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How to Achieve Executive Presence in 2022

Executive presence is one's ability to inspire trust, credibility, and poise. But what does that actually mean and how do you achieve it? Modern Mentor shares her favorite framework and some simple action steps you can take to inspire confidence in your leadership capability.

By
Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #686
The Quick And Dirty

Building your executive presence—the credibility around your leadership ability—is grounded in leveraging the three elements of the Trust Triangle.

  1. Authenticity: being the real you
  2. Empathy: caring about the experiences of others
  3. Logic: the soundness and rigor of your ideas
Years ago, a friend told me she was up for a promotion into a pretty senior role at work. She’d been told she was ready from a skills perspective; she just needed to boost her “executive presence”—or her ability to present herself in a way that inspires trust, credibility, and poise—as someone “in charge.”
 
Her company hired a coach specializing in executive presence to support her on the journey. When I asked my friend a few months later how it was going she said “It’s great! My coach has taken me shopping three times, I look like a new woman, and that promotion has finally been announced!”
 
If you’re horrified by this anecdote in 2022, I hear you. It actually happened in 2013, and I was horrified then.
 
To be fair, in that time executive presence wasn’t only about appearance. But in certain companies, looking the part was non-negotiable. And when I launched my consulting business in 2015, I wasn’t willing to coach for executive presence. I was appalled by the bias and lack of inclusivity inherent in its framing.
 
But now, we’re in 2022. The world is upside down and all the rules have changed. I do believe the ability to inspire confidence remains as critical as ever today. But I also believe the drivers of executive presence have shifted.
 
I even coach for it today based on a framework I believe is relevant and fair. In 2020, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss published the concept of the Trust Triangle in the Harvard Business Review. And I believe trust lies at the foundation of executive presence.
 
So if you’re looking to dial up the confidence others have in your leadership ability—whether you’re hoping for a promotion, a speaking gig, a university professorship—then let’s talk about how leaning on authenticity, empathy, and logic—the three components of the Trust Triangle—can get you there faster.

Authenticity

Trust begins with showing people the “real” you. This doesn’t mean you have to overshare or give up your privacy. It simply means a single version of you shows up in every situation and is aligned with your values and beliefs.
 
Frei and Morriss do acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons why someone may feel compelled to hold parts of themselves back.
 
“There may… be times,” they say, “when expressing your authentic feelings may risk harmful consequences: Women, for example, are disproportionately penalized for displaying negative emotions in the workplace, and black men are burdened by the false stereotype that they are predisposed to anger.”
 
But again—authenticity doesn’t mean expressing every emotion you feel to the fullest extent. It means being willing to state your honest opinions, hold the line on your values, even express yourself physically in ways that feel most true to who you are. 
 
For me, the power of authenticity is less about you, and more about the environment you create for those around you. When people see you expressing yourself—verbally and physically—it opens the door to a true diversity of opinions, ideas, and approaches. It unlocks imagination, it makes debate and disagreement safe, and it allows even the “dumb” questions to be asked.
 
When you’re able to lead authentically, you build trust, you trigger inclusion, and you unlock innovation. What organization wouldn’t want to promote that?
 
So how do you be more authentic? Here are a few ideas:
  • Look in the mirror each morning and ask yourself whether you recognize the person staring back as truly you. If not, let her in.
  • State your values. And hold yourself accountable for upholding them every day.
  • Practice asking “dumb” questions in the presence of others. Recognize that oftentimes (a) others had the same question and (b) your asking ends up moving the team or project forward.

Empathy

Next, we have empathy, which is essentially the degree to which you can appreciate and tend to the experiences of others. And demonstrating empathy is grounded in listening fully and actively.
 
Listening matters now more than ever because we are continuing to head into uncharted territory. Even the most experienced leader doesn’t know what’s coming next. So the best leaders in 2022 are the ones capturing and honoring a range of perspectives.
 
To dial up your empathy, here are a few suggestions:
  • Turn off distractions—put your phone away—during conversations with others. It’s hard to demonstrate empathy when you’re distracted.
  • Focus on what others need to get out of a meeting, rather than focusing on your objectives. When you ensure others’ needs are met, you’re in the empathy zone!
  • Just check in with people—without agenda. Making a practice of being present, of truly wanting to know how others are doing, builds your empathy muscle which, in turn, makes you all kinds of trustworthy.

Logic

The final point on the triangle is logic. In essence, it’s the degree to which others perceive your ideas, your statements as sound. It’s a reflection of the rigor of your analysis, the thoroughness, and the thoughtfulness of your plans and timelines. People trust leaders whose ideas hold up.
 
Have you ever listened to a really emotionally compelling speaker who’s spun an inspiring tale… and then later you realized that while it all sounded great, there was no substance behind it? 
 
I call these bumper sticker ideas. “Live each day as if it were your last” is inspiring… until you really think through the consequences! Someone’s gotta pay the mortgage, right?
 
I coach leaders to stay away from bumper sticker ideas when they’re striving to dial up their logic.
 
Here are some practical tips you can use:
  • Before you communicate a plan or important idea, road test it with someone you trust. Are there holes? Contradictions? Address any gaps before you “go live.”
  • Where there’s data, check it twice. Even just one numeric misstep can erode trust quickly.
  • Acknowledge uncertainty. Logic doesn’t require that everything be known. You can present a solid plan that still carries uncertainty—just be sure you acknowledge that uncertainty (with a promise to resolve it) rather than fumbling your way through an evasive answer.
As you think about a leader you trust—one you consider to be a role model or mentor—can you spot these three points of the trust triangle in how they show up?

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.