Most literature on executive presence focuses on your need to present a strong, competent persona so your bosses will see you as a capable professional. Unfortunately, not everyone you work with seeks a persona that maximizes competence. Some want a greater sense of approachability, warmth, and trustworthiness that comforts rather than conveys strength. Failure to adjust to these differing expectations can undercut your presence and professional effectiveness.

To satisfy the range of people you work with, you need to exhibit situational presence, where you adjust the relative balance of strength and warmth to others’ needs and expectations. I’m not talking about deciding on Tuesday you need to be more like your coworker Bob because, well, everyone seems to really like Bob; trying to be someone you aren’t would be inauthentic and turn people off. However, we all have different shades to our personas, and situational presence is about matching your tone to your audience. For example, the persona I exhibit when briefing a corporate board is quite different from how I carry myself when having coffee with mentees. I must be aware of what each group expects and adjust my balance of competence and warmth accordingly.

In my experience, there are four main groups who have different expectations of your executive presence:

  • Seniors. These are your bosses and anyone else above you in the hierarchy where you work. They’re interested primarily in your ability to perform your job, so they’re looking for strength in your presence. For them, you want to maximize the competence your presence expresses.
  • Peers. These are your coworkers, and they want you to be a capable partner, so they need to see competence. However, they’re also concerned with your being a reliable partner and want a trustworthy if not friendly relationship with you. For this group, your presence needs an even mix of competence and reassurance.
  • Juniors. As the name suggests, these are the people below you in the hierarchy. If you’re a manager, your position of authority makes you frightening regardless of how nice you are, so a presence broadcasting only competence might easily overwhelm juniors. Sure, they need to see you as competent so you can protect and promote them, but they really need to see you as approachable and trustworthy. When dealing with juniors, dial back on the commanding elements of your presence and turn up the comfort.
  • Customers. This group can be internal or external to your organization, and they care primarily about the quality of your work, so they want to see competence. However, part of customer service is often sales, which can require relationship building. In such cases, customers will also want some approachability and friendliness mixed into your presence.

The key to getting situational presence right is to be purposeful about the presence you’re projecting. Be aware of your audience and what it’s probably looking for from you, and adjust as needed. Impress those who want competence, and reassure those who crave warmth. For more on situational presence and presence in general, please check out my Proficiency1 online, self-paced course, Mastering the Unwritten Rules of Executive Presence: How to Construct a Confident, Captivating Professional Persona.

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