Understanding and Harnessing Executive Presence

executive presence

You almost certainly know someone who embodies the idea of executive presence—a leader who makes everyone else feel at ease, who exudes confidence and self-assuredness, someone who always appears unruffled, no matter how chaotic the situation is.

The key element at the center of executive presence is a high level of confidence and an ability to easily make connections with the people around you. Having executive presence means showing your value, and that you belong in the room where it’s happening. This trait can be hard to define and even harder to learn, but it’s not impossible to cultivate.

We’ll unpack exactly what executive presence is, how it manifests itself, and how you can nurture it in yourself and others.

What exactly do we mean by executive presence?

At its core, executive presence is about demonstrating absolute confidence in yourself and your convictions. It means cultivating a perception that you can step up in challenging and unprecedented situations, or be decisive and stand your ground in varying circumstances.

In other words, executive presence is your capacity to inspire confidence among:

  • Direct reports that you can be trusted to lead
  • Peers that you’re reliable and that you are adding value with your presence
  • Leadership that you belong in your role and are worth considering for additional responsibility

Executive presence is a combination of gravitas, communication, and appearance. How you act, how you speak with others, and how you present yourself are all key elements of executive presence.

It’s also an essential leadership trait—a Gartner survey of executives found that respondents ranked it second out of twenty leadership traits that matter. Studies show that you don’t just need to be leadership material, you need to be perceived as being leadership material as well. That’s where executive presence comes in.

Executive Presence: Examples and Scenarios

Executive presence can mean different things for different people, and not all leaders have the same strengths. With that in mind, people with executive presence tend to:

  • Work well under stress
  • Communicate effectively and efficiently
  • Empower and inspire others
  • Remain focused and motivated, regardless of circumstance
  • Be great storytellers
  • Hold their own in challenging situations
  • Be willing and able to respond to change and provide direction
  • Articulate a clear vision for the future

Even though it can be hard to define the specifics, everyone likely knows what we mean when we talk about executive presence. It means having gravitas, poise, and decisiveness—you’re confident in the face of adversity and you rise to the occasion, no matter how dire.

Someone with executive presence also speaks assertively, powerfully, and can easily read a room and respond to unexpected situations. They also demonstrate that they are leadership material with their posture, bearing, demeanor, and style of dress.

Ultimately, this comes together into a sort of “wow factor”, something that we sometimes call charisma or magnetism, but though those concepts can seem like inherent traits, they’re really just a collection of behaviors that can absolutely be learned (more on that later).

Why does executive presence matter?

Most obviously, executive presence is critical if you want to advance in your career, and if you want to succeed in leadership in the first place. According to a study of 268 executives by the Center for Talent Innovation, executive presence accounts for at least a quarter of what it takes to be promoted. Your executive presence (or lack thereof) contributes directly to the opportunities you have access to.

Having executive presence also affects your ability as a leader, and can have both positive and negative impacts on your team. Your team has to have confidence in your ability to lead and that you have the situation under control, and they need to feel seen and understood when you communicate with them.

In a sense, executive presence is a measure of your ability to lead—specifically, whether or not others will follow, regardless of your title or position.

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Elevate Your Self & Your Presence

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Key executive presence skills

There are a lot of varied skills and behaviors that contribute to a person’s executive presence, but these are the most important to nurture and develop.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is your ability to identify, assess, and understand your emotions—and by extension, those of others. You need to be able to manage not just your own emotions, but those of the people around you. This means being authentic, self-aware, compassionate, and intuitive. It is not easy to stay calm under pressure and to maintain your composure in difficult situations, but it is a critical part of leadership and of executive presence.

Emotional intelligence means being able to read a room, notice the moods and feelings of others around you, and adjust accordingly. It doesn’t stop with awareness, of course—true emotional intelligence means being able to take action to manage your emotional state and to impact the emotional states of those around you for the better.

The key aspects of emotional intelligence are:

  • Self-awareness: your ability to take your own ‘emotional temperature’
  • Self-regulation: managing your emotional state positively
  • Motivation: actively using your emotional energy to drive toward your goals
  • Empathy: being able to observe and understand the emotional states of others
  • Social skills: managing the emotional states of those around us
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Communication

Communication is perhaps the most important element of executive presence because it has such a substantial impact on all of the other skills. You need to be a strong public speaker and be confident and comfortable in front of a crowd, but that’s only part of it. You need to be able to take complex pieces of information and present them clearly and concisely, adjusting to meet the needs of the audience in question.

In order to truly demonstrate executive presence, you also need to have a message, and be memorable—storytelling is a key element of leadership. You need to be able to guide your audience, whether that’s your team, a prospective investor, or the board of directors, toward your desired outcome, and the best way to do that is with a good story.

More concretely, you need to speak clearly and precisely and avoid hedging or weak language. Eliminate ‘I think’ and ‘I believe’ from your vocabulary wherever possible, and practice eliminating ‘ums’ or other needless pauses.

You can improve your communication skills by:

  • Preparing in advance
  • Maintaining good eye contact
  • Adopting a confident tone and neutral body language when speaking
  • Observing reactions and responding effectively
  • Practicing active listening
  • Staying calm and working on confidence under pressure

Confidence

Demonstrating confidence can be challenging, especially when it comes to executive presence, though perhaps not for the reasons that you think. Too much confidence can make you seem unrelatable, unapproachable, and full of yourself. Too little, of course, and you won’t be able to gain the confidence of those around you.

Truly being confident means not thinking too much of yourself, or too little. It means having a realistic understanding of yourself and of your strengths and weaknesses and acting accordingly. You need to have trust in yourself and in your abilities, but you can’t be blind to reality.

To develop executive presence, you not only need to gain confidence but also inspire it in others. Strive to be humble yet focused. Don’t be too authoritative or aggressive. A good leader sets goals and inspires others to help achieve them.

You can boost your confidence by:

  • Seeking perspective from others to clarify your beliefs
  • Trusting your gut
  • Capitalizing on what you’re good at
  • Surround yourself with the right people
  • Face your fears
  • Bear your goals in mind
  • Eliminate negative thoughts
  • Focusing on solutions

Competence

Competence, in terms of executive presence, means showing that you belong there and that you are the right person for the job. Many executives are promoted either for their leadership capabilities or for their skill in their position, but a true leader really needs to have both.

In order to demonstrate the kind of competence that a true leader has, you need to be able to move beyond your functional strengths and take a more strategic view. You need to be able to see your whole team, and ideally the whole company.

Having the experience and skills needed to help realize organizational goals is crucial in developing executive presence. Never stop learning, and empower yourself with the knowledge to enhance your career potential and your leadership ability.

You can improve your competence by:

  • Reading or improving your knowledge base
  • Joining the right groups and taking advantage of peer networks
  • Embracing opportunities to better your skills
  • Working with a mentor or coach
  • Learning from failures and mistakes

Decision Making

The ability to judge well is also crucial when developing executive presence. That means identifying issues and making wholehearted decisions swiftly. You shouldn’t strive for failure, of course, but in so many situations it is better to act decisively than to obsessively analyze the situation and fail to act at all.

If making good decisions were easy, well, we would all undoubtedly be better off, but there are still some things you can practice to develop your discernment. Listen carefully to others, and take the advice of those more knowledgeable than you; pay close attention to the people around you so you aren’t caught off guard; give yourself just enough time to think before acting—the Samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo famously said that “In the words of the ancients, one should make his decisions within the space of seven breaths…if discrimination is long, it will spoil.”.

Discernment takes practice insights as well as committed and persistent follow-through. It’s often based on options, circumstances, implications, meaning, and motivation.

You can boost your discernment by:

  • Keeping an open mind
  • Remaining objective
  • Distinguishing “ends” from “means”
  • Striving to understand the “why”

Influence

As you access more senior roles and your responsibilities expand, your effectiveness becomes more and more reliant on other people. Thus, the ability to generate influence and build rapport is essential for executive presence.

True influence is about trust, which is the currency of leadership. Without a real connection, your team and your peers will not feel that they can rely on you, which makes this a critically important skill to develop for any leader. You need to ensure that you are relatable and that you are known, and understood—this means being strategically vulnerable. Remember to appear human!

Always focus on your team and model your desired behavior. Also, understand your team deeply for a better connection.

Building influence calls for:

  • Effective communication skills
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Trust and empathy
  • Openness to feedback

Appearance

Appearance is a challenging thing to measure and difficult to attain as well, but it is still something important to strive toward.

How you dress, of course, is critical. Having a professional appearance no longer means wearing a suit to the office every day, but your clothes should be clean and they should fit. Know your audience—dress for the occasion, which might mean dressing up or dressing down, depending on who you are speaking to.

Beyond the clothes you wear, there are many things you can practice to bolster your appearance. Posture, for example, can make a tremendous difference in your presence and is something that you can practice improving right away.

You can improve your appearance by:

  • Observing personal hygiene
  • Carefully selecting your clothing
  • Exercising regularly
  • Staying hydrated
  • Eating healthily
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Organizing your workspace
  • Smiling
  • Being self-confident

Executive Presence Training

Executive presence training encompasses learning from others, formal training, and experimental opportunities.

Is it beneficial?

The training boasts numerous benefits. For one, it provides accountability and feedback needed to gain a competitive edge in an otherwise competitive career showroom.

Two, your coach can leverage observation, active listening, and in-sessions role-playing to discover areas that need extra buffing.

There, the step-by-step actions incorporated in your coaching program can provide you with a series of notable successes, consequently boosting your confidence.

Is it worth it?

Simple answer, yes. The reason being:

  • Large organizations are more likely to invest in executive presence training. That depicts its value.
  • Developing a leadership presence is an essential competitive advantage, making training a necessity.
  • The benefits speak for themselves.

Overall, it takes more than experience and credentials to access senior leadership roles. The training fast-tracks you to inspiring confidence among decision-makers that you’re ready for the next-level leadership position.

Become a Better Executive

If you aspire to access senior leadership positions, you must project yourself as a reliable, dependable, and experienced leader. That means asking for 360-degree feedback to understand how other people in your organization see you. And using the information to identify your executive presence qualities and areas of improvement.

To best convince decision-makers that you can take control of unprecedented situations, leverage executive presence training.

Besides, you’ll need a trusted guide as you ascend to senior roles – to at least ease your journey.

Perfect Your Executive Presence
Perfect Your Executive Presence

Ready to level up your career? With the power of one-on-one coaching, you can perfect your executive presence and build the life and career you want. Contact us today to see what a personal coach can do for you.

 

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At Building Champions, we strive to understand your unique leadership challenges. And leverage our blend of experience, knowledge, and insight to help you traverse any set of challenges. Your coach draws from their past hands-on experience as a senior corporate leader to help you achieve extraordinary results all around.

Since there’s no time like the present, now is the time to develop your executive presence. Contact us to discuss how we can help you improve your sense of timing, listening ability, and the ability to remain calm—even when everyone around you gets emotional.

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