Easy strategies to increase your executive presence

Business travel manager in meeting with travelers

Lelia Gowland, Principal, Gowland LLC.

Business travel managers know that in-person meetings help ensure that employees feel connected to clients and colleagues. After all, even the best schmoozers among us can only build so much rapport using the latest video conference technology.

If your travelers are on-the-road meeting clients and colleagues, how do you think they want to be seen once they get there? Do they aspire to be:

  • Option A) the person who carries themselves with gravitas and is immediately seen as competent and capable of doing their job, or 
  • Option B) the person who spilled the entire contents of their bag or purse down the escalator at LAX and is clearly just trying to hold it all together? 

Having tried both, I strongly prefer option A.

We all know ‘executive presence’ (option A) when we see it. It’s that feeling you get when a person walks in, poised and polished, with the presence of a leader. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about how they carry themselves, which of course seems effortless. 

We all want to have executive presence, but how do we get it? Until someone invents a magical pill, there’s Jennifer Lee, a director of training and development and an executive presence expert.

According to Lee, two critical factors in executive presence are gravitas: how you act, and what she calls ‘perceived identity’: how you look, and how people perceive you because of it.

Gravitas: Demonstrate confidence (or learn to fake it)

Business travel is all about getting your people in front of the people they need to do business with. But what about once they’re there? The in-person moments matter and so do the impressions they leave, so it’s important to help set your travelers up for success. Lee offers some great tips for you to share with busy travelers, starting with the right accessories…

When traveling, it can be easy to dump everything in a backpack, or large handbag, as you walk out the door. This leads to an awkward purse search when someone asks for a business card. You say, “It’s in here somewhere,” while you pull out everything from breath mints to granola bars, only to realize your business card holder is in your other bag.

Lee touts the idea of order and encourages clients to keep things simple and organized. If you’re a large bag enthusiast, perhaps carry a smaller bag inside of it that’s always stocked with the business necessities: pen, business cards, notebook.

Quickly being able to find what you’re looking for can help you stay present in the moment. Rather than being distracted in your search for whatever ends up being in the bottom left corner of your bag, you can focus on the interaction and the substance of the conversation.

This approach can help you navigate those important casual encounters that create a lasting first impression. 

Portraying confidence under pressure is another story. 

One of Lee’s clients used to freeze with anxiety when she presented in meetings with people she perceived as more powerful. Her otherwise strong executive presence would crash. 

In order to keep her cool, she and Lee developed a pre-meeting strategy, like a basketball player’s free throw ritual. She would:

  • Go somewhere quiet and take four really deep breaths. 
  • Grab a bottle of water. (Lee says when people get anxious, they tend to get dry mouth. Then they start to freak out about the dry mouth, and then they’ve lost their presence.)
  • Bring a ‘friendly’ to the meeting, someone who’s prepped to be an ally. If Lee’s client froze, the friendly would ask an easy question. This would derail the presentation long enough for Lee’s client to get her thoughts back on track – giving her a confidence boost in the process.

Just a few months after implementing this strategy, Lee’s client was perceived as a confident presenter to the C-suite.

Let’s be clear: four breaths, a drink and a ‘friendly’ aren’t the magic recipe for gravitas or keeping your cool on the road. These strategies helped Lee’s client manage her emotions and proactively implement a plan before she experienced visible signs of stress. Your strategies might be different, but the need to prepare emotionally is the same. 

Perceived identity: Look the part

I recently heard from a woman who arrived at a conference wearing jeans. She’d thought carefully about her appearance and opted for denim to give the impression of being accessible and approachable. When she arrived and saw suits galore, she realized she looked unprofessional by comparison. Lee would agree. It’s all about context and matching the industry expectations.

Citing research from Harvard Medical School, Lee says, “People assess your competence and trustworthiness in a quarter of a second based solely on how you look.”

“It’s not fair,” she says, “But if you want to move forward in your career, you need to look the part. Your ideas are the focal point, not your wardrobe.”

Men aren’t immune. Mark Zuckerberg switched from his characteristic t-shirt and hoodie to a suit when meeting with investors. But unfortunately: “For women, there are just more things you need to do to make sure you don’t lose that quarter of a second,” Lee laments.

It’s about knowing the norms of your industry and dressing for the job you want – especially if you’re a woman. One of Lee’s clients is in a very casual field. But if she wants to advance professionally, Lee says, “she can’t roll up in a Care Bear’s t-shirt and ripped jeans,” even if some of her colleagues do. 

Perceived identity comes down to one question for Lee. “If I tell you what my job title is, do you believe that I can do my job?” 

In some ways, this makes sense. What’s appropriate in one industry would be completely inappropriate in another. The tight ponytail that’s expected of an Olympic gymnast would look out of place on the newscaster covering the event. Similarly, if the gymnast arrived with perfectly coiffed newscaster hair, she wouldn’t be taken as seriously. Again, it’s about context and expectations.

Bottom line

As with nearly everything in our professional lives, let’s recognize that women are held to a different standard than men when it comes to executive presence. What we do with that info is up to us. If as far as you’re concerned, actions speak louder than clothes, then go ahead and wear that Game of Thrones t-shirt, but remember to be mindful of the impression you give. 

But if you want to take Lee’s advice on executive presence, do your best to stay organized, find ways to increase your chill, and dress for the job.

Your company culture probably plays a big part in how you and your colleagues dress for work; no doubt it influences the way they travel for work as well. Read more about the impact of business travel in a cost-conscious culture in our white paper today.