We have a lot of ways to talk about executive presence in business. “Owning the room, “commanding attention,” and my least favorite, “swagger,” are all references to executive presence. Fortunately, these terms are evolving as we evolve and understand the need for authenticity, high quality communication, and inclusion. In addition to storytelling, business development and communication, executive presence is one of the programs my company offers. Recently, I realized just how much I learned about executive presence from my mother who never worked in an office a single day in her life.
My mother dropped out of high school in Hawaii to work in a pineapple factory because her family was so poor. She always had blue collar service jobs — often more than one. My mother had a strong work ethic and took pride in every task she undertook no matter how menial. A high compliment from my mother was to be called, “ a good worker.” The last 20 years of her career were spent at PayLess Drugstore which would eventually be bought by Rite Aid. My mom ran the cosmetics department there.
My mother kept her department immaculate the way she kept our home. She didn’t earn more for having such high standards, she made these demands of herself. This drugstore was in the low income neighborhood where I grew up. My mother made sure that every person shopping in her department felt special and welcome. No one had much money which meant that whatever someone spent was a big deal. People shopped there because of my mother.
My mother’s long black hair was always in a tight bun and her clothes, including her smock, were meticulously ironed. Her appearance was part of her standard of professionalism. My rabid punctuality comes from my mother. We were never on time for anything. We were always early. It was an act of respect and cost nothing to be punctual. If my mother was ever late or missed a day of work, I don’t remember it.
What had the greatest impact on me was how my mother treated people and how she made them feel. When we teach any of our workshops one of the things we talk about is how you leave people. Do people feel safer and braver in your presence to rise to their greatest potential? My mother knew how to do that. She made her colleagues feel like stars and her customers feel like royalty.
Long before anyone thought or cared about inclusion, my mother made sure that anyone in her presence felt important. One of her customers was a neurologically divergent woman named Ardell. Ardell’s speech was somewhat impaired making it hard to always understand her. This didn’t intimidate my mother one bit. Ardell followed my mother around the store for hours, so much so that the manager asked my mother if she wanted him to intervene, but my mother told him that Ardell wasn’t bothering anyone. She was a customer.
When I think of the impact my mother made, I think of Ardell. My mother’s work was bigger than stocking shelves, unpacking boxes or working a register. She made people feel like their best selves. This is what authentic leadership looks like. It looks humble, open, safe and inclusive. It’s doing things that can’t always be seen on a report but matter in ways that are impossible to calculate and hits everything from morale to retention and revenue. It’s the height of executive presence.
Our work is not merely about outcomes, accolades and metrics. Our work is about people. People determine growth, market share and revenue. When we make people feel as precious and valuable as they are, they are loyal, hard working, committed and motivated. My mother never had an “important” job but she made people feel “important.” I often tell participants in my workshop that when you leave this planet all that will remain are the stories people share about you. Stories live on. My small mother with her humble job has a legacy same as you. Her name was Barbara and she would have been proud to serve you. When you want to elevate your executive presence worry less about how you appear and worry more about how you make others feel in your presence.
Ann marie Houghtailing is the co-founder of Story Imprinting that teaches companies the art and science of storytelling.