Executive presence has the feel of corporate jargon, but it’s actually a salient factor in both career and organisational success — because poor leadership has devastating impacts on performance, well-being and retention.
Great executive presence is critical to a leader’s ability to rally their team to greatness. The concept seems nebulous because it’s difficult to define, but easy to spot. When we’re in the presence of someone compelling, we know it.
The good news is you don’t have to be born with charisma and confidence — executive presence is a skill you can build and master.
(Related: Ultimate Guide To Delegating Authority).
What Is Executive Presence?
An elusive leadership quality, executive presence is the ability to deepen your impact with your bearing. It requires:
- Demonstrating competence.
- Displaying self-assurance, dignity and charm.
- Inspiring admiration and trust.
It’s the extent to which senior leaders can move others to act with your character, presence and style.
The term was likely popularised by author Sylvia Ann Hewlett — an expert in effective communication — whose book Executive Presence was published in 2014.
Benefits Of Strong Executive Presence.
Executive presence is essential for people aspiring to leadership roles. It’s a quality that helps you inspire confidence, leading to better results, recognition of your value, and exposure to better opportunities.
In other words, you’ll become ‘one to watch’.
Organisations benefit when leaders are capable of inspiring confidence, because they model ideal behaviours for success and strong ethics.
(Related: How To Improve Team Performance).
Plus, senior executives with strong executive presence tend to flex their emotional intelligence skills —which supports improved teamwork, creativity, and constructive problem-solving.
High-performing organisations are more likely to expect their leaders to develop executive presence as a competency and use it as a critical success metric.
How To Improve Your Executive Presence.
A more sophisticated take on the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of your daily leadership approaches can help you achieve higher levels of executive presence.
Consider the traits you need to develop and let go of then, follow the 7 tips below to start making progress.
|To Develop:||To Let Go Of:|
|Confidence in your presence||Doubt in your credibility|
|Custom-fit communication||One size fits all communication|
|Reliance on team||Reliance on self|
|Defining objectives||Defining tasks|
|Accountability for goals||Responsibility for tactics|
|Outside-in view of your organisation||Inside-out view of your function|
1. Improve Your Verbal Communication Skills.
Strong communication skills are central to any leader’s effectiveness. You need to go one step further to build your executive presence — by using language to become more magnetic and persuasive.
Try this three-step exercise to sharpen your message:
Record yourself talking to camera for 15 minutes. Then play it back – and be ready to cringe.
Take note of your use of:
- Filler words like ‘ums and ahs’, ‘like’ and ‘you know’.
- Excessive self-deprecation (you likely do it due to a lack of confidence).
- Excessive backstory or level of detail, i.e., rambling.
- Hedging that drains impact, such as ‘I feel like’, ‘maybe’, and ‘sometimes’.
Start noticing when your communication is vague or verbose. Reset and choose a more authoritative approach.
(Related: Four Pillars of Transformational Leadership).
2. Work On Your Self-Awareness.
As a senior leader, you’ll be watched, judged and — hopefully — followed. Being conscious of your own behaviours and blind spots, and being curious about how you’re being perceived, are both important.
Of course, you don’t want to obsess about your every move. The goal is to:
- Avoid overconfidence and rash reactions.
- Reflect on the views of others and how you affect their emotions.
- Acknowledge your foibles – mistakes, uncertainty or areas for improvement. Don’t be afraid to apologise, and never shun away from taking responsibility.
Bravado and arrogance don’t inspire admiration. A self-aware person exudes self-assurance and empathy.
Everyone has room for growth, and recognising this publicly is wise. Studies have shown that demonstrating humility makes you more likeable, and makes you a better role model for your follower’s own growth journeys.
3. Learn To Thrive Under Pressure.
It’s impossible to convey a dignified air when you act flustered or erratically. Think of former US President Barack Obama’s ability to lead through a crisis and remain calm.
Notice when your composure is eroded by stress. Do more of the things that help you achieve equilibrium. Think before you act.
Executive presence in high-stakes situations is characterised by:
- Decisiveness but with a willingness to take advice from others.
- Courage to take calculated risks, without being foolhardy.
- Openness about unpopular decisions and why they’re needed.
- Accountability for the outcomes of your decisions, both positive and negative.
4. Drive Meaningful Interactions.
Instead of impassioned speeches standing at a podium, you’re more likely to lead smaller meetings or one-on-one conversations.
Leaders with gravitas can connect with people with competing ideas and agendas because they leverage their emotional intelligence to connect with stakeholders at a deeper level.
Build your executive presence skills by approaching every interaction as an opportunity to:
- Learn or contribute insights.
- Build a strong and diverse network.
In more formal meetings, convey a strong executive presence by:
- Being prepared and having evidence/data to support your points.
- Directing talks towards relevant and meaningful topics.
- Respectfully commanding attention when conversations get off-track.
- Moving everyone towards a constructive outcome or action.
5. Define And Embody Your Values.
Inner confidence and the ability to act with conviction come from knowing who you are and what you stand for. Also important – knowing what’s outside your scope of concern, so you waste less energy on things that don’t matter to you.
Many leaders define themselves through the lens of their job or family role, e.g., “I’m a CEO” or “I’m a father”. These are surface-level ways of helping you navigate the world.
Make a list of 5-10 values that you’ll embody daily and measure your self-esteem against.
Examples of personal values and how to define them for yourself could include:
- My word is my bond: If I’ve made a commitment, I’ll deliver – regardless of how I feel.
- Responsibility: I’m 100% responsible for everything within my control and how I handle matters outside my control.
- Compassion: I avoid causing distress, show that I care, and leave people feeling good about themselves.
- Freedom of speech: I express my opinion, and allow others to do the same – even if we disagree. Especially if we disagree.
Clarity on your values helps you act in ways that are consistent with what matters most to you, regardless of the situation. Revisit your list of values regularly, to both reinforce your beliefs and reprioritise where necessary.
6. Watch Your Body Language & Physical Impact.
Your energy levels, appearance and body language all send signals about your attitude and self-belief. Executive presence can be boosted by:
- Appropriate appearance: Dressing smartly or in line with company culture, and ensuring you maintain good hygiene and grooming.
- Confident posture: Without attempting to intimidate others, hold your head high, remain relaxed and act like you belong.
- Strong eye contact: Use your eyes to engage with others. (It’s a common problem for new leaders. If you struggle to maintain eye contact, consider formal executive presence training).
- Powerful gestures: Use hand gestures to amplify your verbal communication. (Consider taking a public speaking course to integrate the two).
- No Monotone: Vary the volume of your voice to make your message easier to hear.
7. Listen To Understand.
Leaders are less likely to receive honest feedback, create space for divergent ideas, or gain the respect of their followers if they won’t listen or authentically engage in dialogue.
To become a better listener:
- Pay attention and leave space for others to speak.
- Ask open-ended questions and demonstrate your understanding through your responses, rather than making a separate point.
- Don’t close down when ideas conflict with your own. Express disagreement respectfully, focus on facts and avoid personal attacks.
Develop Your Leadership Presence To Grow Your Career.
Executive presence is not an act. It’s a set of skills that likely are a missing link between your current role and a more senior leadership position.
You can step into being a more assured and charismatic persona by building on your existing strengths gradually, and by taking time to work on your habits.
With practice and continual refinement, you can become a more credible, appealing and admired leader who motivates others to succeed through leadership skills and executive presence.