Janice worked hard. She completed her assignments on time and rarely made mistakes. She went to meetings, but often sat in the back and never said much – speaking up in large groups wasn’t her thing. She was polite to her colleagues, but cultivated her friends outside of work, and didn’t talk about her passion for Community Theater, gardening or working with children at her church. She wore comfortable work attire, but nothing that stood out. And year, after year, she grew more frustrated in her job. Why was she constantly looked over for new opportunities? She didn’t think she should have to stand out or promote herself to get ahead.
Tamara wanted to get ahead at work – to make more money, to be more fulfilled, to try her hand at management, but she too sat in the back of meetings, did her work and went home. She was afraid of standing out and making mistakes…mistakes that could cost her the job she needed. As a single mom of two young kids, she was tired often and had so much on her mind. She felt like she couldn’t take time for herself or invest in the clothes she wanted to wear to feel her best. She felt like only those who could give extra outside of work or afford different opportunities were the only ones who could get ahead.
Brandon also worked hard. He showed up on time and was friendly with others, but he never really spent much time with his colleagues. He ate lunch at his desk, didn’t join groups or committees, wore a standard dress of khaki pants and button down shirts and felt like he was treated like wallpaper. Just there, but not really noticed. He had great ideas about some new methodologies he thought his team could implement, and was a creative and talented artist – a rare skill for an accountant, but his insecurity kept him feeling stuck and nervous to speak up.
Janice, Tamara and Brandon all fell into the trap of thinking that simply working hard will propel you ahead in the workplace. And the facts reveal that women are guiltier of this than men, which is not surprising in a workplace that still mostly favors men over women. The truth: hard work alone won’t cut it. Especially hard work on the wrong things. You must develop your executive presence to get ahead in life as a boss, as an individual contributor, as an entrepreneur or as a volunteer. The great news is, everyone can develop their own unique and authentic presence that makes a great impression, commands attention and brings opportunity your way. Here are some tips on how to develop your own executive presence:
- Be Great at Your Job: Wait. What? I thought you just said I have to do more than just work hard. You do. You have to be a high performer. This is foundational. If you do not go above and beyond and perform at an exceptional level, the rest doesn’t matter. So, show up every single day to earn your job. Be prepared for meetings. Anticipate the questions your boss will ask and be ready for them. Don’t just do what was asked – do the next two steps proactively that you know are needed to push a project forward. Don’t know what exceptional performance looks like? Ask your boss about her expectations, then exceed them. Invite people you think are exceptional performers for coffee and ask them for tips on how to do the same. Sounds scary, but everyone likes a free treat (buy their darn coffee) and it is human nature that people like to talk about themselves. Trust me, they’ll be flattered you asked.
- Be Present and Engaged: Awards aren’t handed out in life just for showing up to work. That’s called expectations. You have to be more than present to develop executive presence. You have to be known by your peers, your boss, and your executive leadership and by people on other teams. So, show up early for meetings and chat with others you don’t know. Sit in the front or the center of the room – not in the back. Speak up – raise your hand, ask questions or provide a positive comment. Write an email to the CEO and thank her for that new employee benefit she just rolled out. Go to lunch with others. Request a skip level meeting with your boss’s boss or another executive (and let your boss know you are doing it) – and ask them three smart questions: How did you get to where you are today? What advice would you offer to others looking to grow into a role like your job? What can I specifically do better to develop my executive presence and make an impact in our organization? Not in a large company? Find someone in your industry that you admire and ask them the same – even if you have to do it over the phone or email. Then, LISTEN to what they have to say. You might hear some painful truths along the way about how you are currently being perceived. That’s okay – be coachable – it’s one of the most important traits to developing your executive presence. You can’t fix what you can’t face.
Also, build your network beyond your team. Attend industry or community events and get to know others. You don’t have to go out every night or travel to large, expensive conferences. But, you have to leave your desk and get to know people. You never know when that networking lunch or after work drink could turn into your next opportunity.
- Find Your Voice and Build Your Confidence: Here’s another truth. Insecurity smells bad – it repels others because it brings out the worst in us. No one trusts the idea that comes from the person in a meeting who is hunched over, speaks in a muffled voice or rambles or says phrases like “I’m not sure, but maybe, if we did…” We trust and want to follow those who speak calmly, clearly, succinctly and project a mature self-confidence, even when nervous, which is not only natural, but also it’s an important emotion that shows you care. Use phrases like “Based on X (fact), I believe we should…” or “My plan is this…, and I would appreciate your feedback on this approach.” Being a strong communicator – written and verbal – takes time, practice and preparation. I rehearse before all major meetings and presentations. Doesn’t matter that I have been an executive for years – if I want to stay in that seat – I must take the time to practice and prepare (proofreading my work several times and asking others to do the same, reading, rehearsing, anticipating all possible questions, thinking about the people in the room and their expectations – stated and hidden). Taping and analyzing your speaking is a great way to learn – and PAINFUL. I still hate it, but there is almost no better teacher. Record yourself on a voicemail or take a video of yourself at home preparing for a talk. How many times do you say “um” or “okay” or “like” or some other unnecessary word or phrase? Hand gestures out of control? Look painfully uncomfortable? Speak in a way that is as boring as watching paint dry? Better for you to see those things and fix them than subject your audience to it.
Can’t see your own flaws? Unaware of how you are perceived? Build trusted advisors who will tell you. Read Expect to Win by Carla Harris. She talks about the three people you need to have in your career – your advisors, your sponsors and your mentors (I added, your coaches because sometimes you need help with specific skills like public speaking). She also addresses how to change perceptions about you when they are keeping you from getting ahead.
- Look the Part: Everyone gets uncomfortable when we start talking about how you look. Perceptions are realities and how you present yourself plays an important role. But, let me be clear. This is not about your size, or your hair type, or the color of your skin or your gender. People of every size and type can feel great about how they look and enhance their executive presence. It starts with confidence as we talked about above as confidence is attractive on everybody. Want more confidence? Start by taking care of yourself. Make time to exercise and eat healthy as often as you can. Find a hairstyle that you love and maintain it regularly. Don’t tell me you don’t have the time or you can’t afford to take care of yourself. Think of it like putting on your own oxygen mask before you can take care of others. It takes planning and discipline, but you can do it. For me, I keep my hair short, which is distinct and easier for me to manage, and I get it cut regularly which gives me a little-needed downtime. And, I work out at home in my basement at 5:30 a.m. with second-hand weights I bought years ago. Free Frisbees and dish towels make great sliders you can use on a concrete floor for a great workout. The Internet has tons of free classes you can take (check out sites like Fitness Blender) and no one has ever finished a workout and regretted it. Feeling better about yourself translates to great self-confidence at work.
Second, is determining how you want to dress for the environment you are in. Not sure? Ask what’s appropriate. It’s no fun to show up dressed too casual when everyone else is dressed to the nines because you didn’t know. If your work environment is more professional, you need to dress accordingly, which does not mean hiding your authentic self. There are easy ways to stand out in a sea of dark suits. Similarly, it can be a detractor if you work in a more creative, casual environment, yet you show up every day in a suit and tie.
Today, there are great, affordable options for everyone. And, lots of ways to get help if you feel completely lost when it comes to what to wear. There are subscription services like Stitch Fix or Trunk Club that deliver options to your door. Stores like Brooks Brothers have experts who will help you build a closet over time of high-quality items that last for years and don’t go out of style. Pinterest is free and a great source of ideas on what to wear and how to build the basics of every wardrobe. Stores like Target and Nordstrom Rack carry great, affordable styles so that anyone can invest in looking good, and are a great place to find inexpensive accessories (think a statement necklace, fun earrings, a bright shoe, patterned socks, or a pretty bag) that make your basic workwear stand out for a stronger presence. I am known for fun shoes and accessories that provide a little personality as a marketer.
Whatever you decide to wear, don’t let your clothes be a distraction. If you are sloppy, untailored, wrinkled or dirty – people will ascribe those traits to you.
- Be Positive: I see people who work hard and nail all of the above, yet still struggle to get ahead. Why? They complain, are often negative and use sarcasm frequently to make a point. Honestly, they are exhausting to be around and unhelpful to me as a boss. Often, their complaints are justified, but complaining gives off a sense of powerlessness and an expectation that others should fix it. Want real presence and power? Instead of just telling people the problem, identify problems and the solutions and then get busy making change happen. Changemakers are leaders. Complainers are not.
These are just a few suggestions on how to enhance your executive presence. Be patient with yourself – it takes time and practice. But, you can build and enhance your presence and bring greater opportunities your way. Even if those opportunities don’t mean an immediate promotion, you will build your confidence, gain invaluable insights, develop a wide network of great people and become a more confident leader. And never forget, presence goes beyond your title and leaders exist at every level. Go ahead, invest in yourself today. You deserve it, and I believe in you.