I have been an executive coach and advisor to academic and administrative leaders and aspiring leaders in higher education for more than 20 years. Not surprisingly, when the topic of career growth comes up, I consistently find there’s a missing link for many higher education leaders, namely, executive presence.

Many academic and administrative leaders focus on the tactical steps in preparing to grow their leadership careers, such as polishing their resumes and CVs, increasing their networking, and honing their interviewing skills.

Although these tactical steps are important, leaders need to consider how to deepen or expand their competencies in stepping back to look at their overall leadership aptitude and how they are perceived as a leader. Executive presence influences their present performance and impacts their entire career.

What Is Executive Presence? 

Executive presence has multiple dimensions – starting with how you’re seen by others. Your executive presence speaks not only to your knowledge level or credibility in your field, but also to your fitness to lead others. Fitness to lead includes your ability to demonstrate emotional intelligence in a myriad of situations.

Executive presence starts with the ability to demonstrate both humility and confidence.

Humility is a highly underrated leadership trait. Administrative staff and faculty who perceive a sense of humility in their leaders create stronger bonds with those leaders. Leaders with humility seek to understand other perspectives. They are also willing to implement a new direction when alternate perspectives demonstrate an improved path forward.  Another instance of humility is when leaders share their own mistakes as teachable moments, their colleagues see their vulnerability which makes leaders come across as more relatable.

Administrative staff and faculty respond more favorably to leaders who aren’t afraid to show their human side. Leaders who see their roles as a call to serve those whom they lead garner respect, admiration, and loyalty.  

Leaders also need to possess a healthy sense of self-confidence.

Administrative staff and faculty look to their leaders for direction.  A leader’s confidence instills confidence in the team that everything is going to work out, and it’s especially important in times of change and turbulence. Self-assured leaders garner trust which makes confidence a key skill required to exude a powerful executive presence.

Moreover, confidence is essential to advancing in a leadership career in higher education.  Self-assured leaders rise higher in their careers, far faster than their apprehensive colleagues.

The most successful leaders also have a keen sense of self-awareness; they are in touch with their strengths as well as their weaknesses. Self-aware leaders understand their inner wiring and this helps them respond appropriately in typical leadership situations that require thoughtful responses rather than mere gut-based reactions. Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Self-Awareness, notes that self-awareness is a trait that is highly correlated with leadership excellence.

Executive presence is also tied to a leader’s approach to interacting with others. Exceptional leaders ask good questions and practice active listening. They are adept at pausing before speaking, instead of being reactionary.

Highly respected leaders include others in decision-making. Leaders who seek input from others make better decisions because they are able to see situations from a much wider viewpoint than they ever could on their own. Plus, when people feel included in the decision-making process, they feel valued and are more likely to buy-in to the final decision.  Making people feel heard, understood, involved, and appreciated are all hallmarks of great leaders.

Another competency required to be seen as an exceptional executive in higher education is a solid understanding of when and how to set boundaries. Firm yet fair boundaries ensure team members understand what’s acceptable and what’s not. Without boundaries there is chaos, but with smart boundaries there is clarity and a sense of order, which helps everyone on the team understand their roles and responsibilities.

Perhaps the one trait that speaks to a leader’s executive potential the loudest (and hence, their career growth potential), it is the leader’s ability to formulate a compelling vision that is clearly articulated and which gains unwavering support from their team. In their book, The Leadership Challenge, James Kouzes and Barry Posner note “There’s nothing more demoralizing than a leader who can’t clearly articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing.”

Leaders who can think and act strategically and who can turn their ideas into a strong vision that resonates with others are in high demand. Vision is a key competency for successful leaders; those who create strong visions are more likely to rise in their higher education careers.

3 Actions You Can Take to Improve Your Executive Presence

As a Leadership Coach to executives in higher education, I’ve helped hundreds of leaders growth their careers by helping them understand and build their executive presence.

Here are three actions I highly recommend you take immediately to improve your executive presence.

1. Get first-hand feedback on your leadership style and your leadership aptitude. Consider implementing a 360 Performance Review so you can get feedback from employees, peers, and upper management. Also, consider undergoing a professional leadership assessment  (I can help you with that).

2. Conduct a self-discovery process by performing a self-audit on your executive presence.Take a look at key situations you’ve experienced thus far in your career. Highlight scenarios where you’ve experienced exceptional results, moderate results, and weak or dismal results. Consider all the factors discussed in this post (confidence, humility, listening skills, involving others in decisions, setting boundaries, self-awareness, strategic vision). Where have you excelled? Where can you improve?

3. Develop an action plan for improving your executive presence using SMART goals(specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time-based).

Would you like to enhance your executive presence? Or, would you like to help members of your academic or administrative leadership team enhance their executive presence?  Get a fresh perspective on your leadership aptitude or career trajectory from a seasoned higher education executive coach.  Let’s get the conversation started– contact me at [email protected].