5 actionable tips to increase your executive presence

Have you ever been told in order to advance your career, you need to increase your executive presence? You are not alone! Many people have been given this advice.  The problem is – if you ask people for the definition of executive presence, you will hear things like: “being able to hold your own”, or “able to command a presence in the room” or even “I know it when I see it”.  These are all pretty vague and don’t give a clear sense of what to work on.  And yet, this is often the “thing” that gets in the way of someone getting promoted or viewed as credible.  So, it is important to pay attention to.  Let’s make it a bit more actionable.

Executive Presence Defined

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, wrote the book Executive Presence.  Based on data and research, she put forward the three main components of executive presence.  

  1. Gravitas. She identified the following things as being included, in order of importance: confidence; poise and grace under fire; decisiveness; integrity and willing to speak truth to power; emotional intelligence; reputation and standing; and projecting a vision.  This is the characteristic that 67% of senior executives identify as key.
  2. Communication. This incorporates things such as: being concise, adding compelling value-add content off the top of your head; knowing your information cold; and being able to tell poignant, short stories that make your point. According to 28% of senior executives this is critical.
  3. Appearance. This includes things you would expect such as grooming and attractiveness.  But, it also includes things such as: having good posture; paying attention to what others are saying; paying attention to the body language of others; being able to read the room; holding eye contact; and not checking your device during a meeting.  According to senior executives, only 5% view this as important.  

Actionable Tips

While defining it helps increase our understanding, the next step is to identify what actions you can take to help develop your executive presence.   

1. Manage Your Appearance

Ok – let’s tackle the awkwardness of this one from the get-go.  We want people to base their opinion of us on the quality of our work – not how we look.  And, most people have come to the realization that snap judgments on appearance are usually grounded in unconscious bias.  It would be ideal if appearance didn’t come into play at all. Unfortunately – that is not the reality we live in.  Your appearance is likely the first item that will influence someone’s opinion of you. There are plenty of things about our appearance that we cannot change.  However, the overall judgment of your appearance goes beyond these items and includes the parts of your appearance that you can choose to change.  These can include things like using straight body posture to project confidence; wearing neat, professional clothing that is not distracting; looking other people directly in the eye to demonstrate your engagement; not fidgeting during a meeting; and keeping your phone in your pocket or out of view so it is not disruptive.  You may feel like changing some of these things removes your ability to be yourself. Ultimately, each of us has to decide what we are comfortable changing about our appearance. If you aren’t comfortable fitting into these norms, then you need to find the organizations where there is less of a prescribed view of what an executive looks like. Fortunately, this is the least important of the three components.  Focus on the ultimate goal, which is to remove as much distraction and judgment others have about your appearance so they can focus on your content and quality of your work.

2. Prepare

We all have situations that make us nervous.  For some it is speaking in front of an audience of more than 10 people, for others it is presenting in a meeting with more senior leaders. Identify the situations that make you the most nervous and then prepare, prepare, prepare.  There are 3 key components of preparation.  The first is to understand who is in the room and what their agenda for the meeting or presentation is.  If you understand what others are hoping to achieve, you can tailor your interactions to help others feel their time was well spent.  The second is to have “the meeting before the meeting”.  Identify who your allies are in the discussion or people who are willing to advocate on your behalf.  Enlist them ahead of time and ask them for their support if they are comfortable. And, third, practice what you want to say.  This doesn’t mean “memorize” a speech.  Instead, identify your key points and be able to make those points in a conversational manner.  Be sure to ask trusted advisors for help so they can give you feedback, and you can make adjustments before entering that situation.  Try doing dry runs of a presentation, have someone listen for any jargon words or acronyms you are using, tighten your message to make it as succinct as possible and brainstorm what questions you might get asked so you can identify the key components of the answer you want to give.  Being well-prepared is likely to increase your confidence.

3. Invite feedback

Identify a trusted advisor who has the opportunity to see you in some of these situations and you feel has the skills you want to model.  Ask them to pay attention to the things you can improve upon and give you the unvarnished feedback.  Ask them to also pay attention to others and how they received your message.  Try to learn as much as you can and apply it to make yourself better the next time. 

Say Thank You!

Remember to thank the person for their honesty and perspective to encourage them to feel comfortable giving you feedback in the future.  

Gathering this kind of feedback can give you an outside-in perspective that is very challenging to assess on your own.  And, building your skill at hearing others suggestions and incorporating into your approach is a good application of executive leadership.

4. Work with an executive coach

An executive coach can be a great resource to help you identify your strengths, uncover and discuss your challenges openly and honestly, identify techniques that work for you and turn all of that into concrete action steps to implement.  A coach can help you turn up the volume on your strengths and turn down the volume on your fear as you approach new situations and opportunities to demonstrate your executive presence.  If increasing your executive presence is something your manager or other leaders have told you to work on, asking for the company to invest in you by paying for it is a great development plan item.

5. Find your own style

Gather the feedback you received from others, advice from your manager and knowledge you have picked up from books and articles you read.  Sift through it and find the nuggets of information that will make you better.  Identify the strengths you can use to help you in the situations that challenge you. Figure out what helps you calm down and practice that before, or during, stressful moments.  Take all of this input and begin to incorporate it.  But, remember to find what works for you.  Don’t try to mimic someone else that you think has great executive presence – that will only make you feel unnatural and is likely to have the opposite effect on your confidence.  

Executive presence is not something that people are born with.  It is a set of skills and behaviors that are deliberately put in place, need to be practiced and can improve over time! 

Jennifer is a seasoned leader and executive coach with more than 20 years experience including as a Chief Human Resources Officer overseeing the HR and Communications functions. She is a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coaching Federation.

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