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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

Is A Lack Of Executive Presence Stalling Your Career?

Years ago, I led an executive search for a top leadership position in a fast-paced, results-driven business. After one of the interviews, the hiring team complimented a candidate's strategic decision-making, innovative ideas, strong work habits, and organizational commitment. But, they expressed concerns about the candidate's lack of executive presence. These comments are not unusual. The team was voicing that being intelligent and committed is not enough to be an effective strategic leader. To enhance and maximize your career, you need to be clear on the mindset and characteristics expected of leaders. Here are three tips for developing an authentic executive presence.

Why does your executive presence matter?

Perception is not reality but making an impression is inevitable. Executive presence is not something inherent to who you are, but rather it is a perception of others. Perceptions can be based on impressions formed during brief interactions like a passing hallway conversation and evaluations of actions based on many observations over time.

A study involving 400 leaders and managers revealed that 89% believe executive presence helps you get ahead, and 78% think a weak presence will hold you back. Also, in a survey of 268 senior leaders, executive presence was considered to impact leadership success directly.

There is always an opportunity to make an excellent, not-so-great, or bad impression.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression” Will Rogers

What is executive presence?

Like leadership, presence can be a difficult concept to define. There is limited peer-reviewed research on the topic and an obvious tension in the literature about whether executive presence is more than impression management. If you ask someone to describe what is meant by executive presence? You will likely get the response, "I will know it when I see it."

When thinking about the concept of executive presence, it can be helpful to compare it with leadership power or influence. There are formal and informal aspects. Also, it can be applied for good purposes, and it can have a dark side.

The foundational attributes of executive presence are described as gravitas, communication, and appearance. Evidence suggests the following are ten key characteristics that contribute to your degree of executive presence:

  1. Reputation from current or previous roles and impressive accomplishments, awards, or networks with others perceived to be important

  2. Nonverbal communication and physical appearance

  3. Projected confidence such as being calm and demonstrating self-control in high-pressure situations

  4. Clear leadership communication, voice modulation when speaking, and speaking up to be heard

  5. Interpersonal skills that engage others, such as being charming and friendly

  6. Consistent interpersonal integrity

  7. Behaving consistently with personal moral values

  8. Intellect and expertise that results in excellent judgment and wisdom

  9. Outcome-oriented such as being results-driven, flexible, committed to following through, and delivering results through others

  10. Using power to enforce compliance

Are you maximizing your executive presence?

Like the rearview mirror on the passenger side of a car, it is dangerous not to realize that your perspective is somewhat affected by your point of view and that your brain is on autopilot. Consider how you would answer the following questions by thinking back over the past month:

  • Do you state your purpose when you meet with others?

  • Do you explain why your point of view is different and valuable?

  • Do you listen to and connect with others?

  • Are you aware of your body language and physical appearance?

  • Do you bring energy to your discussions?

  • Are you using phrases like "it's my position" instead of "I think?"

  • Do others know your values, and do you walk the talk?

  • Are you vulnerable and assertive during challenging conversations?

  • Do you control your emotional responses when situations become tense?

  • Do you look for opportunities to leverage and grow your network?

If you would answer no or not often to any of these questions, you are likely missing opportunities to strengthen your executive presence. Applying the following tips will help.

3 Tips to develop your executive presence

You are not born with executive presence. And you don't have to fake it. Here are three tips for creating an authentic executive presence.

  1. Build your emotional intelligence. Your degree of self-awareness, self-management, motivation, empathy, and interpersonal skills make up your emotional intelligence. Practice identifying, evaluating, and expressing your emotions. Also, work on recognizing and responding to the feelings of others.

  2. Get Feedback. It is not uncommon to have hidden strengths and blind spots. Identify five people that know you well and would be comfortable giving you constructive feedback. Using the questions from above, ask them to rate how well you are doing. Working with an executive coach and using a 360-degree survey can help you overcome some common barriers to getting good feedback.

  3. Spend time in reflection. Effective reflection involves the ability to doubt, pause, and be curious about the ordinary. Use a journaling app like Day One to capture your thoughts, feelings, successes, and frustrations. This approach is demonstrated to be incredibly impactful for improving new skills. Like building any habit, start small and tie it to an existing practice, like your routine, before leaving work for the day. Use the questions provided in this article to be the focal point of your reflection. Remember to take a balanced approach to both strengths and weaknesses.

"If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change." Wayne Dyer

Key Summary Points

  • Executive presence can help you enhance and maximize your career success.

  • Executive presence is not something inherent to who you are, but rather it is a perception of others.

  • It is not uncommon to have hidden strengths and blind spots relative to your executive presence characteristics.

  • You are not born with executive presence.

  • Emotional intelligence, feedback, and critical reflection are three tools to develop an authentic executive presence.

How do you need to change the way you are considering executive presence?


Bates, S. (2016). All the leader you can be: The science of achieving extraordinary executive presence. McGraw-Hill.

Dagley, G., & Gaskin, C. (2014). Understanding executive presence: Perspectives of business professionals. Counseling Psychology Journal. 66(3). pp. 197-211.

Shirey, M. (2013). Executive presence for strategic influence. The Journal of Nursing Administration. 43(7/8). Pp. 373-376.

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Hi, I'm Dr. Jeff Doolittle. I'm determined to make your personal and professional goals a reality. My only question is, are you?

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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune