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Why cultivating executive presence is like a Lamborghini

Have you ever met someone you instantly felt had “it”?

Some indefinable quality that drew you to them?

Who inspired you? Who, in the world of work, made you want to follow them?

That is what we call executive presence, and it isn’t defined by a title or a position of power. Nor is it about dominating the communication or overplaying your branding, although communication and personal branding are relevant. What traits constitute executive presence has been researched by Harvard Business Review for over a decade and the key ones of communication and confidence have stayed the course, as has a polished look. However, inclusiveness, in all its forms, has now also shot to the top of the list.

This begs the inevitable question of whether executive presence is something that can be cultivated, and if so, how you go about it. The answer to that is yes, but it lies deep within the heart of you as an individual. It is not something that can be done at a surface level.

I believe that executive presence is made up of component parts such as how your personal purpose aligns with your work purpose; how well you have developed your growth mindset; how much meaning you find in your work; how good you are at developing others; how strong your inner and outer boundaries are; your relationships with time, people and high-value activities;  as well as how good you are at the consistent qualities Harvard Business Review (HBR) observe. I call these qualities communication and personal branding, HBR refers to them as communication, confidence, and a polished look.

The parts in my list that HBR doesn’t recognise are like the engine that drives the Lamborghini. These are the parts that people don’t see but that are super-powered, with titanium valves. The car wouldn’t work without them, it would be an empty shell. For me, cultivating executive presence is about ensuring you do the work on your internal engine first because the sleek exterior design (the communication and personal branding) becomes more authentic and more confident when it is powered by a strong engine.

Let’s take being in meaningful work as an example.

The pursuit of meaningful work is an innate human need. As traditional sources of community and social support decline, work has become a crucial source of personal identity and significance. In 2019, 71 percent of people believed that meaningful work had become more important than it had been 5 years previously, according to Beaumont People. The importance of meaningful work was reconfirmed in their 2023 Meaningful Work Insights Report.

Unsurprisingly, 98 percent of surveyed individuals agreed on the importance of having meaningful work. Moreover, meaningful work positively impacts job satisfaction, career development, work stress, and overall health and wellbeing. Organisations also reap benefits from creating meaningful work, as employees exhibit higher engagement levels, reduced sick leave, and greater commitment to the organisation, leading to improved organisational performance - even during challenging times.

As a leader, if you are engaged in meaningful work these benefits you reap for yourself, and your organisation are like building compression into your engine to increase your horsepower. Nobody will know what you’ve specifically done but they’ll sense the improved performance on the outside.

Over time, if you want to cultivate your executive presence you have to continue to look after your engine. You have to understand how all those parts work together, how each piece depends on the next, ensuring they are well looked after for maximum performance. Then you can look to your exterior design. It does matter. But leaders who focus too much on their exterior design, at the cost of their engine, run the risk of burnout, engine failure or worse, becoming an empty shell. Those who prioritise their engine performance first, and only then look to their exterior are the ones who know how to cultivate executive presence.

Nina Mapson Bone is a people strategist, consultant, and author of Meaningful Work: Unlock your unique path to career fulfilment. She is a highly sought-after speaker about people strategy, culture, and leadership.

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