Hallie Warner details 9 ways for Executive Assistants to develop executive presence
Let’s demystify the concept of executive presence and discuss how you can cultivate this leadership skill and grow your career.
What Is Executive Presence?
Executive presence, in short, is your ability to inspire confidence in your leader, your colleagues, and your direct reports. For EAs, this is especially important as you are often asked to lead without a traditional title of authority and must rely on your influential leadership skills to make things happen. Furthermore, you are leading up to your executive and down and out to others throughout the organization. Executive presence is an amalgamation of confidence, poise, clear and concise communication, reliability, vulnerability and strength. Quite the tall order, right?
Why Do You Need Executive Presence?
So, why is executive presence important for Executive Assistants and Force Multipliers? Executive presence is all about access and opportunity. By inspiring confidence in your leader you will get asked to take on higher profile projects. By exuding executive presence you will be a part of the decision-making process. Executive presence will allow you to command a seat at the table and be an invaluable strategic business partner and leader to your executive.
How Do You Build Executive Presence?
Like any other skill, with time and intention, you can develop executive presence. Executive presence is essential for Executive Assistants and Force Multipliers as you interact with more leadership team members and executives than perhaps anyone else in the organization. How you show up sets the tone for your organization, and beyond that, for your career growth.
Here are 9 ways to develop executive presence:
1. Develop your personal and professional vision
Do you know what you want and where you are going? If not, take the time to figure that out and hone your “elevator pitch” for your career and your life. One tool we use is called Your Future Self. It allows you to really envision what you want your life to look like in 3 years and then start manifesting that into reality by reading it daily. When you are clear on where you are going you will earn the respect of everyone in your circle. Beyond that, it will give you the language to clearly articulate who you are, what you do, where you are going, and the impact you are making on the world, whether you’re at a networking event, chatting with another EA, socializing at a family BBQ, or sharing the elevator with the Chairman of the Board.
2. Study your own behavior
Self-awareness is the cornerstone of success, and it is the conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives, and desires. It’s about knowing what you are good at, what you are not good at, and owning it. Self-awareness is knowing how you show up at your best, how you communicate, how you receive information, and how you show up when under stress. Taking behavior assessments like 16 Personalities, the DiSC Profile, or The Enneagram and really studying those traits can help you gain clarity about yourself and how you are perceived by others. Knowing when and how to adjust your communication style is all part of building executive presence.
3. Cultivate exceptional communication skills
A leader’s three most important jobs are to cast the vision, provide clarity and direction, and remove roadblocks. A Force Multiplier’s most important job is to help a leader accomplish those objectives. All of which can be boiled down to one thing: communication. Building great written and oral (in-person, on the phone, or via video) communication skills will set you apart.
4. Develop confidence
Confidence doesn’t mean you have all the answers or know everything. Confidence is knowing you can find a solution to any challenge that comes your way. If you are not confident in your own abilities, why would an executive want to hand off important projects to you? Get uncomfortable and be okay with failing forward. Each time you take on a project that you didn’t quite think you were ready for, or have that tough conversation with your executive and realize that you were able to handle it, you gain a little more confidence. And then a little more. Confidence takes practice. Lean into the uncomfortable moments and know that you can figure anything out. Your leader and your team will appreciate your willingness to try and your ability to get things done. That is executive presence.
5. Own your failures and your successes
As you begin to push the boundaries of what’s comfortable, you’re going to make mistakes. Own up to them immediately, share what you learned or would do differently next time, and bring a solution and plan of action to fix it. Having executive presence doesn’t mean that you get everything right. In fact, the best leaders are vulnerable and transparent when they’ve made the wrong decision. It’s the next step that sets the great leaders apart. Did they take ownership? And do they show strength and decisiveness on how they are going to fix it and move forward? As a Force Multiplier, you must do this too. Owning your failures is step one. Step two is being willing to own your successes. When a project comes together because of your efforts or the President thanks you for your contribution, do not deflect or downplay your contribution! Executive presence is the ability to sit with your failures and your successes and own them both.
6. Learn to listen and ask great questions
Some of the best communicators are the ones that listen and ask powerful questions. Executive presence means confidence. And confident individuals do not need to be the loudest or smartest person in the room. In fact, if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re probably in the wrong room! As Executive Assistants and Chiefs of Staff, our ability to listen to our leaders and ask questions that drive clarity for us and the rest of the organization is a critical skill. Influential leaders are masters at challenging someone’s thinking, helping them to consider another perspective, or helping them self-discover a new way of doing something. Those are powerful people to have on your team. Be that person for your executive.
7. Manage your emotions
No one understands chaos and crisis more than a leader and their Force Multiplier. How are you showing up when the stakes are high? Appearing busy and rushed can often mistakenly be used to signify value to the organization (I’ve been guilty of this in the past!). However, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Leaders with executive presence remain centered, are calm under pressure, and deliberate and purposeful in their actions. Overwhelmed and flustered Force Multipliers do not inspire confidence in their leader. This is not to say that you should hide your frustrations or challenges (particularly from your executive), but manage your emotions and communicate your challenges professionally, in a timely manner, and with a couple of ideas of how to move forward. Remember, you don’t have to have all the answers, but you do need to be willing to have the conversation and work through it together.
8. Build your leadership capital
Leadership capital is the accumulation of resources and power built through relationships, trust, goodwill, and influence between various stakeholders. Leadership capital is a finite (yet renewable) resource that must be used wisely and cultivated consistently. Force Multipliers can build their leadership capital by honing their job-specific skills (executive support, project management, strategic counsel, etc.). From there it is all about relationships, from maintaining loyalty to your leader, managing relationships between internal and external stakeholders, to helping your team members achieve their personal and professional goals. The third component is building your reputation by following through and following up, taking action and doing what you said you were going to do (or ensuring the promises your executive made are kept). Leadership capital is a big part of executive presence.
9. Lead yourself first
Self-leadership precedes leadership. You must lead yourself first before anyone else will ever follow. Executive presence must start with your willingness to do the hard work to grow as a human and as a leader. Everything I mentioned above requires discipline, the purposeful pursuit of personal growth, and daily practice. If you don’t even keep promises to yourself (waking up at 5 am, reading a book a week, finishing your MBA, or taking Friday afternoons off) then how can you expect your leader or your team members to have confidence in you? Leading yourself first is the first step to building and maintaining your executive presence.
Executive presence isn’t something that you’re born with – it’s something you grow over time with focused intention. What skills have you developed and which ones are you still working on when it comes to developing your own executive presence? Know where you are at now and then get to work owning your executive presence and your career.