by Christopher D. Lee, Ph.D., SPHR
“I could tell by the way she walked into the interview room that she would be our next president.” “From the first sentence or two he spoke, we knew he was our guy.” It is often seen, but unstated — there seems to be an intangible leadership quality that is expected of all executives. Executive presence may be hard to describe, but it is a defining characteristic of the successful. Nevertheless, like the age-old debate about whether leaders are born or made, one might ask if executive presence can be learned. It certainly can be.
Every executive applicant is expected to be smart, experienced, and capable. Those are prerequisites to success. Executive presence can be subsumed under the heading of leadership acumen and three of its elements are confidence, communications, and control.
An easy confidence is reassuring. Candidates who are calm, collected, and composed put the entire room at ease. Due to the seriousness of the occasion, interviewers often present a stoic front. Confident candidates, however, can be disarming. It shifts the focus from whether the candidate is capable to how he or she would perform on the job at the prospective institution.
One cannot exude confidence if it is not present inside. Confidence can be cultivated through planning, preparation, and practice. When one is ready for the challenge, it is easier to erase self-doubt. Doing one’s homework, researching the potential employer, practicing answering questions, and rehearsing the interview repeatedly all help. Serious executive candidates seek feedback, and some engage executive coaches or consultants to help them prepare and perform at their best. Some family and friends are good substitutes — if they can see the candidate clearly and provide biting critiques that help candidates improve. Because executive positions are highly competitive, small advantages make a difference.
Confidence is self-assured and it is miles away from arrogance or conceit. When one is confident, he or she can both ‘toot their own horn’ and give credit to others. He or she does not make unnecessary attempts to prove to the interview panel that he or she is qualified for the job; he or she demonstrates it by how they conduct themselves.
Effective leaders are keenly aware of what they are communicating to the world both verbally and non-verbally. It is usually deliberate and intentional. It is deliberate in that most leaders seek professional development to hone their ability to communicate because communication is synonymous with leadership. In addition to standard interviews, senior candidates almost always meet with groups of people and make presentations as part of their interview days. Therefore, seeking speaking opportunities to improve presentation skills is another intentional practice of those preparing for executive opportunities.
Researching and practicing answering typical interview questions is also a standard protocol. A hallmark of a great leader is the ability to think at a high level but communicate complex ideas in a simple manner. Answers should be clear and concise and should reveal strategic thinking. Executives rarely get into the weeds. Instead, they provide strategic perspectives, inspirational thoughts, and visions of brighter futures. This clarity of thought is usually a byproduct of forethought. Forethought comes from prior effort, preparation, and practice.
Making a good impression and communicating confidence also involves appearances. How one dresses and carries oneself communicates a lot before a word is ever spoken. Gentlemen should not wear just any old suit, but a ‘good suit’ to the interview. What women wear has greater variety, but there is an untold number of books and articles that preach dressing for success. There is a reason for saying that high potential candidates are ‘groomed’ for senior opportunities. This metaphor about refinement reflects both how one looks and how one acts. Playing the part of an executive includes good body language, posture, facial expressions, and any other visible characteristic. Being polished is a part of being seen as presidential or having similarly construed executive presence.
The adage that leaders keep their ‘heads about themselves’ while others are getting flustered is another example of presence. Leaders control their emotions and thereby influence others by example. Things can and will go wrong in interviews. Candidates make mistakes, misspeak, or sometimes just flub some answers. Confident candidates interject self-effacing humor to get back on track. They acknowledge their mistakes and ask the interviewer if they can try again, or they circle back to the response later in the interview after they have regrouped. Being in control means listening intently to questions and responding in a measured manner without being too nervous. Being in control does not mean being perfect — it means being fully present and aware.
Emotional control is a sign of high EQ (emotional quotient or emotional intelligence). It does not mean being unemotional or robotic. It is appropriate in an interview to get excited to show one’s passion for a particular matter or to appear a little miffed when expressing disappointment for a past situation that did not go well. The key is to show emotion deliberately and with restraint. This reserved control is a sign of strength and unflappability.
Having executive presence is a fundamental criterion in the selection of senior positions. Search committees are presented with many capable professionals and will also look for defining leadership characteristics such as confidence, communication ability, and emotional control. These essential characteristics can be cultivated by leaders who seek dean, vice president, provost, and presidential positions. Confidence, good communication, and control come from being prepared, practiced, and polished. These characteristics do not happen easily or by happenstance. Usually one takes on a course of action to further develop their communication and presentation skills. They research and prepare for their interviews and then they rehearse multiple times. Planning and preparing to have a successful interview helps one appear polished when interviewing. Being ready and confident in one’s preparation for both the job and the job interview are foundational elements of executive presence.