What is Executive Presence, and Why Do You Need It?

Manners maketh man. And woman. 

Dress for success. (Corollary – dress for the job you want, not the job you have.

Stand up straight. 

And so on. 

It’s everything your parents ever told you about making a good impression (probably including the clean underwear part, just to be safe), moved into a business context. 

We’re talking, of course, about Executive Presence.  

But – define Executive Presence. Sure, it may include the right clothes, but there are plenty who can ooze leadership qualities in jeans and a t-shirt, or when you’re listening over the phone and have no idea what they are wearing. It can include please and thank you and social niceties, but we’ve all known leaders who can be short-tempered and use harsh words. There is, shall we say, a certain je ne sais quoi to the whole thing. 

Is it true, like in the famous Supreme Court quote, it cannot be defined but “I know it when I see it”? 

What makes a leader stand out? How can those outstanding qualities make you a better communicator in your job, volunteer, and home life? 

For her 2014 book, “Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success,” author, professor, and entrepreneur Sylvia Ann Hewlett surveyed over 250 senior executives to try to pin down the ineffable qualities we bundle together to call Executive Presence.  

Her work led to a multi-faceted definition that includes intellect, emotional intelligence, posture, confidence, language choice, and more.  

The ability to project gravitas–confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness—seems to be its core characteristic…. [C]ommunication—including speaking skills, assertiveness and the ability to read an audience or situation—and appearance contribute to a person’s perceived executive presence. 

…[O]ftentimes people who exhibit executive presence exude a “wow factor,” or magnetism, and are able to easily influence others. They often speak up, use strong and clear language, communicate with passion and energy, and display positive body language by standing tall, making eye contact, offering a firm handshake and using an authoritative tone of voice.  

The real question, and the reason Dr. Hewlett has sold so many books, is “how can I get it for myself?” 

The question implies that this is a learned skill, and at 3C we agree. Presenting to a group or running a meeting well, with authority but not authoritarianism, is a skill that requires executive presence and which can be learned early in a career, thereby earning that useful reputation. And nicely, the same skills that allow a person to command a roomful of people apply just as well to demonstrating mastery when it’s a room of just you and one other. 

 

Here are 3C’s six essential tips for demonstrating executive presence

  1. Eyes on the prize. Focus is magnetic, and someone who knows what she wants and can articulate the goal well is attractive. Focus is magnified by consistency, by recognizing that detours will happen but the destination stays the same. Managers who are leaders stay steady in a storm.
     

  2. Inclusiveness. A team can do more than an individual. Earning the right to be followed requires the vision mentioned above and the ability to bring strength from every resource. This demands IQ and emotional intelligence, an ability, as Hewlett asserted, to “read a room” and find the right thing to say. 
     

  3. Carriage. It’s an old-fashioned word that still has good use – how a person “carries” himself. Momma was right when she told us to stand up straight and push our shoulders back. How one stands, shakes hands, and connects with gesture and eye contact won’t be enough without the other attributes, but they do project power and confidence that can help sell all the rest. 
     

  4. Voice. More than timbre, which gives an edge to the tenors, the keys here are confidence and range. Confidence comes from knowing the content and from rehearsal and preparation (see next item), and a speaker who uses all of his vocal gifts from a whisper to a scream, including pauses, repeats, and silence, is a speaker who can keep an audience engaged. 
     

  5. Mastery. Subject matter expertise is a keystone. None of the rest of these tips matters for very long if it is absent, although it alone cannot do the job. We find that subject matter experts can almost always present to similar subject matter experts but winning over people with expertise in other areas takes the rest of these skills. 
     

  6. Boldness. The person who goes just a little beyond, who reaches farther and inspires others is the one who earns a team’s loyalty and can win over an audience. Big, audacious goals come from leaders who know how to rally the troops, and the best of the best are the ones who accomplish those goals. 

 

None of these characteristics works alone. They blend together in to a savory stew of passion, skill, persuasion, and drive. 

 

Note that there is nothing here about extroverts or introverts, gender or sexual preference, creed or color. Executive presence comes in packages of all shapes and sizes, and we would be wise to name it when we see it and observe that our organizations are stronger when we have more of it from every level and corner.  

And finally, note that each one of these skills is, wholly or in a reasonable portion, teachable and a matter of will and practice. We can literally invest in leadership that can impress customers, partners, new employees – building a culture of executive presence as a competitive advantage.  

What’s YOUR next move?