How to develop an executive presence

 Dear Joan:
I’m a manager in a large organization and I’ve been considered for several Director jobs, but have yet to get one. I spoke to my manager about it and in the spirit of helpfulness she finally told me that I had all the technical qualifications and that I was an excellent performer but that I needed to work on my “executive presence.” 

I pressed her for some details but she didn’t tell me much. She mentioned that I needed to work on my presentation skills. She said I tend to get too detailed when I present to executive audiences—they get impatient, she said. In the past when I presented, the executives in the room jumped in before I even got halfway into my slides. But how can I communicate the message if I only cover a few points?   

She also said that I tend to “melt into the room” instead of standing out and speaking up during larger meetings. I don’t like to call attention to myself in these situations, so I could use some tips.   

She also said that I tend to bury myself in my department and that I’m not well known around the organization. But how do I “network” if I don’t have a good reason to speak to someone? I don’t want to look fake. Any help would be appreciated. I do want to get ahead but I’m not sure I want to do it if I can’t be myself. Any thoughts?   

The move from manager to director is a bigger jump than the move from supervisor to manager. Directors are considered “upper management” in most organizations, and as an executive, you are expected to fit the part. You need to fake it ‘till you make it. They need to be able to visualize you in the role. Since you have credibility and are a great performer, your boss was trying to tell you that you need to work on how you are perceived.  

While I can understand that you don’t want to seem artificial, what she is suggesting doesn’t sound unusual and shouldn’t require you to become someone you’re not.   

Let’s take presentations, for example. Executives have to sit through countless meetings and presentations and they want to get the most information in the least amount of time. Ironically, they will often jump in and drill down into the most minute details, if they are curious or need a detail to make an informed decision. So, the best way to approach this is to present what is called an executive summary. Then, if there is a lot of supporting background information, prepare an appendix.   

To prepare the executive summary, ask yourself, what two to five points do I have to convey? Also ask, “What exactly do I want them to do, think, or decide?” Then, work backwards and design slides for each point. Keep them simple and uncluttered. It also helps if you can start with the conclusion and then build your reasoning behind it. Executives typically hate presentations that start with all the background steps and move step-by-step to the conclusion.  

As you present each slide, use the “3 S’s.” That is, Set up, Story, So What. For example, to Set up each slide tell them what they are looking at and why. The story should be an example, or describe what is going on behind the point (don’t read your slides!). And the So What is explaining the conclusion they should come to about the information on each slide.  

Then take the slides you have developed and ask yourself, “If I had to cut the number of slides in half, which ones could I get rid of?” Then edit down. The appendix can either be at the end or on paper. Don’t worry, if they want more detail, they’ll ask for it.   

To start getting more comfortable in larger settings, begin by speaking up at least once in each meeting. Think through what you are going to say and when you open your mouth, don’t use any disclaimers (“This may not work but…”). Speak up loudly and hold the floor long enough to be heard. Studies have shown that when a woman is in a room with men, they often don’t even remember the women’s remarks unless she has spoken loudly enough and for a long enough duration. (Read Deborah Tannen’s book, “Talking from 9 to 5,” published by William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1994, for more great communication tips.)  

I can understand your reluctance to call a peer or executive out of the blue to network. That might feel awkward. Instead, start thinking about who would benefit from knowing about the projects you are working on. What executive could you visit to get his input or to give him a head’s up? What peers are you involved with on projects, with whom you might meet—for coffee or lunch, perhaps—to discuss the project and tap their ideas?   

An executive presence doesn’t happen overnight. But with a little extra emphasis on your part, they should start seeing you and all your good work, in a whole new light.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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