How to develop executive presence

Take a moment to think through your network and you’re sure to come up with someone who has executive presence. It may seem hard to define, but you definitely recognise it when you see it.

Developing executive presence is an important skill at senior management levels – it’s a set of behaviours that can be learned. So, if you don’t feel you have executive presence, you can develop it.

This article looks at the characteristics of executive presence, and helps you identify which strengths and areas you could develop. It’s a close link with my article on developing charismatic leadership.

Characteristics of executive presence

It is difficult to be precise about what executive presence is. Here are the main components you might recognise:

1. Gravitas
You can tell whether or not someone has gravitas by the way they speak and act – they appear calm, confident and authoritative. Calmness is strength.

  • People look to them for direction when they walk into a room
  • They remain calm under pressure (please see last month’s article on mindfulness for more about this)
  • They can think on their feet
  • They make decisions in a timely way
  • Rather than shifting attention all over the place, they are mindful of where their attention goes. They direct their focus where it needs to be

2. Communication
A leader with executive presence communicates clearly, concisely and authoritatively.

  • They deliver their message in a way that quickly captures and holds the attention of the audience
  • Their communication styles demonstrate credibility backed by the ability to convey that they could answer in-depth questions on their subject, not just a summary and sound-bites
  • Finally, they know their audience, and have the ability to tailor their message and style to win hearts and minds

3. Confidence
Inner confidence shines through in how people with executive presence conduct themselves and in what they say.

  • It affects how they deal with setbacks, and how they deal with other people’s style and behaviours (especially sub-optimal behaviours, no matter how senior the individual is)
  • Like gravitas, confidence also helps people stay calm under pressure
  • For more on this, please see my article on How to develop your confidence

4. Appearance and mannerisms
Workplaces are becoming more informal, but appearance still counts, albeit with less impact than the above three. However, it’s still important to be well-groomed, to wear clothes that are cut well, that fit well, and are in good condition.

  • Clothing is a hygiene factor. If you wear what’s appropriate to your working environment, people won’t notice, but it will have a negative impact if you are dressed inappropriately
  • Bad habits and mannerisms include nail-biting, slouching, avoiding eye contact, and ‘filler’ expressions such as “like” and “y’know”. These are creeping into the language but distract from your message if they are overdone. My body language newsletter covers this is in more detail)

5. Emotional Intelligence (EI) 
And finally, I keep talking about Emotional Intelligence (EI) being essential for today’s leaders. This too is a key component of executive presence, and comes across in the first three points above. EI is the ability to understand yourself and manage your own behaviour, matched with the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in order to manage your interactions with them. These insights might have been around for 15 years, but they are as important as ever. If you don’t demonstrate that you understand others’ issues, you come across as distant and removed, and you won’t have the impact and influence you need.

Have YOU got executive presence?

Print out this questionnaire and fill it in.

When you enter a room, do people look to you for direction?
YES     NO
Are you calm under pressure?
YES     NO
Do you influence senior stakeholders?
YES     NO
Can you ‘hold your own’ with strong-willed people?
  YES    NO
Can you think on your feet?
  YES    NO
Are you decisive?
  YES    NO
Do you find it easy to attract people to come and work for you?
  YES    NO
Are you able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what it’s like being them?
  YES    NO
Can you convey your message clearly and concisely?
  YES    NO
Can you adapt your message for your audience?
  YES    NO
Do you communicate with the appropriate level of passion and energy for the situation?
  YES    NO
Do you win hearts and minds?
  YES    NO
Do you stand tall, make eye-contact, have a firm handshake and an authoritative tone of voice?
  YES    NO
Do you take care of your appearance?
  YES    NO

Your answers will help you decide where you have strengths. Are you making the most of them? Could you use them more frequently? Are there situations where you are currently not using your strengths?

Your responses will also help you to identify any areas where you need to develop (of course, you can contact me for help with that).

Build your action plan

Here are some suggestions for you to think about when developing any aspect of your executive presence:

  • As you may recall in my career management article, getting feedback is an essential part of progressing your career. Ongoing, specific and timely feedback will help you raise awareness of how you are coming across to others and focus your attention on where you need to develop
    • Ask two or three people you trust to give you constructive and clear feedback, specifically feedback on the areas you identified in the questionnaire that you want to work on
    • Ask them to be your ‘buddy’. For example, if you want to work on improving your calmness, request specific feedback when they notice you doing it well, or when you didn’t do it at all, or when you could be doing it better
  • Video yourself delivering a presentation. Watch it back to determine what went well, what didn’t, and the audience reaction. Were you breathing?! This helps you work on what you look and sound like, your level of eye-contact, and whether you were talking AT the audience or WITH them. It also helps you judge the extent you are winning hearts and minds. You can also video yourself to practice before presenting
  • Think of a time when you were at your best, and a time when you were at your worst. Analyse any patterns and draw conclusions before drawing up a plan of what you want to change
  • Build your action plan showing:
    • What you want to develop and improve
    • What it will look like when you’ve achieved it
    • What you will do
    • When you will do it
    • Where you will do it
    • Who you may need to help
    • When you might not want to do it

Please share this article with anyone you know who might find it interesting, and let me know if you’d like more information.

Next month, we look at networking – love it or loathe it, you know it’s good for you!