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posted: 3/3/2013 7:39 AM

How to build up your executive qualities

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By Ken White, Special to The Washington Post

What image do you project? How do people react when you enter a room or when you walk down a hallway? Do you possess that intangible quality known as executive presence?

It is somewhat easy to spot, but not so easy to define. It is a mix of skills that help you send the right signals. Among other things, executive presence is the ability to project self-confidence and to make tough decisions. People who exhibit executive presence seem to have everything under control. They walk with a relaxed confidence, standing tall, shoulders back. All of their nonverbal cues say, "I got this. Everything is good on my watch. And, there is nothing I would rather do."

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Meanwhile, they send a clear and confident message verbally. They speak with passion and enthusiasm. Their voice is authoritative yet approachable. While the words seem to simply flow, they are actually chosen carefully and delivered thoughtfully at the correct pace, rate and pitch.

At first, the idea of executive presence may sound like a bunch of fluff, but research has found a connection between it and job promotion. If you are perceived as a leader, your chances of being promoted increase. Plus, people want to follow a leader who is genuine, competent and decisive. Your executive presence could benefit you and those around you.

Executive presence can be developed. If you desire a future in leadership then it is in your best interest to work on your executive presence. Consider the following elements:

-- Communication

People with executive presence are excellent communicators and they value communication. They are dynamite public speakers. Their writing is excellent. They are active listeners. The key to their success is their audience-centric approach to communication. It's not about control. It's all about the audience. From a nonverbal standpoint, they move purposefully. They send all the right nonverbal messages.

-- Appearance

Those with executive presence look good. Their clothing fits properly. It's clean and pressed. They look polished. They know what to wear and how to wear it. They take care of their hair, skin, teeth and nails. It's not about being flashy. It's about being professional. They realize they represent others, and they take that role seriously. They take extra time to look good every day which, in turn, helps them feel good. Attention to appearance affects confidence, attitude and energy.

-- Substance

Executive presence is not an act or a role to play. It all begins with substance. Know the answers. Be the go-to person. It's almost impossible to build confidence unless you have the necessary business-related skills and credibility. Having passion for your field and your job is necessary. Love your work.

-- Poise

Calm is a major building block of executive presence. When others are losing their tempers or adopting negative attitudes, those with executive presence are poised. They have the ability to take a breath in tough situations, weigh the options, and calmly determine the next steps. Those with executive presence may not always like being in a pressure cooker, but they know how to navigate one. Their poise is comforting to those around them.

-- The office

Your office is an extension of you, the way people perceive you, and the way you work. A cluttered office could signal a cluttered mind. If you want to be perceived as a sharp executive and a sharp leader, then have a sharp office. Keep your desk clean. The furniture and wall hangings should support the image you hope to project. Plus, it feels good to work in a nice space.

Your executive presence is a major part of your personal brand. In today's world, a strong personal brand is an extremely important asset. So, building your executive presence is worth the effort. Start by selecting one of the elements. Work on that particular element until you feel good about it. Don't be afraid to ask for help especially from someone who has executive presence. As you work your way through the list, you will notice a change as people begin to see you in a more positive light.

Ken White is associate dean for MBA and M.S. programs at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. In addition to his leadership role there, he teaches communication in the MBA program and to executive clients. Before joining the Smith School, he served as vice president for communication and marketing at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. His doctorate is in communication from the University of Missouri.

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