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Own the Room:

Shape Your Organization's Conversation About Presence

By: Muriel Maignan Wilkins and Amy Jen Su

There is no question that beyond technical skills and a results orientation, having leadership presence sets a high-potential professional apart from the rest. Next generation leaders are often told to work on their presence and sent to trainings or provided a coach. But is that enough? While the one-on-one work with a high potential might move the needle on presence, there is tremendous opportunity to foster change by approaching leadership presence as an enterprise issue rather than just an individual challenge.

Take Wiljen Co. for example (the name of the actual company in question has been changed to protect the organization’s privacy). After working with a number of individual leaders at Wiljen, it was obvious that while each was making strides in developing his or her individual presence, the impact at the organizational level was not being felt. Feedback on presence was not talked about openly. There was a deeply ingrained belief that you have to look and act a certain way at Wiljen to have effective presence, thereby stifling the aspirations of talented individuals who felt they did not fit the mold. The long-rooted passive aggressive culture of the organization was not changing, and in fact, its past style was exacerbated by the individual behaviors of the folks at the top. It was clear that leadership presence was not just an individual issue but rather an enterprise one. And as long as it was viewed as such, the organizational culture would not change.

 A few leaders realized that they needed to reshape the organization’s conversation about presence. The question was how.

Name the Myths on Presence

The way key people in organizations often talk about presence is insignificant or even counterproductive. There are three myths about leadership presence that misdirect leaders, are often perpetuated by their organizations, and like most myths, are passed down to subsequent generations. Even when you do not have the full power to challenge an entrenched company’s culture, you can set an example for others and use appropriate platforms to convey the importance of leadership presence and alter the discussion. Start by naming the most common myths that organizations perpetuate around leadership presence.

Myth #1: You Are Who You Are

This is the most pernicious myth out there: “Presence is something that you either have or you don’t. You are born with it.” For an aspiring leader to hear this is stifling at its best. Yet we’ve heard this statement over and over from our clients, their bosses, and even heads of talent management. In reality, there are no exclusive rights to presence. It is not just for those who are gregarious or “larger than life.” By perpetuating this myth of “you are who you are,” an organization enables leaders to hide old habits, function on autopilot, and reinforce the existing culture that they are trying so hard to change.

 Myth #2: One Size Fits All

This myth is the opposite of the first but just as pernicious and perpetuated by organizations. This is the belief that to have effective presence, you have to look and act a certain way (usually like the person at the helm) to get promoted or rewarded. In fact research from a Center for Work-Life Policy survey shows that 52%of men and 45% of women believe promotions to senior management are based on a candidate “looking and acting like C-Suite executives.” Rather than building on their strengths and authenticity, individuals try to alter their presence by mimicking someone else. This ultimately thwarts creativity, innovation, and any efforts to build a culture where individual strengths are valued for the collective whole.

 Myth #3: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

We’ve all seen leaders get promoted based on the success they attained in their previous roles, only to fail miserably in their new role. Organizations often help leaders prepare for and define the skills they’ll need at the next level by exposing them to new assignments. They also help them cultivate their network by involving them in cross-functional initiatives. Yet companies are notorious for letting individuals fend for themselves when it comes to figuring out what leadership presence they will need as they move forward. Underlying this is the myth that if you’ve established your solid presence in your current role, you’ll sail through the transitions ahead. Not true. When you progress to higher levels of an organization, what is expected of you changes. Your presence is no exception.  

Take, for example, the tough transition from principal to partner in a professional services firm or from a functional leader to an enterprise leader in a more traditional company structure. These transitions require quantum shifts in knowledge and perspective, networks and relationship. They also demand a vast expansion of one’s leadership presence. Yet time and time again, we meet the functional executive who doesn’t see the need to expand his organizational visibility and communication beyond his function. Or the principal-turned-partner who hasn’t quite grasped what it means to be a “firm owner.” Until organizations recognize that presence is dynamic, this myth will continue.

 Debunk the Myths on Presence

Once leaders understand the most common myths that organizations perpetuate around leadership presence, many are inspired to challenge them and proactively influence the organization’s culture. There are many opportunities for leaders to help reshape the conversation.

Emphasize that presence is something anyone can build. Talent review discussions bring candid assessments of individuals to the surface. An individual’s presence is often fodder for discussion with many having an opinion on it but not many offering solutions. The next time you hear someone say in the context of a talent review, “I just don’t think he has the gravitas required for the role,” don’t let it slide. Instead, reinforce that presence isn’t something that’s only available to a select few. Building bench strength begins with an open mind about what’s possible for the individuals in the organization. Don’t presume—or let others presume—that because someone hasn’t fully tapped into her leadership presence, she can’t build it.

Don’t let others solely define presence as an issue of appearance or communication style. When you are part of conversations about someone’s presence or you are in a position to mentor someone on their presence, remind yourself and others that presence is not one-dimensional. Instead, leadership presence is a function of three things: mindset, communication skill, and physical energy. Most people and training programs focus on the physical elements. As a result, individuals are left disappointed when the changes are not sustainable. Make sure that any development discussions, programs, or coaching, approach it from an integrated way, addressing all aspects of presence, rather than just one.

Create a common language. We continually encounter organizations that address the challenge of leadership presence in a counterproductive way. Senior leaders with the best of intentions fail to articulate what they need or expect from their rising leaders and provide only vague feedback. This is a disservice to the individual and the organization. Organizations need a common language for discussing presence that turns subjective observations into observable and meaningful actions. Be clear in your discussions about what presence is. Agree with others on an explicit definition. Resist the temptation to perpetuate the myth that presence is solely about how polished you are, what suit you wear, and how much you resemble those in the C-Suite. Instead, ensure that your definition about presence is about “substance and style” or “credibility and likability.”

What has resonated with the organizations we’ve worked with is that presence is the ability to consistently and clearly articulate your value proposition while positively influencing others. These leaders have a “signature voice” that enables them to be authentic while connecting with and impacting others. This common language about what presence is, coupled with an understanding of what can be done to build it, catapults an organization out of the same old story on presence. The result is a more collective organizational mindset that leadership presence is a means to culture change and sustainability rather than just an individual issue.

Wiljen Co. put leadership presence on the enterprise agenda as a driver for organizational change, rather than relegate it solely to individual development plans. Over time, leaders shared a common language on presence, in their case using the “signature voice” definition that started making its way into development discussions, brief feedback interactions, and mentoring conversations. Those making their way through the leadership pipeline gained a clear understanding of what was expected of them from a presence standpoint as they prepared for and on boarded into the next role. Talented individuals who had once thought they would never “fit in” enough to rise at Wiljen Co. saw new possibility to make their mark in an authentic way. And in time, as individuals broadened their presence, so did the organization’s presence change from passive aggressiveness to proactive collaboration. A reshaped conversation on presence helped move the needle on reshaping the organization’s culture.


About the Author(s)

Muriel Maignan Wilkins and Amy Jen Su are cofounders of Isis Associates, an executive coaching and leadership consulting firm. They are also coauthors of OWN THE ROOM: Developing Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence (Harvard Business Review Press). For more information, visit www.isisassociates.com or contact info@isisassociates.com