Executive Presence for Small Business Leaders

December 2, 2016 | Roger and Susie Engelau

How important is executive presence for small business leaders?

Executive presence is about more than getting promoted to the next rung in the ladder of a large corporation. It’s also important if you have the top spot in your small business.

Executive presence for small business leaders—exuding competence and confidence—is critical if you want stakeholders to support your business.

Customers, prospects, suppliers, partners, and vendors need to believe in you

Poor executive presence in a customer meeting can leave the customer thinking you’re not a good long term vendor for them. If they don’t perceive you as sophisticated as they need you to be, they may not view your products and services as sophisticated as they need them to be. Prospects need to feel like they’ve been heard but, if you’re not presenting yourself as interested—asking no questions, eyes darting all around while they’re talking—it plants a seed of doubt that you’ll really understand their needs as their long term supplier.

Your banker can think “we’ve got the company’s numbers but what about this person?”  Is s/he capable of being successful long term?  Vendors, lawyers, and your CPA… do they feel like you’re a good long term customer or partner or are you somebody who’s perceived as not capable of running your business well? Do members of your community feel like you’re going to make a positive influence there?  If not, you’re not going to get mentioned to their circles of influence or, government entities may not be confident in helping you expand.

Executive presence helps employees believe in you

You want the best employees you can get and you want them to have confidence that if they join their life to yours, it’s going to be positive for them. It’s difficult to attract the best and the brightest team members if you don’t appear competent and confident. That stellar sales manager you want to hire will choose the business leader who does. 

Executive presence for small business leaders is important if you want your employees to believe what you say. If you don’t look them in the eye when you’re talking about the company’s new strategy, they’ll wonder if you’re really committed to it. If you’re calm and cool when a problem is presented, your team gets a certain confidence that they can solve the problem, that success is still possible, despite obstacles.

Executive presence is a concrete skill that can be learned

The good news is that executive presence can be improved. The real challenge, though, is to do so with authenticity.

Everything that you present to the world starts on the inside. You have to know that you’re a capable business owner who’s been successful. Competence is about having good knowledge of your business but it’s also having good sound general business knowledge. If you have these things as part of your DNA, they’ll tend to exude themselves… if you can communicate well. If you stumble over your words, go on long, drawn-out explanations, give fuzzy, unfocused answers with thoughts bouncing all over the place, all the knowledge in the world won’t do you any good.

In her book Executive Presence:  The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, Sylvia Hewlett and the Center for Talent Innovation describe executive presence as a combination of gravitas, communication, and appearance, with each having a weighted value:

  1. Gravitas (how you act) – 67% — intellectual horsepower, that you can go “six questions deep,” confidence, credibility, and grace under fire
  2. Communication (how you speak) – 28% — your verbal skills, ability to command a room, voice tone, with eye contact as a surprisingly important aspect
  3. Appearance (how you look) – 5% — grooming and polish, body type, and physical appearance

Competence, Confidence, and Gravitas

These may seem like that “it” factor that you either have or you don’t but there are some concrete ways to attain this combination of personal attributes.

No doubt that competence, confidence, and gravitas come from a strong sense of your core values and beliefs. You want to have a strong sense of who you are and what you stand for.  In 7 Ways to Stand Out as a Leader, the author recommends “Straight talk, self-confidence and simplicity: These are the building blocks of substance.”

Here’s a collection of the best actions you can take to appear competent and confident:

  • Know your opinion and state it clearly and succinctly.
  • Maintain a calm no matter how upset you are. Becoming visibly upset diminishes others’ confidence. Figure out what triggers you (interruptions, accusations, name-calling, repeated mistakes, competing priorities, lack of time, etc.) and be prepared for those moments.
  • Stick to positive self-talk and avoid self-put-downs. Someone once told me, “The brain believes everything it hears 3 times.”  She advised me to say a thing aloud 3 times and I’ve found that my brain tends to recognize that thing as a truism.
  • Surround yourself by people who are better than you.
  • Be generous with credit.
  • Stick to what you know.
  • Show warmth.
  • Be present in the moment; give all of your attention to whoever’s talking to you.

Communication

Giving information—

  • Practice saying things aloud alone (in your car, in the shower) before you say them to others to keep you from using too many words or fumbling your words.
  • Master presentation skills.

Getting information—

  • Maintain eye contact, smile, and nod.
  • Paraphrase to confirm your own understanding or to confirm to your listener that you’re really hearing him/er

Appearance is critical

It’s unfortunate but true. How you look is a first and very quick filter, important because if you don’t pass this filter, nothing you say or do matters. If you appear disheveled, ungroomed, and disorganized you’ve already lost. You won’t be asked back.

In a recent study, people were asked to pick out the winners in a piano competition. The group that was shown only a silent video of pianists picked out the winners more than those who’d heard as well as seen the pianists. The predictor of success, then, was based more on how well the pianists exuded confidence and gravitas than on the sound they produced. The visual is important; there’s power in image.

As a small business owner, the most important aspect of your brand is your personal image. Does your prospect, team, or supplier see awkward, nervous, messy, and thrown-together, in crooked glasses and ill-fitting clothes?  Or do they see relaxed body language and polished shoes in pressed and well-fitting clothes?

I’ll attempt to handle the mitigation of physical imperfections with sensitivity. I like to think we are all perfect in God’s eyes. Unfortunately, however, brown teeth, skin disorders, nervous ticks, and weight can negate our message.  Obviously some aspects of our physical appearance can’t be changed, covered, or overcome. Clothing can minimize or hide some. Others may improve with a visit to the dentist, doctor, or professional image consultant. Talking about it right up front and using humor are two ways to put others at ease so they can focus on the good content you have to deliver. Possibly someone else can make that presentation, sales pitch, or important meeting.

Executive presence for small business leaders is a powerful tool.  The ability to exude competence and confidence is an inspirational influencer for customers, partners, employees, and the success or failure of your company.