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Episode 177: Developing Executive Presence - Relauncher Edition, with Selena Rezvani

Selena Rezvani headshot

Episode Description

Selena Rezvani is a popular Leadership Speaker and Inclusion Consultant as well as a LinkedIn Learning Instructor. In fact, her most popular LinkedIn Learning course is on Executive Presence, the topic of our podcast. Selena writes a column for Philadelphia Magazine on how to make work "work" and hosts a weekly show on LinkedIn Live, an invite-only platform, about ways to elevate women at work. About a year ago, Selena was our guest on 3,2,1 iRelaunch to discuss how to brag about yourself without sounding obnoxious, and reach out to people to help you in your job search without coming across as opportunistic. At the time, she told us that being able to do those things is all about demonstrating executive presence! Selena gives us her best advice on mastering this important skill for relaunchers, both when job searching, and once hired.

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Selena Rezvani

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Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:00:00] Welcome to 3,2,1, iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. Today we welcome Selena Rezvani. Selena is a popular leadership speaker and inclusion consultant, as well as a LinkedIn learning instructor.

In fact, her LinkedIn learning course is on Executive Presence, the topic of today's podcast. Selena writes a column for Philadelphia Magazine on “How to Make Work, Work” and hosts a weekly show on LinkedIn Live, all about ways to elevate women at work, and I was privileged to be a guest on that show.

Selena recorded a 3,2,1 iRelaunch podcast with us about a year ago on how to brag about yourself without sounding obnoxious, and how to reach out to people to help you in your job search without coming across as opportunistic. And she told us at the time, that that is all about how to demonstrate executive presence. So we're going to get into that topic more deeply and think especially about how it applies to relaunchers who are changing their context from a career break and whatever they're doing on their career break to a work environment.

So essentially we're getting kind of a crash course on what executive presence is and how to attain it. Selena, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Selena Rezvani: [00:01:46] Thank you so much for having me, Carol. I love your mission and what you're doing with this podcast. So it's great to be here and join forces.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:01:55] Well, we love having you as a guest and having you as a guest again. So I want to start by defining executive presence. Can you tell us what it is and what it means?

Selena Rezvani: [00:02:09] Yes. You know, it's a funny term, isn't it? Because you could ask people what it is. You'll get at least a dozen different answers, but here's what's fascinating to me about it. We all know executive presence when we see it, we can say, "ding, ding, ding, they've got it!"

And so here's what it is. It is the ability to project authority, and communicate confidence and authenticity. So this is not about being a confident robot, it's being confidently you. And I want to stress this is not some "it" factor that's just for a few lucky people who happen to be born with it.

No, there are very few naturals. More often it's a quality that's made. So know that this is something you can grow and practice and improve.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:03:14] Excellent. Because that's exactly where I want to go next, because I was thinking when you were first describing it, is it charisma? Is that something you're born with or can you learn it?

So, it sounds like you can learn it and I want to know if we can break it down and you can maybe talk us through it component by component.

Selena Rezvani: [00:03:38] Yes. I gave you my higher level description of it, but I actually define executive presence breaking it down into three kinds of overarching filters.

And so the first one I talk about is self confidence. In other words, how you act. And you can improve this in a few ways. I'll give you some tips and ideas here, but the first is figuring out your own inner dialogue, programming on purpose your own inner dialogue, because boy, it's really hard to act confident if you have a garbage inner dialogue with yourself, right? If you're trashing yourself at every turn.

And so a big piece of this is setting yourself up with some positive kind of inner dialogue. I use myself and with clients short sound bites, mantras to tune into that channel that you want to be tuned in to, let's say going into a job interview, or pitching a really exciting proposal or a promotion, things like, "I belong here." That's a huge one.

Sometimes when we've been on a career break, we question how much we belong in a given place or with a new employer. And that's something I like to really set it in a positive, confident way from the beginning, "I belong here. I act, I take bold action in spite of fear. Fear is not enough to dissuade me." That comes across I think, for example, when we're being interviewed, when we're being asked to talk about ourselves. A lot of people want to know, when did you take action when it was daunting, or you were overwhelmed, or you were maybe fearful?

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:05:43] Yeah. I'm trying to think about just the context, like when I am about to go give a talk in front of an audience, and sometimes I think to myself, so approach this from a position of curiosity and learning. Your audience wants to learn. You want to engage with them. You're going to learn when you have this experience. And that is part of the talk that I give to myself when I'm prepping.

Selena Rezvani: [00:06:14] I love that, to be curious about them. And that's actually something we're going to get into a little bit as part of this whole executive presence kind of roadmap in a different filter that we look at.

But I love the curiosity bent. You know, there's one other mantra I just want to put out there. I think this is applicable to all kinds of relaunchers, "if I take a wrong turn I can right myself." That may be a career step in the mud that you took. It may be a blunder, let's say, in an interview, maybe you meant to put something across one way and it came out a different way.

Kind of reminding yourself, priming yourself that, "Hey, this is going to happen. It's normal for it to happen to most people. And I can recover from it. I don't just have the skills to do things right once, I can flex and adapt to situations and right myself." So I think again, priming yourself with those positive messages can go a long way to driving how you act, how much you show up with executive presence.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:07:30] Yeah. I really liked this last one. "If I take a wrong turn, I can right myself." It feels like you're almost like you're taking the pressure off a little bit. Not too much, but a little bit.

Selena Rezvani: [00:07:41] Yeah, a little bit. Just like a cat, right? Always lands on it's four feet. We're all faced with the unexpected. Lots of employers are watching, not so much what happens, like we were talking about Carol, but how you handle it, not what happens, but how you handle it. So expect some bumps, expect that you may need to smooth out a situation that you may need to regain your composure. That's okay. I think it puts you in more of a power position actually when you expect it.

But there's another thing that's really important with how you act. And I think a lot of us see this as synonymous with executive presence, which is, leaders, executives are often decisive. If you've ever been like me, Carol, where you're stuck in a group conversation about what to eat for dinner that goes on and on and on, it feels never ending. And in a lot of ways that happens in the workplace, lots of the time people might waffle or waiver. And often it is the person who commands authority, who steps up and decides, that stands out. Because indecision is kind of a form of decision. It's something they're telling other people about ourselves.

So part of how you act with executive presence is to make some bold bets and you can be a more decisive person starting small. I know this can sound to some people maybe a daunting proposition to suddenly become very decisive, very authoritative, but you can do this in small bites.

You can challenge yourself even, I'm going to decide in one minute what I'm going to go get for breakfast this morning. I can make these small time limited experiments to let myself get even better at this. So this means doing things like making public commitments about something.

If you vouch for something that you're hearing about in an interview, making that clear. Showing you're decisive or being able to say something like, "I recommended to my team we go with option A, not B." "I vouched for..." "I'm ready to commit to..." Notice how those sound decisive, not wishy-washy, not like we're waffling.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:10:35] So there's certain language you're saying that you use to illustrate decisiveness, like when you're talking about how you might've directed your team, maybe you're in a job interview and they're asking you a question. So you're saying you're exhibiting that decisiveness by that description in the words you're choosing.

Selena Rezvani: [00:10:56] That's absolutely right. So not the watered down terms, but really showing that you put support behind, let's say a direction, a decision that stands out as somebody who makes big decisions. And by the way, don't underestimate, none of us should underestimate, everybody is winging it. So, remember that.

All right. So we just talked about self-confidence or the filter around how you act. Now I want to look at the second filter, which is self-expression or how you talk. And then the third filter we're we'll look out together after that one is self presentation, how you look.

So this second filter is really about how you speak, how much you speak with passion and conviction, let's say, so that you're believable. But it's also how much you tailor your message to the audience, that specific audience in front of you. And it's even about how you handle those wonderful curve balls, right? The blunders, the slip ups that we were mentioning earlier. So those are some of the things that really matter around how you talk, how you put across your ideas.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:12:28] Okay. So I just want to keep myself organized while I'm thinking about this. So I really like how you break down executive presence into how you act, how you talk and how you look.

And so we talked about the self-confidence piece, how you act, and now we're moving into the self-expression piece, how you talk, and as you're saying, what words you choose, how you handle different situations.

Selena Rezvani: [00:12:55] That's exactly right, Carol, because there are words you use that make a difference. I love saying to people, “How do you tell it so that you sell it?” And that's part of what you want to be thinking about here.

One of the shifts I like to help people think about is shifting from permission seeking or even hedging language to stronger, more confident language. And so I can give you a few examples of that. If you think about somebody who's potentially in a, let's say a hiring situation or a job interview or an exploratory call, one of the things you can do to put that confident language forward is to move away from some of your "if" language towards "when" language.

And so when you do this, when you speak with the "ifs" it can feel like all your ideas are hypothetical and frankly, unlikely to happen. When you shift towards more of "when" language, "once XYZ is implemented" or "when we modify the policy," rather than "if we do it" you're speaking with assumptive language, language that assumes a green light or assumes positive forward movement and momentum. And that can be powerful. So think about in your own language, if you can move from the "ifs," the hypothetical to more surefooted "when" or "once," "once X is implemented" language that's I think a good one.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:14:46] I'm trying to think about relaunchers who are working already and they're in the early weeks of their relaunch they've just gone back to work. And, they're in situations where they're on teams and relaunchers will report that they're really afraid to ask a question because they don't want to be perceived as not knowing something or dumb, or like, why did we hire this person? And so there's this hesitation to ask a question in the first place.

And there's also a hesitation to put forth your opinion about something, because you feel like you're too new or you don't have the full context. So I'm just wondering what your thoughts are about how long you're more of a listener and an observer before you get into a situation where you feel comfortable using some of these strategies.

Selena Rezvani: [00:15:44] Yeah, I think that's really fair. And I can certainly relate to that feeling on a new team, let's say, or, in some of my past roles being brand new. In that case, I would share with people what you're basing it on, let them in on what you're basing it on. It might be, "Hey, based on the data in front of us, it looks like we will modify this policy," or, "Based on my 10 years of experience in advertising."

Maybe you're pulling from your wide bank of experience, not just what you're seeing at this job, but maybe broader trends and forces. So I think that's one way you can get over that is it's not that you've got to give the most definitive answer on the planet. But, let people in on how you're thinking about this issue or solution or position you're taking, "I'm basing it on X."

The one other one I think you can do a powerful pivot in your language, even as a newer person, is moving from "can" language to more of "let's," "let's"language. I noticed a difference in closing business, even myself as a business owner in shifting some of that language. And so, I'm talking about, let's say you're meeting with a new team that you're on and you're negotiating together on a timeline. Instead of, "Hey, can we meet again to discuss this further?" What does that sound like to you, Carol, when I say, "can we?"

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:17:21] You're asking for permission and maybe the other person, you're leaving it open.

Selena Rezvani: [00:17:25] That's right. And maybe it's a little unclear to know where I stand exactly on the issue. But in a different way to say it is, "Let's set up another meeting to define the action items we have left."

Right? It's creating momentum. Just hearing the word, "let's," it's a little thing, but it can show that leadership presence, where you're taking a stand. It's kind of an extension of what we were talking about before with being decisive.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:17:58] Yeah, and I can see how that could be especially effective in sales, like when you're trying to move things forward, because usually that's in the closing part of the conversation.

Selena Rezvani: [00:18:10] That's exactly right. It's a really powerful influencing technique in a lot of ways. The one other thing I think is really important here to think about is, as you speak and think about some of the keywords you're going to put in front of people, to really think about your audience.

And I have an acronym I love, that's easy to remember for this, but it's G P S, just like you have in your phone and maybe in your car. And that stands for goals, passions, and struggles. What is that employer's goals, passions, or struggles, or maybe the person you're having an informational phone call with?

Do you have a read on some of those things, maybe you only have a read on one of those things. But using your language, you can connect to some of those things that matter to your audience. Maybe you know, for example, the employer is struggling to compete with some of their competitors on a specific issue or they have a passion to get better at a specific issue.

Calling that out in words, using terminology, strong terminology that shows, "I get that. I get what you're most hyper-focused on at this moment in time." So I think that's a great one. You can pepper some of your words with those terms that are most meaningful to them.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:19:50] Right, so I'm thinking about two stages of relaunching, the part where you're in the job search, and then also the part where you've already moved into your role and you're on the job, and how some of that same language could be effective there too.

Selena Rezvani: [00:20:06] Yeah, I think so. Often it's scary when you're newly in a role and somebody puts you in a hot seat situation, you're not totally prepared for it. "Hey Carol, can you give us a report out on X, Y, Z initiative?" and you weren't ready. One thing I love to recommend to people is a framework there, which is what, so what, now what?

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:20:36] Oh, I like this. Okay. Can you repeat that again?

Selena Rezvani: [00:20:39] Sure. So once again, when you're in a hot seat situation and you're reaching for a framework to kind of organize your thoughts quickly and your words, you can use, “What?” “So what?” “Now what?” And so, “what” is once again, using that example, "Hey, can you tell us, Carol, what's the latest with XYZ?"

You might say the “What?” “What happened?” “What are the key facts currently we're dealing with, currently we're faced with?” And you're giving that brief summary of the facts right now.

“So what?” My take on that is this is your really tight, short analysis or opinion on the “what” you're just reporting on. Why does it matter really?

And then "now, what?" This is you using your awesome expertise to advise folks on the next step on the next action. So you might wrap it all up with, "I recommend..." You've given them, "Currently we're faced with...," "My take on that is, and I recommend we..."

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:21:58] I hope everyone's noting this example. So wait, what did you say about the first one? The current statuses? How did you word that?

Selena Rezvani: [00:22:09] Yeah, so, "Currently we're faced with..."

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:22:11] "Currently we're faced with...," okay. And then the second one is, "My take on this is..."

Selena Rezvani: [00:22:17] That's right.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:22:18] Okay. And then what's the third one?

Selena Rezvani: [00:22:20] "I recommend..."

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:22:21] Okay. I'm taking notes!

Selena Rezvani: [00:22:26] And I have one more for you I think you're going to really like, just as we talk on this verbal piece about how you talk. Because listen, this is something we're all trying to get better at. Whether you're a relauncher or you're not, most people want to do better at this hot seat speaking. And so one of the other things you can do, and a lot of folks learn this in media training believe it or not, is to paraphrase a tough question.

You might get, kind of using your own frame. So don't always feel like just because they ask a question, of course, in their frame that you need to answer it that exact way, and I'll give you a quick example. Again, you're that new person, let's say Carol, brand new on a team, but you're owning a project and somebody says, "Hey Carol, tell us about the color green." You could say, you could validate that person. You could say something like, "The color green is really important, but what customers are asking us most about right now is the color red."

And that's how you could segue to either something you know better or something maybe you deem more relevant, let's say, but it's a really smart way to signal executive presence because we're all going to get rattling questions. We're all going to feel like we're in that hot seat and frankly under-prepared. So when you use these frameworks, When you remind yourself, wait, I have some control here in how I answer.I'm not just stuck with this question exactly as it's phrased. It reminds you, I think, of some of your power and some of your ability to flex that you have options. And that's powerful.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:24:35] That is great. Thank you. Selena, I have some more questions for you and, actually, wait a minute we haven't gone to the third filter yet. Let's do that. And then I have a few more questions.

Selena Rezvani: [00:24:49] Absolutely. So I know we got really excited about how you talk, right? The self-expression part. Let's talk about the self-presentation piece, the how you look piece.

You know, it's funny in every workshop I do on executive presence, I say to people, "What's the first thing you notice about people's appearance?" And it's surprising what people say. They don't say the cut of the shirt, or the brand of the suit, or anything like that. Interestingly, 90% of responses tend to fall around, “They look comfortable in their skin, they look at ease in their body.”

And so one of the things I don't make it a practice to do is tell people how to dress. I'm not here to say, "Just dress like Michelle Obama or this person, and you can cookie cutter your way to a great appearance.” I really don't believe that. What I do believe is that you should bring some of your "you-ness", your uniqueness to your appearance.

This is one of the ways you're expressing yourself after all. And I think you're memorable when you present yourself in such a way that it reflects your personality, your taste, your style. So I want to encourage you to do "you" when it comes to self presentation.

But I do want to share one study, I think is really special and remarkable from Northwestern University. And it actually found that when people wore a white doctor's lab coat in a research experiment, this is clothing by the way that most of us associate with care and attentiveness, it actually improved people's performance in tests of those two things, of care and attentiveness.

So we kind of act up based on how we're dressed and my takeaway there for people is, you know, dress to impress yourself. What makes you feel like the best version of you?

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:27:19]. And I love when you said “you-ness,” I just want to emphasize you're meaning Y-O-U dash N-E-S-S.

Selena Rezvani: [00:27:28] Yes, a hundred percent. And what I mean by that, because it's a funny word isn't it, is bringing your originality, not feeling I'm going to give people the diet Pepsi version of me, but really bringing your full, technicolor self into these situations. So I want to say, I think that's a really important part of how you put yourself across.

There was a time in my career where I really muted myself. I love bright colors. I love bright colors, not just because I don't want to be seen from outer space, but it energizes me. It really does. And there was a time I didn't do that. And, guess what? I also muted my ideas and my contributions, I'd really encourage you to do the opposite.

And, listen, as we all move back into office life, maybe some of you are in that situation now, maybe some are in a hybrid, maybe some people are anticipating it. Realize that some of that body language mastery still matters, even if any of us are on zoom. The ability to make a strong entrance and glide into a meeting room, let's say, when you're sitting in that interview or you're coming in to meet your new team, claiming that space at the table, really claiming your seat at the grownups table, not the kids' table or the outer rung of chairs, but really owning your seat as a valued member of the team.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:29:12] Right, and Selena you started to talk a little bit about video and the pandemic, and I wanted to get into that in a little more detail before we close because there are some of us who are either going to remain in a work from home situation and do most of our interaction in our relaunched roles on video or on zoom or teams or WebEx, one of these platforms. And then some of us will have a hybrid, as you're saying where sometimes we'll be on video, sometimes we'll be in person. But, is there anything about executive presence and how you project it or how you have it when you are in a video setting, as opposed to being an in person setting, keeping in mind that our relaunchers that were hired this year, as people who did not have career breaks were largely hired in the last year without ever meeting anyone in person.

So they're recruited, hired, onboarded on their teams. They've never met anyone in person in that whole process. Any commentary about how you would tweak the recommendations because you could be on video exclusively or largely in the future?

Selena Rezvani: [00:30:36] Yeah, I do have some ideas, best practices, and I think a lot of us learn this from seeing a not good way to do it. We've also seen somebody who is hard to see or poorly lit let's say on zoom. And so we can learn from both, but some of my advice is really claim your, whatever it is, six by two inch rectangle, really own that box.

And what I mean by that is, make yourself prominent, make yourself very easy to see. Embrace what your mama gave you and let people fully see you. Some of the ways you can do that are make sure you're well lit, really, that you're easy to see. You can aim for a straight ahead camera angle. I recommend that to people.

So rather than your camera towering over you and you looking up, or your camera being below you and you looking down, aim for that straight ahead camera angle. It has a way of mimicking real life better than the other two.

Another thing I'd say is avoid prolonged muting. I'm not a big fan of it. I know sometimes it can make the actual sound improved when people go on mute. But just because your line needs to be muted doesn't mean you should be, your contribution, what you have to say. And sometimes when we mute as a default, guess what? Our answers then have a lag and it's not always the best reflection on a person when there's a lag. "Oh, sorry. I had to get off mute," or, "Oh, sorry. I was talking and I didn't realize I was on mute." So save yourself that lag by being fully present and ready to chime in. The one other thing I'd say is give yourself a challenge. If this is something that's hard for you to get in and get visible, let's say on a zoom meeting, give yourself a challenge, "I would like to ask at least one question during this meeting."

Maybe it's a big picture question for the group, or maybe it's a clarifying question. Or, maybe you give yourself a different challenge. "I'd like to build off at least one person's idea or give my own original idea, at least one." But give yourself that, it can really help you get over the fear of, "Is what I have to say important enough?"

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:33:26] Wow. Selena, there's so much here and there's so much to talk about and I feel like we did just scratch the surface, but we got a lot of really great practical advice and I love having the language examples and the dialogue. I find that to be so incredibly helpful.

That was wonderful. And I want to wrap up by asking you the question that we ask all of our podcasts guests, and that is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience? Even if it's something we have already talked about.

Selena Rezvani: [00:34:04] I'll share with you something that's been my hardest one lesson just for me personally. And I encourage you to think about it. Don't underestimate what you can do and overestimate what everyone else can do. Trust in that value you bring. And then get as comfortable speaking about that value as speaking your name.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:34:34] Yes, this is so important, especially for relaunchers. And it's something that sometimes we have to practice over and over again and get ourselves in that mindset. And ultimately that happens because there is that tendency to come in feeling like you're undervaluing yourself. Really glad that you put that out there as a goal for the audience.

Selena, thank you so much for joining us today. Can you tell us how our audience can find out more about your work?

Selena Rezvani: [00:35:06] Yes. I would love to hear from you all and you can find me at And I'm going to spell that for you. It's S-E-L-E-N -A-R-E-Z-V-A-N-I dot com, that's my website and you'll find my LinkedIn learning courses on my site, including executive presence. I would encourage you to connect with me on LinkedIn, where I'm really quite active and where I have a brand new newsletter, all about building confidence.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:35:46] Oh, excellent. And how appropriate I think, right now as a follow-up for everyone who's listening to this. Selena, thank you so much for joining us today.

Selena Rezvani: [00:35:57] Thank you, Carol, for your awesome work and just being such a great supporter.

Carol Fishman Cohen: [00:36:02] And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO, and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board and access our return to work tools and resources, go to

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