Summary of Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hulett

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hulett

No matter which industry you work in, we all know the feeling of meeting someone with presence. They walk into the room with confidence and immediately have everyone’s attention. Don’t you wish you had this presence too? It’s a crucial factor for success no matter what you do in life. You can’t succeed if you don’t have executive presence.

So, what exactly is an executive presence? It’s basically a special blend of traits that good leaders have. Sylvia Anne Hulett’s research team together with the Center for Talent Innovation set out to determine what these traits are. This book summary will describe what these traits are and how to best use them to gain executive presence.

In this summary readers will discover the three pillars of executive presence:

  • Gravitas
  • Communication
  • Appearance

Key lesson one: Gravitas

When Hulett’s research team conducted their survey, gravitas was found to top the list of more than fifty per cent of the people surveyed. Gravitas refers to the way people act or deal with situations. It’s why we think of a great leader as one who is cool, calm and collected no matter what is thrown at them. They exude confidence and this allows everyone they come into contact with to trust in their ability to make everything better. This is one of the main reasons why people with executive presence have jobs in power, their demeanour says that they can handle the responsibilities. 

A good example of what gravitas looks like came from Bob Dudley. Dudley took over as CEO of BP during the infamous oil spill surrounding the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. At the time of the spill, Tony Hayward was CEO but his comments and general handling of the situation was shocking, to say the least. Given the severity of the situation, BP could not afford for Hayward to continue in this manner. They needed people to have faith in them once again and that’s where Dudley came in. Compared to Hayward, Dudley handled the pressure of the press with ease. Firstly, he was cool, calm and collected like a good leader is supposed to be. Secondly, he confidently answered every question that was posed to him and lastly, he was compassionate. These traits allowed him to be a competent leader at a crucial time for BP. 

Another trait that good leaders exhibit is their ability to be both decisive and compassionate. You may be wondering how can somebody be compassionate and still be able to make tough business decisions but it is possible. Leaders have to be able to make hard decisions, it’s why we trust them. It is their courage to make sometimes bold decisions that we ultimately admire. Above that, they also own their decisions. This means that whatever the repercussions of their decision, they take responsibility for it. Now, picture a leader who makes decisions like this – if they don’t have compassion or empathy they can seem quite cold, calculated and maybe even insensitive. This will often lead to not having an executive presence but a presence feared by others. That is why having compassion is so important. This was also identified in the survey done when people said that emotional intelligence was an important contributor to a leader’s gravitas.

Key lesson two: Communication

Have you ever attended a conference or presentation where someone just walked out in front of people and changed the entire atmosphere in the room? They have the ability to make you hang on to every word they are saying even if the topic isn’t even something in your area of expertise. This is the power of great communication skills. In fact, a study of financial spokespersons found that the actual content is not really a factor when deciding who is a persuasive speaker. The factors that contribute the most are instead presence, voice quality and how passionate the speaker is. 

To have executive presence, you have to be an excellent communicator no matter what you are doing. If you speak to someone with a monotone, or worse yet, a high pitched voice it does not exactly make your experience with the person great. Then think about if someone ‘uhmmed’ and ‘aahed their way through speaking. It would make them seem unprepared or nervous. This will not inspire your confidence in their ability to lead. To communicate well, you have to speak clearly, have good grammar and speak in a pleasing tone. An interesting fact here is that the tone of your voice plays a major role in how you are perceived. What is referred to as a ‘shrill female voice’ when emotional or under stressful situations is found to actually lost people their leadership positions. Scientists at Duke University have actually identified the most pleasing voice frequency to be that of 125 Hertz. Obviously, it is not expected that you learn to change the tone of your voice to match this frequency but it is recommended that you try practising in lower tones. This will encourage a more appealing and soothing voice especially if you have a shrill voice. If you are unsure, try it out on your friends or consult a speech coach until you can identify what works best.

The next thing to ensure great communication is to engage your audience. Your presence and passion need to be established in five seconds. Why five seconds? Well, because that is how long you have to capture your audience. This is not a lot of time and those with executive presence choose to create a connection with their audience. It should not be the time you aim to shock or overshare, just aim to be yourself and let your executive presence shine through with ease. Do not make your presentation or talk overly complicated – by keeping it simple, you will be able to produce a better flow. This creates an atmosphere of storytelling that is more engaging than the stop and start of bullet points. 

Over and above this, you have to be able to adapt your communicative style when needed. You have to be able to gauge the people you are talking to. If it seems that they are unengaged and left bored, be prepared to change your approach. This is not meant to be stressful for you nor is it expected that you make multiple presentations as a backup. You just have to be able to read the room. If people don’t seem like they’re interested in your research methodology, then maybe skip over to your exciting results to reel them back in. It’s all about knowing your audience and communicating effectively.

Key lesson three: Appearance

The last pillar of executive presence is most visible  – your appearance. It was revealed in the survey that it was not as important as gravitas and communication to one’s executive presence but it does have a crucial role to play. If you appear shabbily dressed with shaky hands and a scared look on your face, no one will pay attention nor care about what you do or say. It is a proven fact that people will be more receptive to someone who dresses smartly and looks put together. If you look good, you look capable.

It’s no secret that attractive people have a slight edge over others. Numerous studies have found that being attractive can act in your favour. The good news is that your appearance is something you can easily work on. Keep in mind, this does not mean that you are unattractive or have a terrible appearance. It is just meant to present you in the best possible manner and for this to happen, you have to minimize distractions. This simply means that if anything in your appearance distracts from your executive presence, it will be rectified. You need to enhance your presence not take away from it. The first thing to consider is good grooming habits. Poor grooming will give off the perception of not caring about your appearance at all or not being in control. If you give off that vibe how can others trust you to lead them confidently? It is therefore important to maintain your appearance and ensure good grooming habits. It’s not going to automatically give your presence, but it will tell others that you take pride in yourself and strive to put your best foot forward at all times. 

This leads to the next point. You have to also project fitness and wellness. This may seem a bit drastic but if you consider it, do you want to be led by someone who seems lazy and ill all the time? Management might even hesitate to give someone a big promotion because they look like they might not be able to handle the pressure that the job entails. And being overweight often leads to low confidence and projects a lack of self-discipline. Being physically fit, on the other hand, indicates that you can take care of yourself and can, therefore, take care of any tasks thrown at you. 

Lastly, ensure that your clothing is appropriate. After all, if you look good, you feel good and you need your attire to ooze confidence. You also have to ensure that your clothes are appropriate for the audience and occasion. You can’t give a formal presentation to a room full of executives in your shorts and sandals.

So, even though appearance is lower on the list as compared to gravitas and communication, it will still work in your favour if you work on yourself physically. Make small changes, take the stairs instead of the elevator, cut back on the sugar. You never know who is watching and might gain respect for you for taking initiative. It’s one step closer to having an executive presence. 

The key takeaway from Executive Presence is:

There are people who have what is called executive presence. They walk into the room and immediately have an influence on everyone in their surroundings. It’s the way they speak, the way they act and the way they look that contributes to this presence. If you wish to have executive presence, you have to work on your gravitas, communication and appearance. These three areas can make a huge difference in your life. Not only will it make you a great leader, but it will also inspire the others around you to be better as well. 

How can Implement the lessons learned in Executive Presence:

Think of someone you know who has a great executive presence. Then list all their traits that you have noticed which contributes to this presence. Then determine if you have these traits or do you have to develop them until they are at a higher level. Make small changes and test them out on others. Maybe the way you speak, or the way you dress. Then establish how these changes have influenced people’s perception of you. Are you being treated differently? Is it easier or harder to get people to listen to you? This exercise will help you develop your executive presence.

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