How to Gain Credibility and Presence with Peers & Executive Leadership

Last month, I attended a SHRM 2018 Conference session, “The Art of Executive Presence: A Professional Woman’s Guide to Commanding the Room.” In the session, Jennifer Lee, Director of Learning and Development at JB Training Solutions, discussed the critical components of professionalism and how you can create a positive impression, walk the line between too formal and too casual, and instill confidence in any audience. She explained how we can gain more credibility and have presence in meetings, presentations, and at work.

My takeaway is that presence boils down to three things:

  1. Gravitas, or how you act in or occupy a space.
  2. Communication, or whether or not you know your stuff and if you sound like an expert.
  3. Perceived identity, or who your audience believes you are.

Related content: How to Become Recognized as the HR Leader You Are


There are many ways to demonstrate these factors, but in this post, I’m going to talk about preparation, body language, and personal presentation.

Executive Leadership Preparation is More Than Notecards

Preparation comes in many forms including being prepared for meetings, preparation for fielding questions, overcoming objections. When we think of preparation, we typically think about the details and knowledge we must have before a meeting or presentation, and how to crib them into topline items on notecards (or a PowerPoint presentation). Preparation for a specific event is important, but preparation for your career acceleration and leadership is key to gaining credibility.

Preparation for a specific event is important, but preparation for your career acceleration and leadership is key to gaining credibility. @jmillermerrell #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart

There is no “secret” to career success. Every article or blog post you can read on this topic boils down to one thing: Willpower. Your own tenacity and willingness to change bad habits and create new ones has a direct impact on whether or not you’re prepared for success. Willpower also goes a long way when it comes to how people perceive you. So how do you discover where you stand now? What the “experts” will tell you: Use your subconscious voice in order to gain answers and expand your horizon instead of listening to the inner voice that says a particular goal can’t be achieved.

But we’re in HR; we love to send surveys. Why not send an informal survey to a group of trusted friends or associates asking them to give you five adjectives that describe you at work? While looking inward and being self-aware is helpful to understand how you’re perceived at work, an outside perspective is invaluable.

If your informal survey results look like: Fun, laid back, careful, cautious, thoughtful, perceptive, understanding, compassionate, engaged, human (and so on), it’s not a bad thing. However, you might consider how to change some habits so that you step up your game when it comes to the following survey results: Authoritative, competent, knowledgeable, competitive, dependable, reliable, helpful, adaptive, challenging, goal-oriented, driven, etc.

This won’t always be accurate, depending on how well your survey-takers know you (and whether or not they’re currently working with you). It’s important to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you, even when the truth isn’t what you want to hear, but not always practical. Sometimes we have to look outside of the workplace to get insight into how we can be better at work.

Related content: 5 Strategies to Increase Your Influence as an HR Leader


In order for HR leaders to get opportunities to truly lead the talent in their organizations, they need to have credibility and presence. This starts with having a good mentor or business coach, and a strong group of colleagues and peers who can help provide feedback and support in terms of how your words, speech, and actions are being interpreted by others. This leads me to:

What Your Body Language Projects in Workplace Meetings

It’s important to understand that the adage about first impressions is cliché for a reason. The way you physically occupy a space and your body language says a lot about who you are. For example, crossed arms in a meeting might indicate that you’re not entirely receptive to the message or to new ideas in general. Sitting in an “open posture” (arms out, listening face on) shows the opposite, that you’re actively listening and interested in the message, as well as receptive to new ideas. What you project outwardly is only one part of body language. Your body language also has an impact on your own perspective.

In her now well-known TED Talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggests that “power posing” — standing in a posture of confidence, even when we don’t feel confident — can boost feelings of confidence, and might have an impact on our chances for success. Cuddy says that “when we think of nonverbals, we think of how we judge others, how they judge us and what the outcomes are. We tend to forget, though, the other audience that's influenced by our nonverbals, and that's ourselves. We are also influenced by our nonverbals, our thoughts and our feelings and our physiology.”

Amy Cuddy and her colleagues at Harvard Business School showed that students gave more impressive speeches for a job interview if, beforehand, they’d spent two minutes in two power poses – one sitting, one standing. Other research has shown that spending time in a power pose increases testosterone, risk taking, pain tolerance, and belief in one’s own leadership abilities. Additionally, power poses open up your breathing, calming any nerves.

Amy Cuddy and her colleagues at Harvard Business School showed that students gave more impressive speeches for a job interview if, beforehand, they’d spent two minutes in two power poses – one sitting, one standing. @jmillermerrell #SmartTalkHR @RiseSmart

Your body language doesn’t just reflect your emotions, it’s often the cause. By learning some of the ways that your own posture, gestures, facial expression and even tone of voice affect your mind, you will be more aware of the factors influencing your mood and give yourself an edge in presentations and negotiations. Opening up your body and filling more space – the “power posture” – has been shown in studies to have confidence-boosting effects.

Stress and anxiety can make you slouch, frown and cross your arms defensively. This sets up a vicious cycle: the position of our bodies and the expression on our faces is fed back to the brain and influences how we feel, which in turn changes our body language. There may be many factors in a challenging work situation that you can’t control, but this isn’t one of them. You can break this negative feedback loop. Open up your posture, stand tall, talk strong, gesticulate – act “as if” you are in control – and your thoughts become reality.

Getting a Seat at the Table Starts with Dressing the Part

Sure, you’ve been reading about dressing like the boss you want to emulate since you began your career. It’s Career Advancement 101. But in today’s workplace, especially in sectors like technology and creative work, casual has become the norm from entry to C-level. I’m not at all suggesting replacing the common hoodie with suits and ties or bringing back the 90s power suit for women. However, it’s important to understand the difference between comfort and casual.

Related content: Expert Career Coach Advice – Dress for Success


With the wave of remote jobs in today’s workplace, your work wardrobe may look a lot like what you wear to yoga class. This is fine for working at home; your laptop and your couch want you to be comfortable. But when you carry this level of comfort into your casual workplace wardrobe, consider what image you’re projecting. If you’re in a customer or candidate facing role, you can still dress casually, but not sloppily. Casual office dress means ditching the tie or high heels, but wearing clothing that is neat, clean and well put together.

And consider this: If everyone in your office is wearing freebie tee shirts and flip-flops with jeans, but your boss and her colleagues aren’t, the best way you can set yourself apart is to dress like the people who have the jobs you want. Even taking it up a notch with khakis instead of jeans, flats instead of sandals, a light blazer over your tee shirt, and adding a few nice pieces of jewelry has an impact on how people perceive you. You want to look like you made an effort in your personal appearance, because that indicates - even on a subconscious level - that you care about how you look and therefore care about your job performance. It can also have the bonus effect of making you feel more confident.

The bottom line: Pay attention to your own vibe. How you’re perceived at work has a direct impact on your credibility with both colleagues and upper management. Even if you don’t have an eye on the corner office, your job will be easier and you’ll be more innovative when people take you seriously. Don’t shake your sense of humor but do consider how you’re perceived. It’s good for your personal happiness and your paycheck.


Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR is an author, speaker, HR professional, and workplace social media expert who has a passion for recruiting, training, and all things social media. She is the President/CEO of Xceptional HR and a leader in the HR community with more than 12 years of industry experience. Connect with her on LinkedIn or Twitter.

02 July 2018

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