5 Ways Engineering Leaders Show True ‘Executive Presence’

You did it. You made it. You’ve risen from a manager with a strong technical skill set to a director role (or even a VP) and you’re settling into this new phase of your career. But then feedback comes: You need to increase your ‘executive presence’ (and, fast!).

And you’re thinking … Increase my executive presence? What does that even mean?

Does top management mean your ability to speak to an audience? Do they mean your ability to bark orders and seem imposing and always in control? Or, are they talking about your ability to influence key people outside the scope of your position? Or, maybe they mean your ability to coach, inspire, and influence others.

Cultivating executive presence is challenging for any executive, but as an engineer (with your own unique, heavily technical way of looking at the world), it can feel like an elusive — even pointless — concept and, therefore, a major headache.

And yet, time and time again, I’ve seen top-tier engineering managers successfully cultivate executive presence with truly impressive results.

So, let me try to decode this for you … precisely what ‘executive presence’ is, and ways I’ve seen engineering managers, just like you, shift from being awkward leaders to owning the room.

Let’s start with what executive presence actually is, shall we?

Coach, psychologist, and researcher Dr Gavin R Dagley, in his report Executive Presence:  Influence Beyond Authority, defines a person with executive or leadership presence as “someone who, by virtue of the effect he or she has on an audience, exerts influence beyond that conferred by formal authority.”

What that really means is Do people trust you enough to listen to you and follow you when they don’t have to?

Emphasis on … don’t have to.

Because, you see, ‘presence’ is not the same thing as ‘dominance.’ And, far too many managers confuse ‘the ability to influence’ with strong-arming or manipulating others into compliance.

Not good. Not effective in the long-term. And, definitely not honorable.

Put simply — true executive presence involves always giving others an honest choice.

So, do you have this unique “it” factor?

Can you successfully and artfully get others to follow your lead and trust your guidance or recommendations when they don’t have to?

If not, here are five ways the presidents, VPs and top-level directors I work with (all with engineering backgrounds) develop this invaluable and powerful skill set:

1. They establish trust long before they ask for anything

“Show me, don’t tell me.” … You’ve heard this before, and for good reason.

Influential leaders know that establishing authentic rapport and trust before asking others to support their ideas is a vital part of leading with influence.

The tricky part is —  trust is forged through consistent action, not one-time favors or empty promises.

As such, leaders bolster their presence by making time for colleagues, clients, and their team …  even when doing so feels inconvenient or challenging. They keep their word. They regroup and acknowledge setbacks. They look out for others.

“The debt you have to pay in advance,” says Fred Kofman, Philosopher and Vice President at LinkedIn, “is to create context with your team such that when push comes to shove and you have to act fast, no one will feel hurt by that.”

The best leaders understand that simply having the smartest, most valid tech doesn’t make them influential. They must also prove that they’re a person worth following.

2. They make sure they’re always ‘in the know’

Engineers are masters at relentlessly staying on top of the latest shifts in the industry. They attend every conference, follow every tech blog and make sure that when something new emerges, they’re on it.

But great leaders actually prepare and stay up to speed in another incredibly wise way.

Instead of just focusing on facts, figures and outcome forecasts, they invest equal time into fully understanding the human dynamics at play in every key situation (and negotiation). By that, I mean they notice and address the needs (spoken and unspoken, rational and even irrational) of the people they’re trying to influence or convince.

For example, a colleague fresh off a big success is more likely to say “yes” to a new, untested idea than a colleague trying to recover from a string of failures. Knowing this helps a strong leader preemptively frame a presentation or request for support in a way that considers the needs of everyone at the table.

3. They’re mindful of their body language

Presence is not just a byproduct of words and deeds, it’s also largely a matter of vibe. Your energy. How you hold yourself, your tone of voice, or the look on your face when others are speaking.

Social scientists call these aspects of communication “nonverbals,” but you likely know them simply as … body language.

And savvy leaders know that their body language can make or break connection. As such, they don’t sigh loudly when someone says something they disagree with. They don’t look at their phone while ‘talking’ to an employee who just asked for advice. True leaders pay attention to not only their words, but also to what their body language and energy might be conveying to those around them.

They also use body language as a secret weapon to bolster their own confidence, and wisely so. Research by social scientist Amy Cuddy (shared in one of the most popular TED Talks of all time), reveals that standing for just two minutes in a ‘power pose’ “changes the brain in ways that build courage, reduce anxiety and inspire leadership.”

In other words — standing like a leader makes you (and others) believe you’re a leader.

4. They inspire others with their enthusiasm

People who work around you (and directly for you) want to feel inspired; they want a sense of meaning in their work. Author Simon Sinek reminds us, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

Reconnect with why you’re in this career field (at this company, driving this particular project, etc.) in the first place, and share that energy and purpose with your clients, colleagues, and team. “If you don’t know why you do what you do,” says Sinek, “but people respond to why you do what you do … then how will you ever get anyone to vote for your idea, buy something from you, or, more importantly, be loyal and want to be a part of what it is you’re doing?”

Also on this point, remember that honesty and transparency are great, but there is still an art to ‘being honest’ without killing enthusiasm. Most engineers and scientists I work with tend to get in front of  their teams and/or big customers and tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Starting, unfortunately, with what they or their product can’t do.

But people, even the highest CEOs, need to dream a little bit. Being ‘realistic’ does not mean being a downer!

5. They never confuse ‘arrogance’ with true confidence

A final important thing to know here, is that every single leader I work with (even the really good ones) are still figuring this ‘executive presence’ thing out at some level.

And they’re humble about that. You’ll see zero arrogant, know-it-all bravado from these leaders.

Yes, they may convey an outward solid confidence to help their teams and clients feel focused and safe (because that’s what we count on leaders to do), but behind closed doors and inside their own minds, they’re constantly improving, growing, and finding new ways to lead effectively by navigating around their own hangups, weak points, and limiting mindsets.

In fact, that’s part of what makes them ‘good leaders’ who are easy to follow … they know when to confidently put pride aside and say, “I don’t know” or “I’m stuck, help me think this through.”

As a result, even when they don’t immediately have the solution in every situation … they ALWAYS have people’s trust.

Nathalie Salles helps global leaders and diverse teams elevate their innate excellence in order to make dynamic progress toward their specific goals, strategies, or vertical growth vision. Visit her website to learn more.


Categories: Leadership, Organizational culture

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