“Executive presence” is a concept that people recognize when they see it, even though it’s not well-defined. It’s a skillset that is highly valued when considering promotions and leader roles. Beyond leader roles, the individual elements of presence can be useful to anyone as they develop their career.
Oddly, it’s not a skillset that a lot of people get training on, at least until they reach a high leadership level.
What is executive presence?
Some focus in on presentation skills when they think about executive presence. Others focus on personality and character traits. Another way to think about it is the likelihood that others will follow someone’s direction and how that person is perceived by others. I think it’s useful to consider presence as a set of skills and traits that can be developed – people can get better at it.
There are descriptors that are often used to describe presence, such as:
- Authentic. People should see you as genuine, natural, fair, open, and trustworthy. Many very public, big-name leaders fail at authenticity, especially in moments of crisis. Indicators of inauthentic presence might be scripted/stilted speech, too many business buzzwords, evasive answers, or hesitant speech patterns (think ums and ahs).
- Charismatic. You should have the ability to engage others and encourage them to trust and rely on you. Charisma is a combination of verbal and non-verbal skills that make you “attractive” to the people you are interacting with. Sometimes people will describe it as “pull.”
- Clear and concise. The ability to be clear and concise is like a health indicator. People infer that you have clarity of thought and strong information processing skills. You can assess the needs of your audience and provide necessary details in appropriate language for them without extraneous information or too much detail. These skills help you to be a direct communicator.
- Competent and confident. Competence covers technical and non-technical domains, and you should be able to assert what you know with confidence. Over-confidence/arrogance may convey presence, but it’s an unstable foundation – long-term, people will disengage from this style of leadership. So, aiming for confidence but staying open to new inputs and points of view is probably a better way to go.
- Inspiring. Your words and actions encourage others to follow you, to support your strategic efforts, and to align with your vision. If there is a crisis or sensitive topic to be covered, people feel safe and reassured there is a way forward when you engage them.
- Knowledgeable. This trait goes with competence, but covers a broader range of domains that you have more than passing knowledge of. Even when faced with an unexpected scenario or a challenge question, you have a bedrock of experience/knowledge that comes through in how you respond and bring others into the conversation.
- Level-headed. Composure is a big component of executive presence. You remain calm in stressful situations and can separate emotional responses out from discussions to help people stay focused on the topic at hand/ways forward. People trust you to lead them forward and to talk to them in a calm and open manner.
- Personal and physical presence. This attribute indicates poise and demeanor. It is a combination of your communication style, people awareness, emotional intelligence, and comportment. There’s likely an element of physical confidence that extends out to others, with nonverbal cues that indicate engagement. Appearance is also part of the package, which is why people focus on dressing appropriately (for the situation, organization culture, etc.).
- Professional. You bring experience, knowledge, status, and reputation to every discussion, and you remain open and approachable. People see you as credible and trustworthy. You have strong communication skills and can share ideas persuasively.
But there isn’t and should not be a “one size fits all” way of having presence, just as there isn’t only one way to be a strong leader. Your experiences, personality, and even style all have an impact on what your presence will be like and what impression you make on others.
Again, like “cultural fit,” an organization that upholds a rigid idea of what executive presence is may exclude people (on purpose or subconsciously) in their idea of a leader. People outside of the norm in appearance, clothing, or presentation style may be deemed to have low executive presence, even if their actual contributions and/or differences could be beneficial to the business.
Why everyone can benefit from developing presence
The skills and characteristics of presence can help you to navigate lots of different situations and professional dynamics, such as:
- Leading projects and collaborating with different personalities.
- Advocating for ideas, your team, or yourself.
- Building influence and credibility.
- Inspiring others and leaving a good impression with people from all levels of your organization.
- Managing stressful or difficult situations.
- Negotiating for successful outcomes.
- Improving career opportunities.
Building presence can be transformative for your career and the way you perceive yourself and your capabilities.
Companies who have leaders with executive presence should expect some benefits as well. They can have a positive impact on:
- Employee morale. Employees feel confident in their leaders and are likely more aware of what needs to be done and their roles/value in the company.
- Change management. Leaders are able to bring their strengths to change management processes and provide the information, inspiration, and steady hand needed to see teams through the process.
- Innovation and resilience. Leaders with presence can impact culture change faster and with more staying power. In a crisis or stressful situation, they are reliable and capable, which reassures their team and helps everyone to move forward.
Signs you need to work on it
Executive presence often comes up for developing leaders with respect to the impression they make on other leaders. In many organizations, it’s that dynamic that determines someone’s readiness to take on a bigger leadership role.
If you come out of a key meeting feeling like you didn’t nail it, you can start by asking yourself why. Some signs that you have some work to do are:
- Specific feedback from senior leaders or in your annual review.
- Senior leaders ask you what you think is the same question multiple times. This indicates that they have not yet heard the critical information they need. Often, it’s because it’s lost in all of the extra detail, in-the-weeds information you provided.
- You frequently feel left out of important conversations that you feel you should be included in.
- You worry more about your performance than what you need to contribute to a big conversation.
Developing a stronger executive presence
Some people think executive presence is something you have or you don’t. Effective leaders might think that it’s a natural talent they have. People who have doubts about their leadership abilities might think that it’s a natural talent they don’t have. But the skills and attributes of people with presence are learnable.
Executive coaching is a big industry and personal coaches can be a great option for people moving into senior positions. However, there are development steps anyone can take to work on their presence.
- Get comfortable with change. Work on how you manage your responses to changes and develop problem-solving skills so that you have frameworks and coping strategies readily available when needed. This includes practicing how to form an effective response without preparation (a sure sign of executive presence).
- Develop summarization skills. A communication style that is concise is consistent with presence. You can start in meetings by focusing on how to give more information with fewer words and asking the right questions to be more effective in your communications and decisions.
- Speak with intention. Executive coach Kris Verlé suggests this approach to internalize a clear structure: Start with a brief but clear statement of your opinion. Support that view with facts and ideas, followed by an example or an anecdote that illustrates your previous point. Close your argument by summarizing it in a single sentence.
- Be decisive. Make an informed decision, then communicate it with confidence (but not arrogance). You still need to be open to new information, but don’t avoid decisions for fear that you might have to amend your decision later. Even if you aren’t the lead, you can still prepare some talking points and prioritize which ones you definitely want to make. This prep will also make it easier to move the conversation forward if things get stuck.
- Strengthen your short-term and long-term thinking. You need to consider both to have a true sense of implications or opportunities. Include how decisions, changes, or opportunities will impact people and not just your team/business.
- Find your inspiration and share it. We are often more articulate and more dynamic when we talk about the things we care about. You can transfer some of that dynamism over to other areas of your work life.
- Work on your self awareness and body language. When you find yourself in a pressure situation, be thoughtful in your reactions and think about what an experienced leader with presence might do in your place. This is a little bit of “fake it ‘til you make it,” but it will get more comfortable over time. Your body language conveys your level of comfort, confidence, and competence.
- Record yourself. This can be very uncomfortable, but it’s really hard to judge your tone, comportment, and presentation style while you’re in the moment. When you look/listen afterward, do so with the point-of-view of someone who is deciding whether or not to do what you ask of them.
- Practice active listening. If you talk more than you listen, people will stop listening to you. Get good at detecting cues and incorporating that information into your approach. Be fully present in each conversation and demonstrate openness.
- Copy people who are good at it. Not such that you are trying to change yourself beyond recognition, but note how they enact their presence and adapt some of those elements that fit with your style into your approach.
- Interpersonal skills. Focus on developing interpersonal skills and getting good at “reading the room.” Your ability to adapt to different styles, motivations, and situations will help you gain confidence in your ability to foster collaboration and take the lead.
- Seek feedback. After a meeting or presentation, ask some people to give feedback on your presence and style. If you have someone at work whom you trust to give you straight answers, they are a good person to ask.