Executive Presence: What Does It Mean? And Do You Have It?

by Janice Tomich

What is Executive Presence? – The Short Definition

Executive presence is hard to define. It’s filled with nuance and judged more on emotion than logic. But having a strong executive presence is necessary to build a successful career. 

Have you ever been stung, passed over for an opportunity? Maybe you thought to yourself your qualifications were better than the person chosen? 

You perhaps rationalised that the other person was chosen over you because they were a smooth talker, but it’s likely that they were chosen because of their executive presence. It’s the connector to opportunities, especially the plum ones that require others seeing you as confident, poised, and genuine. 

The Longer Answer

We’ve all worked with that person. We can’t quite put our finger on what they have that pulls us in, but it’s there. They have presence – a certain gravitas. They have a dignified aura about them and can easily influence us to their way of thinking. 

We’ve also all known this other person…someone who has deep expertise, yet can’t persuade their colleagues of their solution or vision.

Professionals who can’t sell or communicate their passion have little chance of success. The skill of motivating and inspiring others is directly connected to executive presence.

At the core of executive presence is the ability to be present while being comfortable and confident in your own skin. How many times have you been told to ‘just be yourself’? That is the key, however it’s one of those ‘easier said than done’ recommendations. 

It’s from the belief in oneself and ease of interaction that others see executive presence (or not). We look for the image projected, watching for the level of confidence, gravitas and genuineness. There is not much leniency either, we expect this level of professionalism even when a leader is under pressure. 

Executive Presence: Are You Born With it? Can it Be Learned?

Some people are born with executive presence, but most of us have to work at it.

A few lucky people are naturals and exude great executive presence effortlessly, but most of us have to work at it. Executive presence is a skill. It’s always a work in progress.

While your career’s trajectory and responsibility grows, your need for a larger toolkit of skills grows too. Throughout your career you’ll have lots of opportunities for developing executive presence. It takes asking for feedback in a way that you will receive constructive recommendations. This is a skill in itself. Executive presence also means letting your defenses down and truly listening to what you are being told.

Leadership presence and executive presence are one and the same. “Good” leadership presence that is. To be a successful leader you need executive presence. They go hand in hand. 

5 Essential Qualities of Leaders with Executive Presence

1. Powerful Listening Skills

Executive presence is just as much about having listening skills as having presentation skills.

Skilled senior leaders have the ability to listen and ‘read the room’. Clients often tell me how isolated and out of touch they feel. It’s a serious problem that executives have to manage to be successful. 

I work with a tech firm that I hold in high regard because of their nimbleness. Their listening skills and executive presence are of a high calibre. When the pandemic broke, in light speed they increased their team members’ access to extended medical including mental health services. They authorized ergonomic work from home desk situations. The executive team opened up their calendars for check-ins. All done within a few days. 

When a leader is attuned to others it opens doors to communication, which is the essence of gravitas, however this is a challenge if you’re isolated. It takes acute listening, awareness and a commitment to be connected to your teams.

2. Empathic Perspective

I was once invited to a board of trade event where a newly appointed CEO spoke at. He delivered the standard speech about how pleased he was to take on the new role and what his focus for the future was. He praised the top-notch staff he had inherited and said he looked forward to working with them. I learned that while he was speaking, a close friend and colleague (who had been told that her and her colleague’s jobs were secure) had been let go, along with 50% of her staff. 

I will never forget or trust that man. His lack of emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy decimated his credibility. His lack of understanding of perception and the alignment between what needs to be done and communicated lacked integrity. 

It’s easy to deliver good news. Delivering bad news is much harder. It’s a real test of one’s leadership capabilities. We envision the worst about how the news will land. Bad news can be difficult to hear, but even more difficult is hearing the bad news third-hand from someone else. Or getting a watered down, overly optimistic version. The new CEO would have been better served to share that with careful consideration changes would take place for the success of the organisation.

Delivering bad news clearly and concisely while putting yourself in the receiver’s shoes actually builds trust. It doesn’t break trust, as long as the explanation is truthful and the reasoning makes sense.

3. Aligned Body Language

Good posture shows executive presence through body language

Feeling comfortable and standing tall with your chest fully expanded communicates confidence and composure.

Give this quick exercise a try to feel the difference between feeling confident and not.

Stand with your shoulders hunched looking down at your phone. Now tuck the phone away in your pocket, stand tall and take a few deep breaths. Notice the difference in how you feel between the two stances?

When you stand holding yourself tall, with your chest opened wide, others will perceive you as having a strong leadership presence. And it will leave you feeling that you do, too.

4. Strong Vocal Resonance

Woman using a microphone to amplify her voice

A small, soft voice doesn’t give people confidence in what you have to say. A well modulated voice which projects is an attribute of executive presence. 

Did you know that highly trained singers and actors can project their voices with such nuance that they can land a whisper at the back of a room? They can! Your voice is a powerful instrument that inspires confidence in your words.

Presentation skills matter. Paying attention to and learning how to use the power of your voice is the key to relaying executive presence. 

5. Integrity: The Core Trait of Great Executive Presence

Two people shaking hands, demonstrating integrity

Executive presence is an integral attribute that requires depth and fortitude as well as the ability to follow through with your promises.

Remember the senior leader I spoke about that didn’t deliver the bad news at a board of trade event? He lacked integrity. He was hired to clean house and increase profits, which is fair enough, however this work can be done with graciousness and integrity. Once he had accomplished his mission he disappeared. He started on bad footing and couldn’t be trusted, which are not qualities of a respected leader.  

Leaders with executive presence connect to the root of their values and beliefs. Their words and actions are believed and they are trusted. Their teams stand behind them and support their vision and success.

Who Needs Executive Presence?

Both introverts and extroverts can communicate executive presence. It’s a skill to be built over time. 

In her book Presence, Dr Amy Cuddy defines presence and how to build the skills to achieve it. The definition and ‘how to’ of presence similarly mirrors executive presence. 

Executive presence is not just for junior executives looking to enhance their chances of reaching the top-tier executive leadership level. Everyone who wants to be in rewarding relationships will find value in spending time polishing their executive presence skills.

Curious about mastering your communication skills to build your executive presence? Reach out to set up a quick call with me to learn about working together to position you as a leader.

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