Years ago, I led an executive search for a top leadership position in a fast-paced, results-driven business. After the interviews, the hiring team complimented the candidate's strategic decision-making, innovative ideas, strong work habits, and organizational commitment. But, the CEO and hiring team expressed concerns about the candidate's lack of executive presence. These kinds of comments are not unusual. They were voicing that being intelligent and committed is not enough to be effective as a strategic leader. To advance your career, you need to be clear on the stated and unstated expectations of leaders. Here are the ten characteristics of executive presence, how to know if you are maximizing your executive presence, and three tips for developing an authentic executive presence.
Why does executive presence matter?
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.
When asked to provide a meaningful description of executive presence, most employees say, "I will know it when I see it."
When considering the concept of executive presence, comparing it with leadership power and influence can be helpful. There are formal and informal aspects. Also, executive presence can be applied for good purposes and bad.
Perception is not reality, but making an impression is inevitable. Executive presence is not 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.
“You never get a second chance to make a first impression” Will Rogers
Evidence suggests that 89% of leaders and managers believe executive presence helps you get ahead, and 78% think a weak presence holds you back. Also, executive presence was considered to impact leadership success directly.
There is always an opportunity to make an excellent, not-so-great, or wrong impression.
10 Characteristics of Executive Presence
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:
Reputation from current or previous roles and impressive accomplishments, awards, or networks with others perceived to be important.
Nonverbal communication and physical appearance.
Projected confidence, such as being calm and demonstrating self-control in high-pressure situations.
Clear leadership communication, voice modulation when speaking, and speaking up to be heard.
Interpersonal skills that engage others, such as being charming and friendly.
Consistent interpersonal integrity.
Behaving consistently with personal moral values.
Intellect and expertise that results in excellent judgment and wisdom.
Outcome-oriented, such as being results-driven, flexible, committed to following through, and delivering results through others.
Using power to enforce compliance.
How do you know if you are 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 using a scale of never, sometimes, or always:
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 never or sometimes to any of these questions, you are likely missing opportunities to strengthen your executive presence.
How to build an authentic 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.
Executive Presence Tip #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.
Executive Presence Tip #2: Get Feedback
It is not uncommon to have hidden strengths and blind spots. Identify five people who 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.
Executive Presence Tip #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.
What are your executive presence hidden strengths or blind spots?
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.