Whether you’re searching for a job, transitioing into a new role, or simply received feedback that you need to upgrade your “executive presence” (I know, I feel your pain), then you’re certainly not alone. For most people in or aiming for senior positions, it’s not standard equipment. It takes practice and a few new tools.
I’ve coached many leaders to upgrade their executive presence. It boils down not only to what you say and don’t say, but how you read the room, and therefore conduct yourself. With some investment in finding an authentic and influential form of your own voice, you are more likely to be a member of (rather than a visitor among) your senior colleagues. Having an influential voice among those at the big table is what’s often referred to as “gravitas.”
grav·i·tas (grāv’ĭ-täs’) n. (source: dictionary.com)
Substance; weightiness: a frivolous biography that lacks the gravitas of its subject.
A serious or dignified demeanor: “Our national father figure needs gravitas, [but] he’s pitched himself as the kid brother” (John Leo).
Here are six practical ways to upgrade your own gravitas:
1. Be aware of the value of your own contribution
Gravitas requires remaining calm, even under fire, and finding within yourself the assurance that your value at the table is constant and worthwhile, without having to prove it (e..g, trying to be the smartest person in the room, dominating air time, or needing to be right.) It’s natural, particularly when awed or even intimidated by the intellects or accomplishments of others around you, to devalue or marginalize yourself in subtle but noticeable ways. Don’t give in to such fear, but simply notice it in the moment, and dismiss it without reacting to it. Your value to the discussion remains constant no matter who else is in the room.
2. Use good judgment about when to say something, when to ask a question, and when to stay silent
Being judicious about what and when to assert, when to inquire, and when to use attentive silence is key to gravitas. When asserting your ideas keep it short, simple, clear, and contextualized by the current discussion. Don’t restate other’s ideas. When in doubt, less is more. When you are silent, be present by active listening and staying off your devices. Listen like it matters. When asking questions, keep them on topic or message, short, and oriented toward “what” and “how” and certainly not “why,” and toward the future or present, rather than the past.
3. Avoid unhelpful verbal habits
Minimize verbal mannerisms such as “um” and “you know?” and “you know what I mean?” and “like,” and any other filler words or phrases (e.g., “…at the end of the day,” and “to be honest,” and “In my opinion,” etc.) that may sound like nervous habits or ticks. Watch the tendency to “up talk”—that is, don’t end declarative sentences or phrases with an upward inflection, like a question. I often use video practice to show a client these habits, which tend to hide in their blind spot.
4. Be confident and kind, without being arrogant
Arrogance and gravitas simply don’t coexist. When you’re perceived as arrogant, you’re trying too hard. Others read it as overbearing and insecure. People who deserve their seat at the table don’t have to buy it at every meeting. You have nothing to prove. You certainly don’t have to “win” with any particular idea, point, or deep thought. You don’t want to throw your colleagues under the bus, even when you think they deserve it. Treat those you don’t respect with respect. Remember, others with gravitas are doing that already.
5. Watch your body language
80 percent or more of your communication is non-verbal — while that’s a common statistic, it’s often underplayed or disregarded. How you show up physically — arms crossed or not, sitting back or forward, how stressed you seem, how fast you walk in and out of the room — these all shape or limit your impact among your senior colleagues. Noticing your own body language is critical to establishing a strong executive presence.
6. Observe yourself and the situation as you participate
For all of the above to work, you need to monitor yourself and others as you participate. What’s my role here? What’s unspoken here? Where should we head with this, and how is my participation helping, neutral or hindering that direction? What’s needed here? These are all self-monitoring questions that can help you adjust your impact for the better in real time.
When done right, gravitas is not a mask—it’s effectively adding your unique value to important discussions while minding and maintaining important relationships.
When gravitas is lacking, people know it, and when it’s present, they take notice: “She can really hold a room.” “His ideas are always welcomed by the board, even when there’s debate or disagreement.” “When she speaks, people sit up and take notice.”
Get your gravitas on, and your leadership is upgraded. Your contributions at the senior most levels will have the impact and be given the consideration they are due.