3 Tips for Demystifying and Embracing Leadership Presence
The first time I had heard about leadership presence, I thought it was career advice about how to dress appropriately—suits for sophisticated industries like finance/banking/law, polished casual for creative fields, and in-season, off-runway for anything related to fashion. It was not until years later that I understood the concept (call me slow). If you do not have a mentor or leadership coach you may not fully grasp how important leadership presence is to your career. Believe it or not, it is as critical a skill set as knowing how to do your job. Leadership presence is rarely taught but almost always expected of leaders.
Think about the leaders you have seen in person, on TV, or at a conference. They usually have a few traits in common. They command attention. They focus on the big picture. They are optimistic. They inspire. Sure they probably dress appropriately, but whether they are in a three-piece suit or jeans and a black turtleneck, they stand out from those around them. They may never have been taught how to be great, but somewhere along the lines, they became great. You can too.
Developing leadership presence requires ongoing self- awareness. It is not a black-and-white skill but rather an acquired discipline. Over my career, I have met amazing leaders at every level that somehow made me want to help them succeed. By following them, I became better than I thought I could be and achieved results that I never thought I could. By contrast, I have met people with high-level leadership titles whom I would not follow out of a room. They were intimidating, suffocating, and came across as selfish and arrogant in my eyes.
Even though it takes years to cultivate your leadership style and presence, some things you can start to apply now. Here are three tips you should consider:
- Check Your Level. I stole this from a colleague’s career coach when we asked each other what we were working on. I had to be more aware, less demanding/intimidating, and develop empathy. She, in turn, had to learn to elevate herself from management to leadership. Her coach told her not to get lost in the details, to learn how to delegate when someone else can do something, and to check her level constantly, so she did not get stuck. By asking yourself if what you are working on is adding the highest level of value, you are challenging yourself to become more elevated—either in your current position or in one which you aspire to have. Too often in our careers, we get comfortable doing. We become proficient and maybe even experts at a certain level. People start to see you only in a particular role because that is all you have ever done, and you are good at it. When you find yourself at this type of plateau in your job, consider whether you want to stay exactly where you are or if you want to expand your role or move upward. If you do aspire for more, then start to do more. Get out of your comfort zone and start your succession strategy so that the organization has a seamless path to moving you ahead. In other words, check your level.
- Be Your Brand. I learned this late in my career. It came up in a conversation with the head of HR for a mid-sized public company for which I was working. He was sharing the best piece of advice he had gotten and one of which served him well every day. I wanted in. Having been in marketing my entire career, asking about branding was a bit awkward, but learning means recognizing that which you don’t know, so I asked, ”What do you mean by a personal brand, and what is yours?” He went on to explain that you should identify how and what you want people to think of you and hold yourself accountable to that standard. In his case, he wanted to be known as being a great business partner and a great listener. As such, he would check in on his actions and conversations regularly to make sure that he was responsive, delivered what was asked of him and that he tried to understand the needs of others. He regularly asked for feedback, positioned his comments as questions, and clarified his interpretation of what was discussed in meetings. He became his brand.
- Talk and Act with Intention. I was fortunate enough to be sponsored by an employer to participate in a week-long creative leadership conference. This entailed me getting 360 feedback from my subordinates, peers, and the executive It also involved me completing a series of personality and work-style tests and including two-way window observance of my actions in various work scenarios—sounds like fun, huh? It was one of the breakthrough experiences of my career. At the point I attended the sessions, I was going off track and getting derailed from the path I had set forth on. I was talented and knowledgeable in my role and respected for that, but I was hitting walls in being effective in various situations. I wanted everyone to work the way I worked. I was demanding and rigid and took pride in being right when I was right. I was also less tolerant of those I thought were less talented or committed. I became resentful that upper management did not recognize those behaviors and weed out the low performers. I was becoming the know-it-all without patience. Charming, right? During one of my one-on-one sessions, I was asked about how I prepared for important conversations and meetings. I told my coach that I was always prepared and knew my numbers, status, challenges, and what I needed input and direction on. Apparently, that was the wrong answer. The coach asked the question several ways before she finally said, “Are you intentional with the way you present yourself and in the words you choose, and, most importantly, what you hope to get out of every meeting and conversation before you start them?” The answer was that I was not intentional at all. I relied on my knowledge and basic agendas to guide me and others. When I took the time to digest this advice, it changed everything. Speaking and acting with intention allows you to take a step back and anticipate with whom you are going to converse. It forces you to identify what you want the outcome to be and to visualize how it might go, so that you can be prepared. This was a much different approach to how I used to confront people and situations. The unintentional path leads to misspoken words, wrongful interpretations, and the inclination to push ahead regardless of the reality of what is going on around you. The intentional path allows you to weigh all sides, anticipate reactions, and guide you as circumstances may shift and flow.
Not long after that, I came across a bracelet that reads: “Live with Intention.” Whenever I have an important conversation or meeting, I wear it as a reminder of how I want to conduct myself.
Developing your leadership presence will take more than challenging your work level, staying true to your personal brand, and being intentional. Begin by becoming more self-aware, remind yourself to apply these fundamentals regularly, and look to role models as examples, of what good and bad leadership look like. You will then be well on your way to being the leader you’ve always aspired yourself to be—with or without the three-piece suit.46