A Nova Guide to Executive Presence: Warmth

One of the biggest barriers facing women leaders today is a perceived lack of “executive presence.” This phrase is often used – and often misunderstood, even by the people using it! Intelligent, capable and talented women are being held back in their careers because they don’t meet an ambiguous standard for what an executive should look like. Over the course of our nine week executive presence series, Kathleen, Lisa and Priscilla will be sharing nine traits that every woman can develop to improve her executive presence and bring value to the organization.

If you’ve been following along with our executive presence series, you’ve probably been surprised by how many of the traits we talk about are not the first that come to mind when you think of an executive. Thoughtfulness, openness, sincerity are the vital skills that they don’t teach you in business school. This week, I want to talk about another trait of leaders with a strong executive presence that doesn’t get a lot of attention – warmth.

How Important Is Warmth?

Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy has been studying these topics for more than a decade and she found that the two most important questions people ask themselves when they meet someone new are:

  • Can I trust this person?  
  • Can I respect this person?

In psychological terms, trust and respect are referred to as warmth and competence. Businesspeople, by their nature, tend to focus on competence and let warmth sit on the sidelines.

Cuddy says that warmth, not competence, is the single most important factor for making a good impression. Cuddy writes, “A warm, trustworthy person who is also strong elicits admiration, but only after you’ve established trust does your strength become a gift rather than a threat.”

If you’re all action and no finesse, you run the risk of turning people off before they can even realize how talented you are.

What Does Warmth Look Like?

Warmth, in executive presence terms, means connecting with the people around you. When those who you lead feel both heard and understood, trust naturally follows. Practicing warmth in everyday interactions can help bridge gaps in communication. Warm leaders focus on making others feel good. A warm presence inspires the people around you to be their best selves and work harder for you and the organization. Think of it this way, would you rather put in extra hours for a demanding taskmaster or someone who you feel values you and recognizes your hard work?

Projecting a Warm Presence

Our body language is a big part of how we present ourselves to others. When making a request, don’t have your arms crossed or hands on your hips, both send the wrong “cold” messages and don’t convey trust. Focus on being polite and direct. Use vocabulary and language that the person can relate to and solicit feedback. If your team members don’t understand your intent and need clarification, they can’t do their best work. Watch their body language, including facial expressions to see how they feel, beyond what they say out loud. Expressions speak volumes! Also be mindful of your own expressions, smile, laugh and let your appreciation be felt.

Top Attributes of Warm Leaders

Warmth is more than just appearing friendly on the outside. You need to cultivate attributes that put others at ease.

A major attribute is patience. Though you may be completely clear on a plan or directive, others may be hearing it for the first time or have a different learning style. Everyone learns and responds to new ideas at a different pace. Don’t get frustrated when others need more context or direction, take the time to ensure everyone is on the same page and you’ll end up saving time in the long run.

Next is understanding. Those who demonstrate warmth and executive presence focus on the individuals and understanding what they uniquely need to be fully on board. You don’t need to be a pushover or give people special treatment, but seeing others as individuals with their own needs and motivations is going to get your further that treating everyone as a collective blob.

Finally, listen. Ask open-ended questions that require the team member to respond with more than a “yes” or “no” answer. Probe for any detail to show your interest in them and then sit back and listen intently. As suggested in our post on clarity, if you’re truly engaged in listening to your audience, then your messages will be lucid and precise in response.

If you’ve been struggling with communication and getting tasks completed, an infusion of warmth may be just what you need to connect to your team.

Tina Schweiger