Executive Presence: Three Traits I Learned From “Pretty Woman”

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For many young professionals, the term, “Executive Presence” remains a mystery.  It has been talked about during development plan creation, sought after in succession planning meetings, and offered as feedback during performance reviews. However, if you ask a dozen leaders to define executive presence, you will no doubt get a dozen different answers.

Similar to charisma, you know it when you see it, but trying to develop executive presence can prove a challenging exercise. For many professionals this is where frustration sets in because in order to advance to the executive ranks, having executive presence is essential. The irony is, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, executive presence is in the eye of the observer, and is extremely subjective. My first experience with this term was early in my career when, as part of the feedback I received after not earning a promotion to Vice President. When I asked the hiring manager “what could I do to be a more attractive candidate in the future?” his only advice was to work on my executive presence. I had the skills, the knowledge, the track record of success, but lacked “presence.” Interestingly enough, when I then asked how do I develop or acquire this “presence”, he had no answer. However, he mentioned the Richard Gere character in the movie “Pretty Woman” as an example of what executive presence looked like.

Determined not to let this hinder or derail my career, I mistakenly assumed he was referring to my appearance. Having just seen the movie, I was struck by how crisp, dapper and professional Richard Gere’s character, Edward Lewis, appeared in his tailored made suits and French cuffed shirts. However, after watching the movie several times or more, I began to notice three additional traits that gave Richard Gere his “Swag” in the boardroom:

1. He was COMPETENT

First and foremost, Gere’s character was a competent, qualified, seasoned executive. While his Ivy League MBA may have given him his foundation, it was obvious that he had invested the time required to hone the Merger & Acquisition skills to manage a successful private equity organization. While it never hurts to drink from the five “wells”: Well Spoken, Well Traveled, Well Read, Well Balanced and Well Dressed,” nothing takes the place of being competent in your given field. Not only will you not demonstrate executive presence, but you may severely damage your brand, being viewed as merely an “Empty Suit.”  You can’t “fake it till you make it.”

2. He was CONFIDENT

You will never become an effective leader or display executive presence unless you make confidence your calling card. No one wants to follow an insecure, unsure, fearful leader. This trait becomes even more valuable during times of organizational unrest, industry upheaval and economic uncertainty. Unlike arrogance, which is based in privilege, entitlement and pride, confidence comes from being competent, extremely prepared and self- aware. Such confidence will show in your non-verbal communications, your attitude, poise and body language. It will cause others to look to you for guidance, direction and security.

3. He was an effective COMMUNICATOR

Of all the skills touted as critical success factors by members of the Executive Leadership Council, communication skills tops the list. More specifically, oral communication skills that allows one to effectively and persuasively articulate key information. During several scenes of the movie, Gere’s character delivers meaningful, impactful messages that inspire, motivate and educate. As a leader you can be competent, and have confidence, but if you are unable to demonstrate those attributes via communication skills, your executive presence will not be as impactful as it could be.

No matter where you are on your career journey, it is never too late to develop your executive presence. It may require you to take courses on public speaking, invest more time in preparation, and perhaps join professional organizations that allow you to craft your leadership skills. Whatever actions you need to take, know that with focus, dedication and determination in portraying Competence, Confidence and effective Communication skills will build the foundation for developing your executive presence. Add in “dressing for success” and your almost there!