To Develop Executive Presence, Learn to Listen

Executive presence is one of the most commonly asked for areas in leadership development and coaching. But, what is it?

There is something of a mystery surrounding executive presence. Some see it as a high level of confidence and gravitas, the ability to command attention, to be seen and heard. Others equate it to asking good questions, listening and emotional intelligence. At other times, it’s correlated with directness or good posture or wearing the right clothes!

If executive presence is mysterious, it’s partly because there are so many definitions. Personally I think of executive presence as the ability to communicate effectively and have a high level of influence, in a variety of settings. So when I work with clients on executive presence, we focus on mindsets and behaviors to help them achieve just that.

While executive presence looks different in different leaders and different situations (it’s supposed to), there are some basics that generally hold true. Strong listening skills is a good place to start.

Becoming a better listener

There are many advantages to good listening. For managers, good listening improves their ability to support and empower their teams. In peer relationships, listening improves trust and collaboration, both within a department and across organizations. Listening well also makes leaders better able to give the people above them what they need and to be aligned in executing on broad strategies. Like most leadership abilities, listening can be learned, even though some people are naturally more gifted. Here are some tips:

Give your full focus and attention

Listening involves paying attention, and this means you can’t multitask and listen well at the same time. At one of my favorite science museums, there’s a great exhibit that illustrates this. The exhibit consists of a telephone and a written paragraph on the wall in front of you. The task is to listen to a recorded voice on the phone while you simultaneously read the paragraph out loud. It’s almost impossible! And it’s a great example of how you can’t listen well while doing something else.

So, put down whatever you’re working on, set aside your smart device, and turn away from your laptop. Make eye contact and give your full attention to the person in front of you. If you’re on the phone or a video conference, give your full focus to the people you’re interacting with. If you feel you cannot afford the time to fully pay attention, perhaps you shouldn’t be in that meeting. But if you’re there, give them 100%.

Some people say, “Hey, I can multitask and still listen! I’m doing something else or thinking about something else, but I am also totally listening.”

I would argue, first, that if you’re not giving your full attention, you aren’t fully listening. But second—and perhaps more importantly—the person that you’re listening to won’t have evidence that you’re listening. In other words, if you are looking at your phone, you’re not proving that you’re listening. Their perception that you’re listening is just as important as the listening itself. So, make sure you’re paying attention. Remember, it’s the other person who gets to assess whether or not you are truly listening, not you. “Listening is in the eye of the beholder.”

Paraphrase back what you heard

Summarizing or paraphrasing back is another way to prove to others that you’ve heard them. You can do this with the information that they shared, and you can also do it with the emotion that they’ve expressed. And it can be done quite briefly.

Imagine someone talking to you for several minutes about a problem they’re having with one of their peers. They believe their peer is not doing their job, and you can tell this aggravates them. You might summarize back by saying, “I think you’re saying that from your perspective, your peer isn’t doing their job, and you’re frustrated. Is that right?”

In this case, you’ve summarized back both the information and the emotion. This shows that you’ve really heard them. If they feel heard they can relax and more easily move towards problem solving. And by the way, if they don’t feel heard they are likely to keep coming back to the same point over and over. This is why I emphasize that listening well saves time in the long run, because feeling heard helps people process, let go and move forward.

Avoid cognitive multitasking

The mindset that you use to approach listening is just as important as your outward behaviors. Most of us combine listening with other mental activities, even if we’re not outwardly multitasking. We may be trying formulate our response or thinking about why we disagree with some part of what the other person is saying.

I tell people that listening is most effective if, while you’re listening, that’s all you’re doing. This means avoiding judgment while you’re listening. Try to think of listening as a discrete activity separate from evaluating and separate from responding. Listen with everything you’ve got! You can always worry about what you’re going to say in response after you’ve really heard the other person.

Assess your intentions

In my experience, people consider your intentions when they decide whether you’re listening or not. If you mean well for the other person and are trying to help, they are more likely to believe you’re really listening. If your intention is to develop high-trust, meaningful relationships where all parties are successful, people will sense that. But if your intent is to drive your own agenda no matter what, people will sense that and they won’t think you are listening, even if you exhibit some listening behaviors.

Your intentions are not necessarily good or bad, they’re just something to be aware of. Are they what you want them to be? Assuming that people will detect your motivations, are you comfortable with what they’ll find? If not, what would you like to change? Assessing and potentially modifying your core intent is one of the deeper places you can go to grow as a leader, and it can create significant positive change.

If you’re working on increasing your executive presence, assess your listening skills. Ask yourself: where am I strong, and where might I improve? Or: in conversations and meetings, what percent of the time am I talking, and what percent am I listening (and thus not talking)? If you’re taking more than a reasonable share of airtime, you need to talk less and listen more. You might also ask for feedback about your listening; it’s a great way to gain insight.

Currently my favorite piece on active listening is by James G. Clawson at Darden.

For more on executive presence, see our posts on diversity and inclusion, authenticity, word choice, body language and voice.