The Power of Presence

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By AMA Staff

Kristi Hedges runs The Hedges Company, a coaching practice, and is a founding partner in the leadership development firm Element North. She writes about leadership for and is the author of a new book, The Power of Presence (AMACOM, 2011). Hedges recently spoke to AMA for an Edgewise podcast. The following has been adapted from that interview.

AMA: Your book is titled The Power of Presence. How do you define presence?
Kristi Hedges: I define presence as the ability to connect with and inspire others. When we think of someone who has a great presence, it’s much more than just how they speak, or how they interact in a meeting; it’s really that they inspire you. You want to be around them. You feel a connection to them. When I wrote The Power of Presence, it was this kind of definition that I started with. I took an inside-out approach to how to develop presence in ourselves.

We often hear the term “executive presence.” This conjures up an image of a Jack Welch type, who’s very powerful when he enters the room. And that is definitely part of it. But it’s really about being in alignment, when you think about it. It’s about being perceived the way you want to be perceived. So, if you want to be perceived as someone who’s warm and motivating, and yet you are perceived as someone who’s aloof and uncaring, well then you have an alignment problem. Your presence isn’t exhibiting what you want it to exhibit. Of course, if you want to seen as cold and aloof and you’re seen as cold and aloof, then you have no problem; your presence is perfect. But for most managers and leaders, that’s certainly not how they want to be perceived.

AMA: Many people want to be recognized by their peers and by their leadership as a unique, special kind of individual. How can one find a balance between being unique and in alignment with oneself and fitting in as a corporate citizen?
KH: If we want to have a stronger presence we need to be more of who we are, not less. If you think about the folks who have really inspire you or who you think have great presence, they are people you feel you know. There is a relatability there. And yet, our culture tells us to put on a professional mask that makes us unknowable and prevents us from feeling that connection.

It’s very reassuring to a client or to someone in one of my workshops, when I say, “Listen, I’m not going to ask you to be somebody you’re not. You don’t have to be fake here. We all have great presence in various aspects of our life. We have it at home, with friends, on our softball team or wherever it may be. You have to take what is essentially you and bring that into the workplace, into situations where you feel that you really need to make a strong connection.

AMA: How can I determine how others perceive me?
KH: Well, that’s a great question—the million dollar question. Because if we have a handle on that, we have a gift that we can use in so many facets of our life. Let’s talk about how it’s usually done. We have a performance review and we get feedback such as “Dave, your spreadsheets are fine, but you need more detail in them.” So you go and add more details. It’s a small change. However, your boss is very unlikely to say, “Dave, when you talk, people tune out.” Now which one would be more important for your career?

So what we really need is a presence audit. We need to know how we are actually perceived. In the book I talk about a “presence audit in an hour or less.” This is a very simple process anyone can do. Here’s how it works: Find five people that you trust to give you straight feedback. They can be coworkers and, if you’re working on presence in your workforce, in your corporate life, that makes sense. If you have someone who knows you in a couple of different areas of your life, that can work well.

Ask them two questions. #1: What’s the general perception of me? And #2: What could I do that would make the biggest impact on my success? Now here’s the trick: you have to listen to what they have to say. That’s the hard part, but the feedback you get will only be as good as your ability to receive it.

As humans, our tendency is to defend ourselves a bit, to maybe have some body language that isn’t exactly hospitable to the information we’re getting – being closed off, or maybe even grimacing a little bit, because it might hurt, right? You have to coach yourself a bit to be open to the feedback. Ask clarifying questions, like: “Can you tell me how that shows up? Where have you seen that behavior before?” And then take that gift that you’ve been given, and do something about it.

It may feel awkward to ask someone to give you that kind of feedback, but if you were to reverse it, and someone came to you—someone whom you trust and you respect, and said, “Hey, I need this feedback for my own personal development,” you would give it gladly.

AMA: What advice can you give to middle managers and new managers? What can they do to be seen or perceived as a future leader?
KH: Well, we lead from where we stand. So anyone can be a leader, because it’s definitely a mindset, not a title. For the middle managers, I would say one of the things that you could do that’s most effective is to consider yourself a visionary. This might sound a little bit crazy to people because they’re imagining Steve Jobs or someone like that who is an iconoclast or a seer. But you can be a visionary from where you stand. What do visionaries do? For one thing, they’re aspirational: they look forward. They look at the market and say, “We might be able to do this next.” “We could try this.” “We will accomplish this.” And they lift their team up as well.

For folks who are just starting out in their career, there are really two things that they can do to stand out. The first one is so simple it seems like it’s too simple, but here it is: do what’s asked of you, consistently. Do a good job, deliver on time, and you’ll be in the top 10%. The second thing—and this gets you above the top 10%—is to make powerful offers to others. Think of things in your organization that have to get done. Then go to your boss and offer to do them. Say you’ll research it or partner on it. Certainly you don’t want to step too far out of bounds. But it’s amazing, when people see that kind of initiative, how far you can go. You’re seen as a future leader.

About the Author(s)

AMA Staff American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.