Jim Keene, CFA, Atherton Consulting Group, and Annette Czernik, PCC, Inspired Executives, recently designed and delivered a webinar and wrote an article on Executive Presence for the CFA Institute. For us, Executive Presence is a crucial skill set for every leader. We define Executive Presence as follows:

Executives with Presence have deep domain knowledge and are characterized by confidence, calmness under stress, ability to connect with and change others, decisiveness and emotional intelligence. Executive Presence is observed through how people act, communicate and look.
Executive Presence is the result of your individual energy management, the way you impress and influence people or situations, and your ability to connect and engage with others in the moment.
Authenticity is the core of Executive Presence. People can sense your genuiness and will follow you if they believe you. That‘s how you exert influence.
Executive Presence is the integration and full engagement of personal characteristics in the development of genuine substantive leadership.
© Atherton Consulting Group & Inspired Executives“

Our CFA Institute webinar generated lots of interest and questions. Our responses to key questions are as follows:

1. What has been your most impressive example of Executive Presence in action?

There were actually two highly impressive instances when I witnessed Executive Presence in action: Early in my career my senior HR colleague and I had an appointment with the CEO of our organization, a multinational financial services firm. Needless to say that I felt excited and nervous, almost intimidated, at the same time. During our meeting the CEO sensed that and encouraged me to share my thoughts and ideas, and provided me with positive reinforcement and constructive feedback. It felt like he was truly interested in what I had to say, he listened deeply, and we jointly decided on the way forward. He genuinely helped me shine.
Just very recently, I attended a jazz concert; the famous trumpeter Till Broenner performed with a very talented bassist. What I love about jazz musicians is that they can play it by ear and live in the moment. After the show I bought a few CDs and waited in line to get their autographs. When it was my turn, we had a little chat. Till interacted with me – mainly on a non-verbal level – as if he saw so much more in me than I did myself. That was intense, and I admired this special capability to be present and to engage.

During my tenure as Regional Director and Portfolio Manager at Wells Fargo Private Bank, I had the opportunity to observe and interact with Dick Kovacevich, CEO of Wells Fargo, on numerous occasions. During one of those instances, he gave an informal and impromptu talk to approximately 50 employees. The conversation covered three primary areas: his advisory role to U.S. government policy-makers, Wells Fargo’s strategic decision to remain largely a domestic bank and Warren Buffett’s recent increased investment in Wells Fargo stock.
Kovacevich stood tall and erect just like I imagine he did as a baseball player drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school. He spoke resonantly leaving listeners with the sense he not only knows what he’s talking about, but he is telling it like he sees it. His advice to policy-makers consistently included the message that regulation is damaging competitiveness and innovation in financial services. He operates to the beat of his own drum as evidenced by his resistance to Wall Street pressure to acquire an international bank. And he has the support of such prolific investors as Warren Buffett, who had recently increased his stake as the largest investor in Wells Fargo. Kovacevich was able to speak to the level of the audience and included the right amount of detail to keep us listening. While he had deep domain expertise in domestic banking and overall credibility in business, it’s the way he communicated and appeared that showed he exuded Executive Presence. I left that 30 minute talk inspired and believing I was being led by the right person to continue building a great company.

2. Political savvy is one of the key skills to boost your Executive Presence. What can you do to become more politically savvy?

The most important step is to accept that office politics exist. There is no way around them. Here is what you can do to develop a political mindset:

  • Be conscious about your individual goals, drivers and motives.
  • Review to what extent they are aligned with the overall organizational goals.
  • Observe how decisions are made and successors for key positions are being identified. Make sure you know who the key people in charge are, e.g. by familiarizing yourself with the current org. chart.
  • Learn to discover hidden agendas and to decode the subtext.
  • Once you identified the interests of key influencers and decision makers, utilize this knowledge to progress the goals of your area of responsibility.

Becoming politically savvy is about being aligned with the overall goals of the firm and to be able to analyze, diagnose, and use implicit contextual information. Politically savvy people can maneuver through complex political situations effectively and quietly, are sensitive to how people and organizations function, anticipate where the land mines are and plan their approach accordingly.

3. What prevents us from being fully present and engaged? What have been your own challenges that you had to overcome to gain a higher level of Executive Presence?
Leading others starts with leading yourself. In other words: If you take good care of your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy, you are clear about your intentions, you own and manage your emotions, and you are able to express yourself in the most congruent and powerful way.

Stress is my major personal derailer relating to Executive Presences. When I have a super-high workload and tight deadlines, I tend to dedicate my time exclusively to getting things done. There is no time left for continuous reflection and self-monitoring – the keys to optimal self-leadership. Consequently, my energy level drops and so does my mood. Even though I intend to act professionally, my grumpy mood transpires on a non-verbal level. Being grumpy is not really attractive to others, and does not support impressing, influencing, connecting, or engaging with them. Over time, I learned to make time for and prioritize self-care like introspection or meditation.

Being “in my head” prevents me from being present and engaged. Earlier in my career I was deathly afraid of standing up to speak in front of groups of people. I kept thoughts and great ideas to myself and talked with people more one-on-one than in groups. Ultimately, I realized I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a leader and influencer unless I could speak to groups. My first foray was to speak in public settings in volunteer causes. I went to high schools and college fraternities at first, graduating to large groups of “grown-ups” at business and non-profit events. Eventually, I grabbed every opportunity I could to craft a message and speak in a coherent, convincing and passionate manner. Right before a public speaking opportunity today, I implement the following rituals:

  • Aerobic exercise to open my lungs and generate endorphins (20 – 60 minutes)
  • Practice standing tall with my shoulders back and my feet firmly planted on the floor
  • Ask questions of individuals in the audience to reduce anxiety and make eye contact in advance of the talk
  • Say a short prayer asking for God’s guidance to be most useful to the audience

I have been following these rituals for years and find they make a big difference in my Executive Presence and communication of the message.

4. Does being too social affect your gravitas as a young leader?
Indeed, being too social can impact a young leader’s gravitas. Sometimes being social is manifest by joking around which is really an effort to reduce nervousness. Colleagues and superiors observe what you do and say at work, and they make an instant judgment about you (and you about them). You can play an active role in influencing the buzz about you. It starts by determining how you want to be perceived by others and what that means in terms of your actions and behaviors. Connect with your deep intent and how you can express it in a given situation or environment.
When you enjoy working for an organization, you are engaged and feel a sense of belonging, something that is a great motivator. Humans are social beings; we crave relatedness. In a high functioning organization, there is an overarching purpose that aligns all resources. Everything you do in your current role should contribute to the firm’s vision and mission. Review which social activities and interactions are key to get the job done and to what extent you fulfill personal needs.
Which position do you aspire to fill in the future? What does it take to be seen as potential successor material? How about starting to act as if you already had that desired role?
It’s a careful balancing act as to how social you are at work, and how your social behavior manifests. Eventually, you get to the top by being supported by others. Be clear about your deep intent, and bear in mind that “everybody’s darling is everybody’s fool”.

5. How does the necessity to exhibit Executive Presence change over time and with hierarchy?
The more responsibility you assume in your organization and the more you represent the firm with clients, prospects, or the external market, the more Executive Presence you require to influence stakeholders and decisions, to gain the confidence of your team, and to establish long-term business relationships. Your Executive Presence also helps you build your brand and make a lasting impression.

Listen to the recording of the CFA Institute’s webinar or read our blog. Executive Presence can be learned. You can speed up the process if you work with an experienced coach or a sparring partner.

Contact Annette at Annette@Inspired Executives.com or +49 162 2404002.
Contact Jim at jkeene@athertonconsultinggroup.com or 510-872-9977.