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Mastering the hardest soft skill: Presence

It's a Wednesday morning and I'm sitting with my MD around the big oak boardroom table. The topic? Career and succession planning.

The conversation turns to Joe, a high potential individual who is technically brilliant, he consistently delivers strong results and espouses the company values. “Does he have the capability to progress to leadership roles in the future?” I ask. We explore his development areas: strategic thinking, operational and people management skills and design a targeted action plan. We near the end of the discussion. I feel a sense of unease come over me as I know we have not put our finger on the one thing that is really going to make the difference. I say to the MD, “Fast forward to the future, Joe has demonstrated strategic thinking and we have been able to successfully develop his operational and people management skills, would you put him into a Business Unit Manager role?”

There is a pause in the conversation. The MD looks out the window thoughtfully for a few moments. He looks back at me with a grimace on his face and he responds slowly with, “No”. 

“OK. What’s missing?” I asked.

“Gravitas”, he replied.

As he was searching for other ways to articulate what he meant, he was rubbing the ends of his fingers together on one hand like he was trying to capture something elusive. “You know, presence”, he said.

Intuitively, I understood exactly what he was saying.

I can’t tell you how many times over the course of my career that I have had discussions with senior leaders about the talent in their teams, as well as directly managing the talent in my own teams, that the need to develop a greater presence for some individuals comes up. You know when someone has it and when they don’t. You can feel it. It’s intangible or is it? Can you develop presence? Or is it something you are born with? Is it nature or nurture? Art or science?

Presence is about authentically connecting the thoughts and feelings of people to inspire and motivate them to deliver a result particularly in high stakes situations – a make or break client meeting, convincing key stakeholders to invest in your business case, or inspiring your team to achieve a challenging goal.

I am also finding more and more that it is a skill that many of our savvy clients are asking for when we partner with them to find talent, especially in senior technical roles.

The good news is, according to the Ariel Group, presence can be developed. They say that:

  • Your experience gets you the interview – it's presence that gets you the job.

  • Creativity produces ideas – it’s presence that gets them heard.

  • Your brand gets you in the door – it’s presence that gets you the deal.

  • Your position gives you authority – it’s presence that gives you the influence.

  • Leadership gets you the stage – it’s presence that inspires your audience.

The Ariel Group combines the best practices from actor training and adult learning to help professionals develop their personal presence. It is something they have been doing for 25 years in the US and have recently brought this to Australia.​

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