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What Does "Leadership Presence" Mean, Anyway?

In performance reviews, some feedback is easy to give and simple to correct. For example, a boss telling and employee that she needs to work on her Microsoft Excel skills is a very clear and actionable piece of feedback. Similarly, an employee receiving feedback that he needs to wear a sport coat when meeting with customers highlights a problem that can be fixed immediately. But there are some pieces of feedback that are ambiguous and often very difficult to coach. One example is when a boss tells employees that he or she need to work on “leadership presence.”

This is difficult primarily because “leadership presence” can mean so many different things. In fact, most companies don’t even call it the same thing. I’ve heard it termed as “business maturity,” “leadership skills,” “organizational influence” and “operating style.” But the basic idea is the same: it means that the organization doesn’t currently see you as a strong leader of people.

Sometimes the company’s point of view about an employee’s leadership presence is legit, but many times it’s founded on nothing more than mere perception. Many good leaders of people get pegged as having poor leadership skills for factors totally irrelevant to leadership, like being shy, introverted, or not witty in front of a crowd. Yet, some of the best leaders I’ve worked for had many of those attributes.

For those strong leaders out there who get dinged for lack of “presence,” here are a few easy ways to manage your perceived leadership ability.

Take a seat at the table: Literally, take a seat at the table. So many employees opt to take a back seat in a conference room before a meeting starts, opting to leave room for those with bigger titles. I used to do this until a friend at work called me out on it. I now get take the best seat I can find. In my view, those who are on time get to pick their seats. Those who are late can sit in the back.

Always have a point of view: It doesn’t necessarily have to be a correct point of view, just a point of view that you can back up with rational thought. Even if executives disagree with opinion, you will always have something to contribute to the conversation and will never feel like a deer in headlights when you are asked a question.

Mentally prepare for meetings: Ask for “pre-reads” of meeting documents so you can review prior to the meeting. Think about the questions that might come up or the questions that you have. Make sure you can be an active contributor to the meeting, or don’t go.

Don’t react to crises immediately: Have you ever felt like you were drowning in work, only to have your boss come by your desk and give you a huge assignment? Instead of throwing your laptop at him —which I’ve wanted to do multiple times—take a deep breath, smile, and tell him you will get back with her on a game plan. Freaking out under stress = lack of leadership presence.

Increase your public speaking skills: Public speaking is a learnable skill available to anyone, and It’s extremely important at corporations because it may be the only setting in which a corporate executive evaluates you. Being great in a one-on-one setting is important, but you need to be great 1 on 50 as well to build perceived leadership credibility.

Check your body language: Your non-verbal cues are sending messages all the time, and people are forming opinions about you before you even say one word. I once got feedback after a job interview that I was folding my arms the whole time and that the interviewer thought I was not interested in the job. Of course, it wasn’t that at all; I just like folding my arms! But that wasn’t the message I was sending. 

Some of these tips may seem trivial or even superficial to you, but at least they are tangible and actionable. When your boss abstractly tells you that you need to work on leadership presence, he or she may actually be telling you to do one or all of these things.


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