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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

Why executive presence is more critical to success than ever

Understanding how the world works today and how people respond to you in a remote environment is the key to changing their perception of you as a leader—and helping future-proof your career. 

Why executive presence is more critical to success than ever
[Seventyfour /AdobeStock]

It’s been called many things: executive presence, gravitas, bravado, commanding the stage.

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But it can mean different things to different people—and in the past few years of juggling a primarily digital work environment, what it means to lead with that distinctive leadership presence has changed dramatically for all of us.

In the past, all eyes would be on “that one” executive.

Some executives could change the temperature of the room at will—just by standing there. “Oh man, the CEO is here . . . quit horsing around!” “I better watch my Ps and Qs because she determines my bonus.” It’s possible that you’ve said or thought those phrases when “that one” executive leader enters your space.

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The ability to lead with that commanding presence dissipated in the past few years. That can mean trouble for leaders who haven’t gotten with the program. We’re all reduced to the same little box on a computer screen at company meetings.

Your advantage is gone. This leveling of the playing field can erode your executive presence and negatively affect your ability to make an impact.

While we all say it’s “OK” to have crappy cameras and sound, cheesy backgrounds, and the occasional guest appearance from your four-legged friends during a budget meeting—it’s really not OK. At least as an executive who needs to command elevated respect across a global organization.

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You need to minimize these excuses. Consider the following to boost your executive presence. The reward will not only be a boon to your confidence but also a way to truly take back the leadership reins within your company. Here’s what you should think about changing.

DRESS FOR SUCCESS

It may seem like a waste of time, but if you are at the executive level, you should look like you are in the office as it was in “the before times.” Yes, the lines have certainly blurred, but bringing your presence back to business dress is a subtle way to make a statement without saying a word.

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We’re all flirting too much with being “always on.” Working from home can turn into a 24/7 proposition for some. If you roll out of bed in your jammies and have to talk seriously about a crisis or conflict, you simply aren’t as mentally prepared. Attitude is everything in this case and will affect your performance.

And a quick aside: If you’re high up in the leadership chain, you may want to invest in better microphones (like what’s used for podcasts) and lighting in your home office.

I’m not suggesting that you are somehow less competent because you’re wearing sweatpants—seriously, I get it—but making a powerful impression with outstanding posture, nice attire, and a professional office environment with professional lighting and sound is worth the investment if you are taking your career to the next level.

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RESPECT OTHER CULTURES

This would be true even if you were in the office, but with the travel restrictions working with people in other cultures is now a different experience. Dispersed teams are the norm, and great leaders are expected to positively impact people across time zones, cultures, and countries.

Your team in Boston and team in Stuttgart will need to see you in different ways. It’s not feasible to fly out to other cities and assert your authority and presence. You have to work quickly to regain trust, show that you care (and truly mean it), and meet each team’s unique expectations from a greater distance (and all of this from that tiny Zoom window).

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It’s time to articulate and manage cross-cultural expectations clearly. Think about the differences in culture and time zones before each meeting. Don’t expect responses quickly if you are disrupting out-of-office hours. Consider the norms of each team—do they prefer personal chit chat? Or do they appreciate direct-to-the-point communication? Do you know what holidays they observe? What hours are protected in their culture?

The more proactive and empathetic you are with the needs of your teams, the better you will be received and the more serious you’ll be regarded.

MEANINGFULLY CONNECT WITH YOUR TEAM

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With remote work as the norm, empathy is more important than ever.

Schedule regular conversations, either personal or professional, with your team members. Weekly for small teams, semimonthly for midsize teams, and monthly for the warriors leading way too many direct reports.

Concentrate on getting ahead of potential confrontations instead of using remote work as an excuse to avoid them. The better you know your fellow team members, the better you can treat them professionally, and the more your executive presence will be felt.

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The proven concept of radical candor can suit you well here, although you’ll need to refocus some aspects of it for the highly digitized office. That’s why Kim Scott, who wrote the book on radical candor, has adjusted the idea to not just be an in-person communicator a majority of the time, but also to make the most of your remote leadership skills.

This also means ensuring everyone is represented well in meetings, whether it’s one-on-one or within a larger group. We’re talking about genuine dialog here, not just you talking for minutes on end.

BE AN ADVOCATE FOR BOUNDARIES

In many ways, your executive presence can help you be authoritative while also helping you respect your team’s work-life balance. Communicating boundaries for yourself and advocating them for your team is essential to great performance (and selfishly, so you are not being perceived as cold or apathetic).

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Understanding how the world works today and how people respond to you in a remote environment is the key to changing their perception of you as a leader—and helping future-proof your career.

You will start to see how building meaningful relationships will not only result in improved performance from others but also in your own growth both personally and professionally.


Jacob leads ThinkWarwick, a career consulting firm. He has helped 1500+ execs find more fulfilling work.

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