You Are An Executive (You Just Don't Know It Yet)

She said I had an “executive presence.” This was coming from the VP of a product team I worked on early in my career. And she told me I only needed to speak up a bit more and earn a few gray hairs — then, I could become a real executive. Was this a back-handed compliment?

I was not so sure. Besides, the thought of needing to “go gray” in my mid-twenties to earn the right to be a leader was not appealing. Now that I think more deeply about it, it is clear that while she might have been well-meaning, she had it all wrong. (And no, it is not just my gray hair talking.)

There is no such thing as “executive presence.” It is not something you are born with or a gift that is bestowed upon you with age.

Sure, I happened to demonstrate certain abilities and achieved some meaningful results that the VP thought were a premonition of executive super-powers. But the reality is that we all have the capacity to be executive leaders — if we are willing to put in the effort to refine and build the skills that are needed.

How do I know? Because the following characteristics are available for all of us to develop and display. In fact, we look for these leadership qualities in the people we hire at Aha!

The key qualities of an executive-level leader are:

Integrity
We all have known leaders who appear to be upstanding people — and then prove otherwise. When you have integrity, your actions match your words. People trust you because you do what you say. You are honest, humble, and willing to stand up for your beliefs without being a tyrant or trampling on others.

Ambition
People with leadership potential have a deep desire to do something big and have a plan to achieve those goals. Maybe you do not know the exact title you will have in five years. But I bet you can envision what the work will look like and explain why you are so fired up about it.

Effort
Any leader can deliver lofty messages about the value of hard work. But if you want to lead others, you must be ready to put in long hours — and more effort — than everyone else. This willingness to dive in and achieve something meaningful sends a powerful message to others about the work required, more than words ever can.

Skill
With any difficult job, you need to be able to do the specialized work. And before you can truly lead, you must acquire the skills to perform your job to your fullest potential. This is how you qualify yourself as a leader worthy of respect. As your skills improve, so will your confidence to perform your job well and teach others.

Learning
Some people are content with a framed college degree on the wall (and are not eager to keep growing). But leaders are lifetime learners, pushing past complacency and seeking knowledge every day. Your hunger to learn will inspire others to do the same —  and create momentum for the entire organization.

These qualities are available to anyone willing to work hard and keep improving. Because that is what the best leaders do — work hard to be better every day and help the people they work with do the same.

So the next time that someone comments on your executive presence — whether they think it is strong or needs to be developed, say thank you. And remind yourself that we all have the capability to lead and that it is simply a matter of what we decide to do with our potential that matters. 

Do you believe in executive presence?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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