Stereotypes make us think that engineers, programmers, or other technologists are not the strongest communicators, and prefer to sit in a back room and toggle with things. We need to break that mold, though, especially when we need more leaders in STEM fields to help solve some of the global challenges facing our society today. To become a leader, you first need to develop your presence.
The Reasons Your Presence Matters
In organizations, there are formal and informal leaders. Formal leaders are driven by job title, but informal leaders are created in other ways that usually tie back to that person’s presence.
Especially when you first start your career, opportunities for formal leadership can be difficult to find. The nice thing about informal leadership is that you do not have to wait for permission to lead. There are things you can do now to have a commanding presence and be seen as an informal leader. But before we get to this, here are the benefits:
- People will think of you as new opportunities arise – When exciting assignments become available, the first question is “who can take on this role?” A strong presence brings you to front of mind for decision-makers.
- Your teams perform better – People are empowered to do more when others acknowledge that their work is adding value. So, by utilizing your presence during meetings to add positive encouragement, you enhance the team’s dynamics and can achieve more.
- You build stronger connections – Woody Allen once said “80% of success is showing up.” Showing up does not mean going through the motions. Whether you are a conference attendee, joining a work meeting, or going out with friends, you have an opportunity to meet and interact with people. Having a strong presence piques interest in others, draws people toward you, and provides the prospect of widening your network, and enhances your knowledge.
It takes time to develop a strong presence, and it takes courage to get comfortable with allowing yourself to stand out as a leader — in a positive, influential way.
One must find that sweet spot between getting out of your comfort zone, not appearing self-centered, and overcoming your nervousness of embarrassing yourself. It is intimidating, but the reward can be great, so here are my tips:
1. Consider every interaction an opportunity
We leave an impression on everyone we interact with, no matter the magnitude of the encounter. These interactions are important because they provide incremental steps to develop your presence and become a leader.
I never skipped a class during my undergrad or master’s program. When I struggled to get out of bed for an 8am class on a cold winter morning, I remembered that not showing up could cost me that one key, totally unplanned, opportunity.
My professors would not be able to tell you exactly how many 8am classes I did or did not attend, but they all knew who I was and that I was present and engaged. That strong presence opened a world of opportunities. When it came time for the professors to choose a student representative for our graduating class, I was nominated as the electrical and computer engineering’s outstanding senior.
2. Purposefully use congruent facial expressions and gestures during interactions
Have you ever given a presentation to an audience with absolutely no expression on their faces? You start to panic and think “am I doing something wrong?”
Wanting to change those stone-faced interactions, I decided to make conscious efforts to support for my teammates during their presentations. I used body language, head nods, and smiling affirmations when I agreed with something someone said. My actions showed that I was there to support them, I was actively listening, and I appreciated what they had to say.
My colleagues used to tell me that they always looked at me for that positive, non-verbal reinforcement. My small but purposeful actions, part of my strong presence, increased their confidence and enhanced their presentation. Your presence supports your team, and your efforts help them by letting them know that the message they are delivering is being heard.
3. Show your personality and engage in small talk
The pandemic has changed our workplace and how we interact with our colleagues. How does one create a strong presence remotely, through a 24” monitor?
To have a presence, get noticed, and be an informal leader, you must go beyond doing good work. The easiest way to do this is just being yourself and providing opportunities for others to engage in discussion or a common purpose.
Have you ever tried to have small talk with a person or group that will not engage? There is no worse feeling, and why? It is so simple to engage in small talk or to make someone else feel heard.
At the start of the pandemic, with a few months remaining in my Master’s program, my professors would kick off class by asking if anyone did anything interesting over the weekend. They were trying to create audience engagement over Zoom, but it could not be more obvious that people were multi-tasking, checking their phones, or simply staring blankly at their screens – totally disengaged.
To break the ice, I started sharing anything, even if it was something small about a meal I ate or an article I read just to encourage others to engage. We all know that it is hard to build connections virtually, and it is even harder when no one engages. Your presence matters — all the time.
Building a strong presence increases the number of opportunities available to us. With an eye on your career goals and courage to stray from the status quo, every interaction with someone else can strengthen relationships, build momentum for a project, or elevate your career. People are much more likely to remember you and care about what you have to say, if you are willing to show up, be present, and contribute. Strive to be that person.
Paige Kassalen loves to put her creativity to use by solving problems in emerging technical fields, and has been an IEEE member since 2012. After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech in 2015, Kassalen began her career with Covestro LLC. in 2015, and soon became the only American engineer working with Solar Impulse 2, the first solar-powered airplane to circumnavigate the globe. This role landed Kassalen a spot on the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 list along with feature articles in Glamour, Fast Company and the Huffington Post.
After Solar Impulse, Kassalen helped Covestro develop its strategy for materials for the future of mobility, and shared her work at conferences around the United States. In 2020, Kassalen received a Master of Information Systems Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University and now applies her problem-solving skills to the finance industry, where she works with teams to develop big data strategies and implement innovative technologies.