In the early days of our careers, mentors and managers encourage us to develop the soft skills that will help us succeed in the workplace. Eager and obliging, we fine-tune our communication styles, practice active listening, and learn time management techniques. Those soft skills serve us well, and we progress to more senior positions. But what happens to that investment once your title includes the word “manager”?
No matter how senior your position, commitment to “people” skills should never dissipate. In fact, it’s critical for leaders at every level to develop executive presence. Executive presence is sometimes defined as the ability to communicate gravitas in high-pressure situations, but it has the potential to expand far beyond that.
In this article, I’ll use lessons about the art of storytelling from my time at Pixar to delve into the qualities of executive presence I believe every leader should cultivate.
Individuality: Embrace your unique perspective
The first step in establishing your presence begins with the leading protagonist — AKA you. As a leader, you must be constantly aware of the value you and your teams bring to the table. Then you need to express this perspective in a manner that others can “grok.”
Humans thrive on stories as a way to communicate narratives. Your history informs the way you see the world, and chances are that’s a story worth telling for your own sake, the sake of your colleagues, and the sake of your company. Think about your past and the many steps it took to get to where you are now.
Your unique personal journey probably weaves a compelling tale about how exactly you came to your current professional role. What is your story, and how can you express it in a manner that resonates? For example, my own personal story begins with how Hollywood and Bollywood movies inspired me to pursue a Master’s degree in Computer Graphics to work in the entertainment industry. That choice led me to launch my career via Pixar, later leading me to YouTube and then to TV at Google.
Clarity: Cultivate your presence with intention
In the context of cinema, a character is an individual whose mission, personality, and behavior drive the plot forward. In leadership, your personal character serves the same function — either advancing you or distracting you from your true mission. That’s why intention is a crucial ingredient to developing yourself.
It makes sense that Oprah’s favorite word is “intention”; she has used the concept to guide countless individuals toward becoming the best possible versions of themselves. Oprah teaches that character-building should be an intentional exercise, and that’s equally true in professional spaces. Instead of seeking to improve in a generic sense or striving to be more like those around you, take the time to consider the qualities you want to cultivate. What are your most honest wants and needs, and how do they inform your values? When you center your efforts around your personal intention, you won’t need to adopt anyone else’s template for character.
Setting out to cultivate character with intention can also help inspire the way you approach your day-to-day responsibilities and tasks. I regularly take time to think through my intention – what is motivating me at any point and why? How can I bring value to the mission that excites me and how do I express this so others can be excited as well? Make a habit out of drilling down to the why behind what you are trying to achieve and how you express this and you’ll immediately operate with greater clarity and lead others to do the same.
Positivity: Learn to storyboard your ideas with style
In the film business, great narratives always start with storyboards. They account for how line, color, and motion will impact how a message is understood by the audience and uplift them. By creating a shared visual language, storyboards support every team — from operations and sales to creative and marketing — in collaborating seamlessly.
Executives should embrace similar visual tools to share their ideas with others in a way that is digestible, actionable, and uplifting. Distilling ideas down to their simplest version will lead to memorable stories that land for audiences. For more on crafting simple, sticky stories, I recommend Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.
Start by considering your own learning style. Do you respond well to information presented in lengthy emails? Or do you prefer visual presentations? Come up with a list of three ways you are most comfortable processing and sharing information, then invest in honing those skills to achieve mastery. (Yes, that may mean learning how to chart in Excel or become proficient in Photoshop).
Thrive: Master story structure to be the protagonist you want to be
Being a leader doesn’t usually mean your ideas are accepted whole cloth. Instead, leaders are constantly challenged to advocate for their ideas both internally and externally. That’s why learning how to get your team, colleagues, and other corporate stakeholders onboard with your vision is critical. Once you’re able to inspire others to adopt your ideas, you’ll have partners working alongside you instead of shouldering the weight of that advocacy yourself.
Improving your storytelling skills is one way to inspire that kind of partnership. Consider the structure of great narratives. We all know that good stories have a beginning, middle, and end, but great stories account for details like pacing, story arcs, and character motivation. Those details are appealing in the workplace too; people want to understand the ‘why’ behind a project — the unique and personal anecdotes that make people resonate with the message.
Ask questions like these to flesh out a powerful narrative: What is the root problem that needs to be addressed? What is the cost or ROI associated with taking on a new project? How will this change impact the team or the individuals we work with? How will this initiative change the world? Most importantly, why should people care?
Mastering story structure will also help embolden leaders when it comes time to sell ideas in a more formal setting. Presenting directly to C-suite executives or board members can feel intimidating if you’re not mentally prepared. For a little extra support, consider taking a public speaking seminar to learn to project, articulate, and pace your speech. With the right tools at the ready and enough preparation, confidence will follow naturally.
Individuality, clarity, positivity, and equanimity are all important leadership qualities that factor into executive presence that can enable you to thrive as a leader. And each quality can find support in the art of storytelling, not just about our professional projects but also about who we are as individuals. Cultivating executive presence will improve your ability to be effective and satisfied in your work, motivate and inspire your colleagues, and guide your company to success.
And I leave you with the biggest thought here of all: Ted Lasso’s motto — speak human!