At first glance, I may not look like someone who commands a room. I’m 5’1” (5’1 and ¾ if you are being generous). I am a soft-spoken woman. I’m a bit of an introvert.
When I first started working as a young professional, this stressed me out. I spent a lot of time trying to build a persona because I wanted others to view me as a leader. I wore all the right suits, tried to adopt a louder voice and made sure I always had something to say in meetings. In short, I was trying to cultivate an executive presence.
Executive presence may be hard to define. It has to do with appearance, impression, charisma, and gravitas—one’s ability to persuade and inspire. Regardless of how you define it specifically, it’s seen as getting you access to the table and inspiring credibility. Most Popular
Of course, anyone in a leadership position, myself included, will speak to the importance of executive presence—a good first impression and an inspiring personality will certainly go a long way. As my Duke University Fuqua School of Business colleagues Bill Mayew and Mohan Venkatachalam, have shown in their research, your voice pitch can lead to a faster climb up the career ladder. And some of these qualities can be learned, like becoming more emotionally resilient, or managing the tone of your voice in a meeting.
But so much of the executive persona I attempted to create for myself failed to feel authentic. I felt self-conscious, focused on personifying one definition of executive presence which was largely informed by the perceived similarities among the majority of those in the room. Because it was defined by those already at the meeting table, I hadn’t realized that I might need to adjust the definition for myself and move the table outside the boardroom.
As I tried to define what executive presence might mean for me, I realized that I was really good at building trust, building conversations, and building relationships. I excelled at encouraging others and being outwardly-focused. When I was consciously trying to build an executive presence for myself, I was focused on being someone who inspired others rather than doing the work of inspiring others. But as I left this rigid definition behind, I became less focused on self-projection, and more focused on interpersonal dynamic development.
Reflecting back, I was cultivating what I now call executive influence. Executive influence is less about how we dress or sound as it is more about the relationship and trust we build with others. It’s what happens when executive presence moves around in the world, not limiting itself to a persona, but developing over time and space. Simply put, executive influence is how we leverage and build our relationships. Leaders concerned also with building up executive influence are more likely to focus on interpersonal traits like empathy and collaboration.
So, what happens when we focus more on executive influence?
First, executive influence expands the time horizon of productivity. Executive presence may meticulously plan the pitch at the important meeting, but executive influence considers the hours before and after the meeting. Executive influence knows that meetings are made up of relationships, and that these relationships take time to develop. Credibility and trust are built over time.
For people who don’t fit the traditional mold of executive presence, this is good news. In my coaching, those who feel that they don’t fit the “image” of a leader—often ask me how they can get people to view them more authoritatively. When these concerns about self-perception arise, I try to push these leaders to ask better questions: Not, “How can I be more outspoken, so others will see me as valuable?” but instead, “When can I really show how valuable I am?” The idea is that executive influence encourages leaders to consider when and how they’re making connections—not just with whom they’re making connections.
In the meetings, I ask them to be an exemplar for building upon other people’s ideas. Another way is to be the person who summarizes the key points and gives credit to others at the meeting’s conclusion. Then, after the meeting, to take the time to set up coffee or phone conversations to explore an idea or action item further.
When you take the time to listen to others and demonstrate to them that you’ve heard them, you are able to start building trust. In the research by my Duke colleagues Sim Sitkin and Allan Lind, a key question that leaders who can build trust (the linchpin of effective leadership) answers for followers is – Does this leader get who I am as a person and care about me? When you have trust, you can more ably persuade others.
Second, executive influence focuses on collaborative movement rather than individual motion. A great example of this happened years ago when Obama’s female cabinet members used a strategy they called “amplification” in meetings. When one female staffer made a point, another woman in the room would repeat the point and give credit to its author. This strategy not only promoted ideas, but it also promoted others. By collaboratively pushing ideas forward, leaders were able to assert a more powerful influence in the boardroom.
In my own experience and coaching, the amplifiers do not need to be people who look or act like you. Mentors can provide a safe collaborative partner to work out ideas with. They can be people with whom we practice speaking up before we bring ideas into bigger settings. For example, I had sought out advice from a mentor – Sim Sitkin, for how to deal with a situation I faced in meetings. I observed that when I raised an idea in a meeting, there seemed to be little traction. however, when others voiced a similar idea, there seemed to be greater acceptance. And I worried that it was something I was not doing well. He responded with a suggestion:
“Next time you voice an idea,” he said, “I will follow with, ‘As Sanyin said,’ repeat the idea, and build upon it.” Not only did this work, but it created an environment where others in meetings started listening and synthesizing each others’ ideas. For those who do not feel like they possess innate executive presence, a mentor can help you see yourself more clearly and also help bring that clarity to others. Furthermore, you can become that synthesizer, that builder for others.
Sim Sitkin and Sanyin Siang at a Duke Basketball Game in CameronSANYIN SIANG
While these ideas may seem obvious, they’re not in regular practice. Building a persona is easier than building trust. Executive presence is concerned with making sure others know who you are. Executive influence is concerned with knowing others. It requires a level of vulnerability to make yourself accessible, allow your colleagues to see your ideas before they’re fully formed, and reach out to those with whom we may disagree. Influence takes longer to cultivate, but it also takes root more firmly.
While executive presence remains important for opening the door, as first impressions do, we need to also cultivate executive influence to create a sustaining impression.