fashion-Savvy Ways to Shape Your to Image to Score Business Success

Strategy 4: Create a culture that invites open dialogue and encourages rapport.

Working in an office is like being married: If you want it to last, you need to talk about everything, all the time. Pixar is well known for its healthy corporate culture, in large part because they excel at communicating. When they screen a rough cut of a movie, they invite all employees to offer notes on ways to improve the story. That open dialogue empowers the team and builds camaraderie. If you can get those lines of communication laid, you'll position your organization to succeed.

Remember, when you encourage open and honest dialogue, you create the context for higher employee engagement, which facilitates better workplace experiences across the board. Those positive experiences can only enhance your influence, especially during high-touch interactions.

Related: 5 Ways to Improve Company Culture

Strategy 5: Invite constructive criticism.

The best leaders have a healthy sense of humor, even about themselves. The ability to laugh about your foibles shows others that you have the maturity to lead effectively. Jeff Bezos is renowned for his self-deprecating humor. He engenders trust by inviting others to laugh at his expense, and doesn't take himself too seriously. If you want to develop your executive presence, accept that you aren't perfect and revel in your humanity -- the beauty of your frailty.

This shouldn't suggest that correcting your character flaws and other detrimental behavior isn't necessary. Constructive criticism helps every leader to become their very best. By discovering your blind spots and thickening your skin, you avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect. The most effective leaders understand that continuous growth improves career trajectories and has a multiplier effect. And, when peers and subordinates feel inspired to follow suit, the positive synergy can transform an entire organizational ecosystem.

Related: Are You Brave Enough to Listen to Constructive Criticism

The task of chiseling off the rough edges of your executive presence might seem daunting at the outset, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. By presenting your best version, you give yourself the greatest opportunity to shine. So, put in the work and position yourself for uncommon leadership success.

Karima Mariama-Arthur

Founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport

Karima Mariama-Arthur is the founder and CEO of WordSmithRapport, an international consulting firm located in Washington, D.C. that specializes in professional development. She trains, coaches and consults for individuals and organizations on the dynamics of complex communication and high-performance leadership competence. 

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