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The Look of a Leader

Funny, I never noticed it before, but Janie Sharritt and I have a lot in common. We have both been newly promoted middle managers, and we both prefer “to wear a ponytail, khakis, sweaters and loafers.”

Or so I learned in a recent Joann S. Lublin column in “The Wall Street Journal.” Lublin starts her useful article by chronicling the transformation of Sharritt’s appearance by “image coach” Jonna Martin. While her former image did not communicate “executive presence,” Sharritt positively spewed executive gravitas with her “revamped look included a sophisticated hairstyle, dressy slacks and jackets, pumps, colorful necklaces and extra makeup.”

As result of the change, and the self-confidence it provided, senior management actually promoted the newly made-over manager to vice president.

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Personally, I’m happy for Vice President Sharritt, but when I underwent the exact same makeover, it didn’t work for me at all. I’m not 100 percent sure, but I think the problem may have been the colorful necklaces and the extra makeup.

While my makeover required a do-over, you should consider hooking up with an executive coach who can turbo-charge your “executive presence,” which reporter Lublin describes as a “broad term to describe the aura of leadership.”

According to a study from the Center for Work-Life Policy, “executives with presence act self-confident, strategic, decisive and assertive.” It’s a good goal, though the description does fit virtually every Wall Street slime-ball whose executive presence just about sunk the economy.

If you can’t afford a coach, or a shopping trip to Gucci, the article does provide some excellent tips on developing executive presence.

“Sit on one hand if you gesture excessively,” suggests coach Dr. Dee Soder, an industrial psychologist who founded the CEO Perspective Group, an executive assessment and advisory firm. Though I suggest you go all the way and sit on both hands. That way you won’t be able to gesture at all, and you’ll look a whole lot taller. That’s important since a big and tall image is apparently an important element of executive presence. As another tip from Soder suggests, “Stand or sit large to demonstrate you take up space.” Or simply keep eating three pizzas a day. You’ll soon take up a ton of space, before, during and after your heart attack.

Big companies have recognized the importance of presenting executives with presence. At Intel, “female technical stars” participate in a four-hour “Command Presence” workshop. Personally, I think anyone who can survive a four-hour workshop deserves to be listened to, but what the Intel staffers have to do is “present effectively through a discussion of ‘constructive confrontation.'”

(You know what constructive confrontation is, don’t you? That’s when your boss screams at you for not doing what he wanted you to do before he knew he wanted you to do it. When you scream at your boss, it’s called “a fireable offense.”)

The goal of the Intel program is to teach employees to “command a room.” This is indeed a skill you can learn through training and hard work. Of course, you can demonstrate even more control by entering the room carrying a box of Dunkin Donuts.

Unfortunately, many of these self-help seminars and coaching sessions require you to “pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses.” This is a time-wasting exercise, since your boss already provides this information to you on a regular basis. In fact, while your manager is reeling off a list of your failures, you can glean a gain from the laceration by “keeping a journal based on workplace observations of executives with authoritative presence.”

This advice comes from James Citrin, a CEO recruiter for search firm Spencer Stuart, who suggests you imitate the behaviors “that feel comfortable and natural for you.” Like the glow of self-satisfaction that occurs at bonus time when a wheel barrel full of gold Doubloons arrives on Mahogany Row.

If all these tips and techniques seem like too much trouble, you can always go with your strengths — your sloth and your bulk. One of Soder’s clients improved his executive presence by displaying “powerful confidence at a conference table by marking his territory with a water bottle and a notebook.”

Imagine the confidence you’ll exude at meetings when you mark your space with your collection of Star Wars action figures, your cooler full of brewskis and your bubbling, burbling Zen fountain. Spread them all before you on the conference table, and then sit tall and fat on your chubby little hands.

They might question your sanity, but not your executive presence. Trust me. From this point on, you’re in command.

Bob Goldman was an advertising executive at a Fortune 500 company, but he finally wised up and opened Bob Goldman Financial Planning in Sausalito, California. He offers a virtual shoulder to cry on at bob@funnybusiness.com.

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