The term executive presence can be vague and mean different things to different people, like the concept of leadership.  Is it about how you show up by what you wear, how concise and convincing you are in meetings, how great you present, how much credibility you have, or how strong your decision-making and strategic thinking skills are?

When you ask a group of managers who aspire to the C-suite what it takes to get there, they invariably mention executive presence, even if they may not be clear on what it means.  In a survey conducted by Coach Source, Dr. Brian Underhill shares that from a manager’s perspective, 42% of people who seek a coach want to develop their executive presence.

So, what are these “make or break” factors in considering whether to promote somebody into the upper leadership rank?  Executive presence is not just about one or two factors, such as how you look or dress, but about the whole person.  It may seem like some people either have it or not, but they likely worked hard to achieve it, and it can be developed with intention.  Executive presence, or I would extend the concept to also include leadership presence is about inspiring confidence in others because of character, capabilities, and reliability.  These leaders can handle complex and unpredictable situations, make tough decisions quickly, and hold their own with talented and strong-willed team members.

The Bates Executive Presence Index, a research-based, scientifically validated assessment measures executive presence according to 3 big categories: character, substance, and style.  I’m going to borrow aspects of that framework and include my categories based on commonalities from clients I’ve coached on this topic.

Components of Executive/Leadership Presence:

1. Character.  Arguably one of the most important is about the personal traits and values that define you.  Two key components include:

·      Integrity – Acting authentically, transparently, sincerely, and in accordance with your actions and beliefs.  You live up to ethical standards because you care about doing the right thing for yourself and others, even when it is unpopular.  You are credible, trustworthy, professional, dependable, and know how to keep your promises.

·      Humility – Part of being humble is being self-aware – you have a good sense of your strengths, weaknesses, and the impact that you want to make.  At the same time, you know you do not know it all, so you seek out diverse perspectives and feedback, you listen inclusively to others, and you believe that all people have worth regardless of title or position.

2. Substance.  This relates to depth and overall maturity and can be split into practical wisdom and emotional intelligence.

·      Practical Wisdom – Having those hard skills and competencies in getting the job done.  You also exercise good insight, judgment, vision, strategic thinking, and collaborative skills in bringing teams and stakeholders aligned and along with you as you achieve results.   

·      Emotional Intelligence – You show calm and balance when under pressure because you know how to manage your own emotions.  You do not have erratic and unpredictable outbursts or become emotionally unhinged when you clash with others or receive pushback on your ideas; instead, you use your emotional strength to understand the situation better.  You are also attuned to others’ emotions because you listen, ask questions, factor in other perspectives.   You show care and build great relationships because you can read the room, receive data, and make pivots to fit the moment better.

3. Style – This is about how you present yourself and how others see and experience you quickly, if not immediately.  It is the first impression.  Two critical aspects include presence and effective communication.

·      Presence – This is more than the right clothes, firm handshake, eye contact, or voice projection; it is about exuding confidence, being calm in hectic times, and adapting your demeanor to serve the situation better.

·      Effective Communication – Relates to talking with intentionality.  You are clear, brief, direct, and speak with authority.  You do not bog others down with the details or open the floodgates and blast them with information; you know how to get to the bottom line swiftly.  You use your communication to empower, inspire, and bring out your best.  That may entail providing a forum where others feel safe, expressing themselves, asking questions, and feeling stretched in their growth because of your high expectations in their development and support. 

Like many intangible leadership traits, these skills can be grown, especially if you have a baseline level of self-confidence and a willingness to deal with unpredictable situations that come with the territory at the executive level.

Let’s jump into some things you can do to develop executive presence:

1. Skill build.  Understand where you want to go, assess your starting point with your current skill set, determine the new proficiencies you will need, and pick one capability to grow.  You can raise your awareness by reading about it and then practicing the skill.  Perhaps, you want to begin with style and specifically your public speaking.  You want to stand and deliver confidently, clearly, and concisely to large groups, answer questions effectively by maintaining curiosity and not becoming defensives, and handle pressure calmly.  You can start with the headline, provide some more details, and hold space for others to jump in with questions, then go deeper on topics that interest them.  Being comfortable with releasing some control means that they can drive the conversation, and you can handle whatever comes your way.  Speaking in shorter bursts is helpful because it is more of an exchange and not a lecture.

2. Get support from others. You can work with a coach to get clear on who you are, what you want to work on, what it will take to work on it, and be held accountable along the way.  You can also work with advocates, managers, peers, colleagues, mentors to let them know that you are actively focusing on this one thing.  If they have tips or suggestions and can be mindful of sharing feedback when they see you doing the behavior, you can gain their support for your growth.  Receiving helpful feedback from them can allow you to adjust along the way.

Expressing your executive presence is unique to each person.  You make an impression through the values you bring to the organization, the results you deliver, the way you connect, and how you communicate your points.  It is a worthy skill to invest in because it can lead to more career advancements and opportunities.  When you lead with character, substance, and style, you can positively influence and inspire greatness in others. 

Quote of the day: “How you act (gravitas), how you speak (communication), and how you look (appearance) count for a lot in determining your leadership presence.” -CEO Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Q: How do you define executive presence?  What’s one essential feature of it?  Comment and share below; we would love to hear from you!

As a leadership development and executive coach, I work with leaders to help develop their executive and leadership presence, contact me to explore this topic further.

How do you show up? Is it the way you want to?