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Executive Presence 101: Why it Matters and How to Easily Improve Yours

“What does that even mean?”

Amy looked confused, and slightly annoyed when I told her that one of the themes of her 360° stakeholder feedback was she needed to improve her ‘executive presence’.

Through our coaching sessions we were able to tease out what Amy needed to improve to become a more effective leader, but I’ve seen her initial response repeated many times…

The leader providing the feedback knows exactly what they mean when they say ‘executive presence’ but for the person on the receiving end of the feedback, it isn’t always clear what they’re getting at.

Have you ever noticed someone who walks into a room and commands attention without even speaking a word

That’s executive presence.

Executive presence can be difficult to define, but you know when you see it.

It’s a term that’s increasingly used in the corporate world to describe the way a person carries themselves, communicates, and interacts with others.

It’s a set of qualities and traits that convey credibility, competence, and leadership abilities.

Executive Presence Definition

Executive presence is the ability to project confidence, authority, and charisma in a way that inspires trust and respect from others. It’s the way a person speaks, acts, and presents themselves that communicates their professionalism and leadership potential.

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Why Executive Presence Matters

In today’s competitive corporate environment, having executive presence can make all the difference.

It’s not enough to simply have the right skills and qualifications.

To stand out from the crowd and make a lasting impression, you need to have the right presence and demeanor.

Having executive presence can help you build stronger relationships with colleagues, clients, and partners, which can lead to more opportunities for career advancement.

It can also help you become a more effective leader, able to inspire and motivate others towards a common goal.

Executive presence is also a critical factor in career growth.

Those who possess executive presence are more likely to be considered for leadership roles, to be trusted with high-level projects, and to succeed in their careers.

And it can help you establish yourself as a credible and respected authority in your field, which can open doors to new opportunities and promotions.

So, while executive presence can be challenging to define, it’s an essential component of career success. By developing your own executive presence, you can set yourself apart from the competition and achieve your career goals.

Now we understand the importance of executive presence, let’s explore the key characteristics that make up this essential trait.

“If your presence doesn’t make an impact, your absence won’t make a difference.”

Trey Smith

Characteristics of Executive Presence

There are 5 pillars to executive presence – Confidence, Communication Skills, Appearance, Emotional Intelligence and Authenticity.

Pillar #1: Confidence

Confidence is a key characteristic of executive presence. It’s the ability to project a sense of self-assurance, control and poise, even in high-pressure situations.

Those who possess confidence have a calm and composed demeanor.

They’re perceived as capable and competent and are able to inspire others with their conviction and assurance, which makes people trust and follow them.

Confidence is essential for building trust and credibility, and it’s a key factor in effective leadership.

People who are confident tend to be more decisive, take risks, and handle setbacks more effectively than those who lack confidence.

They’re better equipped to handle ambiguity, uncertainty, and change, which are prevalent in today’s fast-paced corporate environment.

Pillar #2: Communication Skills

Communication skills are the ability to articulate ideas clearly, listen actively, and adapt your communication style to your audience.

Leaders who exhibit strong communication skills convey complex ideas clearly and simply and do it in a way that inspires others and makes them sit up and listen.

Effective communication is also a key factor in building trust and credibility.

Leaders who communicate clearly and transparently are more likely to be trusted by their colleagues, clients, and stakeholders.

They’re also better able to resolve conflicts, negotiate effectively, and build consensus.

Adapting your communication style to the audience is an essential aspect of building executive presence.

Leaders who adapt their style can build rapport with people from different backgrounds, cultures, and levels of seniority. They can also adapt their communication style to different situations, such as delivering bad news or presenting to a large audience.

Executive Presence Pillar 2 - Communication Skills

Pillar #3: Appearance

It’s important to recognize that we’re judged based on our appearance – whether we like it or not.

People form initial impressions of us extremely quickly.

This makes it even more critical for leaders to pay attention to their appearance, as it can have a significant impact on how others perceive you.

Research has shown that people who dress professionally and maintain good grooming practices are perceived as more competent and trustworthy than those who don’t.

While appearance alone isn’t enough to build executive presence, it’s an essential component. It sets the tone for how others perceive us, and it’s essential to make a positive first impression.

Studies have shown that people form first impressions within seconds of meeting us, based on our appearance and body language.

One such study by researchers at Princeton University found that people formed first impressions of others within 100 milliseconds of meeting them.

In the study, participants were shown a series of images of faces for varying lengths of time, ranging from 30 to 1000 milliseconds. The participants were then asked to rate the faces on various personality traits, such as likeability, trustworthiness, competence, and aggressiveness.

The researchers found that even at the shortest exposure times, participants were able to make accurate judgments about the personalities of the faces.

This study highlights the importance of appearance and body language in forming first impressions.

Even a brief encounter with someone can leave a lasting impression based on their appearance and behavior.

This is why it’s so essential for leaders to pay attention to their appearance and body language when building executive presence.

So, what do we mean when we talk about ‘appearance’? Well, it includes a leader’s clothing, grooming and body language.

Let’s look at each in turn:

Clothing

Your clothes are an essential part of building executive presence. The clothes a leader wears can convey a sense of authority, professionalism, and respect.

You need to dress appropriately for the occasion and to be aware of cultural, industry and organizational norms and expectations.

The colors, patterns, and styles of clothing can influence how others perceive you, so it’s important to choose clothing that’s appropriate for the context and audience.

Different types of clothing have varying levels of formality, and understanding these distinctions is essential when building executive presence.

For example, a suit is typically considered the most formal attire, while jackets and collared shirts are less formal. And a collared shirt is more formal than a non-collared blouse.

It’s important to understand the appropriate dress code for the situation as dressing too formally or too casually can both detract from your overall image.

In general, it’s better to err on the side of being slightly overdressed than underdressed when building executive presence.

Clothing that fits well and flatters your body shape can convey a sense of confidence and professionalism, while ill-fitting or baggy clothing can create a sloppy and unprofessional appearance.

Tailoring and alterations can be a worthwhile investment to ensure that clothing fits well and flatters your body shape.

And keeping clothing clean and wrinkle-free is essential to projecting a polished and put-together image.

It’s important to note that building executive presence through clothing is not about wearing expensive, designer, or fashionable clothes. Rather, it’s about wearing high-quality, well-fitting clothes that are appropriate for the situation.

Prioritize clothing that fits well and flatters your body shape, while also being comfortable and appropriate for the occasion.

Quality clothing can often be found at a variety of price points, and it’s more important to invest in pieces that will last and be versatile in a variety of situations.

Ultimately, building executive presence through clothing is about projecting professionalism, confidence, and authority, rather than simply following fashion trends or displaying wealth through expensive clothing.

Executive Presence - Clothing

Grooming

Grooming is another crucial aspect of appearance and plays a significant role in building executive presence.

Such polish involves maintaining a clean, well-kept appearance and includes personal hygiene, such as cleanliness and fresh breath, as well as hair, skin, and nail care.

Leaders who pay attention to their grooming convey a sense of professionalism, attention to detail, and respect for themselves and others, which can help to establish trust and credibility.

Grooming can have a significant impact on how others perceive you and neglecting it can detract from your overall image.

Body Language

Body language is a critical component of appearance when it comes to building executive presence.

Studies have shown that nonverbal cues can account for up to 93% of communication between individuals.

This means that our body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice can have a more significant impact on how we’re perceived by others than the actual words we say.

>> Nonverbal cues such as posture, eye contact, and gestures can communicate your level of confidence, engagement, and authority.

>> Standing up straight with your shoulders back and your head held high communicates that you are self-assured and in control. On the other hand, slouching or hunching can convey insecurity or discomfort.

>> Making eye contact while speaking conveys confidence and interest in the conversation. Avoiding eye contact can make you appear disinterested, insincere or nervous.

>> And using appropriate hand gestures and facial expressions can help to reinforce your message and convey your confidence and enthusiasm.

It’s worth noting there’s some controversy around interpreting body language and nonverbal cues, so don’t go too far trying to ‘read into’ the meaning of different postures.

While research has shown that nonverbal cues can have a significant impact on communication, there isn’t always consistency in the interpretation of different postures and gestures.

For example, some studies have suggested that certain postures, such as crossing your arms, can indicate defensiveness or disinterest, while others have found no such correlation.

So, it’s important to be aware of your body language and the messages you’re sending, but also consider the context of the situation. If it’s cold, you’re probably going to cross your arms – nothing to do with being ‘closed’.

In general, stand/sit up straight, make eye contact, take up space, pay attention and be interested – if you do that, you’ve got the main points covered!

“Your body communicates as well as your mouth. Don’t contradict yourself.”

Allen Ruddock

Pillar #4: Emotional Intelligence

Another aspect of executive presence is Emotional Intelligence, often abbreviated as EI or EQ, and it’s increasingly recognized as an essential characteristic of successful leaders.

At its core, EI is about understanding and managing emotions – both your own and those of others.

One key aspect of Emotional Intelligence is the ability to regulate your emotions appropriately.

This means being able to manage your own feelings and responses, and to avoid letting them get in the way of effective communication and decision-making.

Leaders with strong EI are able to remain calm under pressure, adapt to change, and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.

That said, Emotional Intelligence isn’t just about managing your own emotions – it also involves being able to understand and empathize with the emotions of others.

This includes being able to read social cues and understand how other people are feeling.

As a result, Leaders with strong Emotional Intelligence are able to build relationships more effectively, communicate more clearly, and navigate complex interpersonal dynamics with greater ease.

They’re also able to inspire and motivate others, build trust and create a positive culture, which can improve productivity and drive better results.

Self-awareness is a critical component of Emotional Intelligence, as it involves recognizing and understanding your own emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

This can be challenging, as it requires a certain level of introspection and self-reflection. However, leaders who are self-aware are better able to regulate their emotions and respond effectively to the emotions of others.

While you might think you know what you’re like – it’s likely you don’t. Research shows that 95% of people think they’re self-aware but only 10% of people actually are self-aware.

That’s why I created the guide, 11 Mistakes to Watch Out For (Even if You Think You’re a Good Leader). It’s designed to raise self-awareness about aspects of your personality that will facilitate your success and those that will cause career derailment.

Get your copy of the guide for free.

11 Mistakes to Watch Out For

“It’s important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence, it’s not the triumph of heart over head – it’s the unique intersection of both.”

David Caruso

Pillar #5: Authenticity

Authenticity is an essential characteristic of executive presence and involves being true to yourself and your values.

Leaders who are authentic are able to build trust and credibility with their team members, as they’re seen as genuine and honest.

This means being open and transparent, and avoiding the temptation to put on a false persona or hide behind a façade – because human’s really dislike fake people.

Vanessa van Edwards, a behavioral investigator, conducted a study on what traits people dislike most in others.

She found that the most disliked trait was “being fake.” She discovered that people have a strong aversion to those who are insincere or inauthentic, as it makes them feel uncomfortable and distrustful.

Humans have a natural ability to spot when someone is being fake, even if they cannot consciously explain why they feel that way.

This is due to our brain’s sophisticated social cognition abilities, which allow us to pick up on subtle cues and nonverbal signals in others’ behavior.

These cues may include changes in tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, which can give away a person’s true feelings and intentions.

When someone is being inauthentic, their behavior may not match their words or their body language, which can make others feel uneasy and mistrustful.

So, now you can see why it’s so important to be authentic in all aspects of our behavior – it helps build open and trust-based relationships.

You’re great, so be yourself.

Now you know what executive presence is, let’s talk about how to develop it.

How to Develop Executive Presence

In a recent poll I carried out on LinkedIn only 13% of respondents confidently believe they have executive presence:

Poll - Do you believe you have Executive Presence? Poll

So, if you’re one of the other 87% who believe you’ve got room for improvement there’s a variety of strategies and techniques you can use.

Learning to increase your executive presence is something we dive deep into in my membership program, The Exceptional Leader Collective’. If you’re not familiar with it yet, you can find out more here.

In the meantime, here’s some tips that can help you develop your executive presence:

Tip #1: Know Yourself

To establish a strong and authentic executive presence, it is important to have a clear understanding of your own abilities and limitations.

If you don’t understand the strengths you can lean into, and the shortcoming that could derail you, you won’t have clarity on where to put your development effort.

Any good intentions you have about growing and developing will likely be misplaced – because you’re working blind.

Take time to reflect on your strengths and what sets you apart as a leader, as well as areas where you may need to improve.

Take an honest inventory of your skills, capabilities and experiences and seek feedback from colleagues, mentors, or coaches.

Once you’ve identified your areas of strength and opportunities for growth, you can begin to develop a plan to build on your strengths and address your weaknesses.

This could involve taking courses to improve your skills, reading books, watching TedTalks, seeking out opportunities to practice your skills, or working with a coach to get feedback and support.

Tip #2: Master Body Language

Learn to use body language, facial expressions and hand gestures to your advantage. Nonverbal communication can be just as important as what you say in projecting confidence and authority.

Pay attention to your posture, maintain eye contact, and use gestures purposefully to convey your message and engage with others.

Vanessa Van Edwards’ “Magnetic Charisma” course on Mindvalley is designed to help you develop these social skills and to easily build strong rapport and connection with others.

Through a series of video lessons and interactive exercises, you’ll learn how to read body language, project confidence, and communicate effectively in a variety of social situations.

If you’re already a Mindvalley member, you can access the training straight away from your dashboard. If you’re not a member yet, learn more about the Magnetic Charisma course here.

Magnetic Charisma by Vanessa Van Edwards

Magnetic Charisma by Vanessa Van Edwards

With modules including ‘Present your ideas with charisma’, ‘How to sound powerfully confident’ and ‘Be more inspiring, influential and impactful’ this training is a must for anyone wanting to improve executive presence.

Learn more now

Tip #3: Build Self-Awareness

To develop executive presence, it’s crucial to tune into how you’re perceived by others and how they respond to you.

Pay attention to their body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions.

This will help you identify any areas for improvement and adjust your behavior accordingly.

You can also seek feedback from trusted colleagues to get a better understanding of how you’re perceived in the workplace.

Being aware of your impact on others in the moment and making conscious efforts to improve it will go a long way in building your executive presence.

Tip #4: Enhance Your Emotional Intelligence

Use your improved self-awareness (which you started in the previous step 😉) to manage your emotions effectively and develop empathy for others.

Become aware of your own emotions and those of others and use this awareness to guide your interactions and communication.

Identify the people, situations and environments that trigger and bring out the worst in you.

When you’re triggered, your emotions can take over and cause you to react in ways that may not be helpful.

Recognizing these triggers and learning to manage your emotions in these situations takes practice and self-reflection, but the benefits can be huge.

You’ll be able to build strong relationships, communicate more effectively, understand and manage conflicts, and navigate challenging situations with confidence and grace.

This can have a positive impact on your overall executive presence and help you to be seen as a more effective and capable leader.

Tip #5: Conduct an Audit of your Personal Brand

Conducting an audit of your personal brand is a critical step in developing executive presence.

This involves assessing how you present yourself to others, including your behavior, communication style, and overall image.

Think about how you want to be perceived by others and whether your current image aligns with that.

Look at your online presence, your communication style, your appearance, and your overall reputation.

Are these aligned with the image you want to project?

Solicit feedback from trusted colleagues, coaches or mentors, and make adjustments as necessary to ensure that your personal brand is consistent with your professional goals. And ensure consistency across all areas to create a strong and cohesive personal brand.

Executive Presence - Body Language

Tip #6: Improve Your Communication Skills

Improving your communication skills is crucial to developing executive presence.

Speaking persuasively can help to convey your ideas more effectively and establish yourself as a credible figure.

‘Communication skills’ is a pretty broad topic, but if you’ve done step #1 above, you now have some clarity on which specific aspects of your communication you need to improve.

Regardless of the specifics, develop your ability to use clear and concise language, listen actively, and tailor your message to your audience.

Practicing public speaking and giving presentations to larger groups.

Seek feedback from others to help improve your communication skills and enhance your executive presence.

Tip #7: Build Confidence in Being You

Authenticity is an important part of executive presence.

That means being yourself, not some ‘cookie cutter’ image of what a leader should be.

It’s essential to recognize your strengths and weaknesses and work on developing your unique style.

Building confidence starts with self-awareness, understanding what you’re good at, what you need to work on, and what makes you stand out.

Once you know what sets you apart, it’s easier to be comfortable with who you are and project that confidence to others.

Everyone has unique talents and abilities and embracing yours can help build your confidence.

Seek out opportunities to develop your skills and knowledge and be willing to take on new challenges and step outside of your comfort zone.

Remember that authenticity is key to building trust, and if you try to be someone you’re not, people will see right through it.

Revealing your ‘true self’ can be difficult, especially for those of us who are perfectionists. If this is you, be sure to check out my article on perfectionism here.

Building confidence in being yourself takes time and practice, but it’s worth it in the end as it can help you become a more effective and impactful leader.

Executive Presence - Build Confidence in Being You

“Believing that you’re enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic.”

Brene Brown

Tip #8: Be Willing to Learn

Being open and willing to learn is an important aspect of developing executive presence.

It’s important to recognize that executive presence is a skill that can be developed and improved with time and practice.

By taking the time to learn and understand the key components of executive presence, and seeking feedback from others, you can continue to build and refine this essential skill.

It can also be helpful to study and observe the executive presence of others, whether it’s in person, through videos or books. See the case studies below, as a starter.

Remember that executive presence is not something you’re born with, but rather a set of behaviors and characteristics that can be developed and cultivated over time.

By being open to learning and making a conscious effort to improve, you can effectively develop your executive presence and become a more effective leader.

Case Studies: Successful Leaders with Executive Presence

Learn from successful leaders who’ve mastered executive presence!

These case studies highlight some prominent leaders who are known for their exceptional executive presence:

Angela Merkel - Executive Presence Case Study

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel, the former Chancellor of Germany, is known for her strong executive presence. She is calm, composed, and able to maintain her poise even in difficult situations. Merkel’s authenticity, intelligence, and assertiveness are also key aspects of her executive presence.

Bob Iger - Executive Presence Case Study

Bob Iger, recently returned CEO of The Walt Disney Company, is known for his calm and collected demeanor and his ability to communicate effectively with people at all levels of the organization. Iger is also known for his ability to make tough decisions quickly and effectively, while also being empathetic and taking into account the perspectives of others.

Sheryl Sandberg - Executive Presence Case Study

Sheryl Sandberg, previous COO of Facebook, is confident and assertive while also being empathetic, accessible and supportive towards her colleagues. Sandberg is an excellent communicator and often uses personal stories and anecdotes to connect with her audience. She is also known for her resilience and ability to navigate through difficult situations with grace and composure.

Satya Nadella - Executive Presence Case Study

Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has transformed Microsoft into a more innovative, diverse and inclusive organization. Nadella has a natural ability to connect with people at all levels of the organization, and he is known for his empathy and active listening skills. He’s also fostered a culture of growth and learning at Microsoft, encouraging his employees to take risks and innovate.

Jacinda Ardern - Executive Presence Case Study

Jacinda Ardern

Jacinda Ardern, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, is known for her ability to connect with people on a personal level, communicate and stay calm under pressure. She has demonstrated her executive presence during various crises, displaying empathy and strength under the international spotlight.

Oprah Winfrey - Executive Presence Case Study

Throughout her career, Oprah has demonstrated a high level of self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and authenticity. She’s known for her ability to connect with her audience and make them feel heard and understood. Oprah’s communication skills are also top-notch, as she’s able to speak persuasively and clearly convey her message. Her body language and demeanor exude confidence and authority, while also being approachable and relatable.

Executive Presence in the Virtual Workplace

In the post-Covid era, an article about executive presence wouldn’t be complete without briefly touching on the topic of executive presence in the virtual workplace.

Building executive presence in a virtual environment requires a different set of skills and strategies compared to in-person interactions.

As so many of us are still working remotely, executive presence in the virtual workplace is important.

While virtual communication has its benefits, it also presents some unique challenges. Let’s face it, we’re all a bit tired of Zoom calls!

The main challenge of virtual communication when it comes to executive presence is the lack of non-verbal cues.

Virtual communication often lacks nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice that are so important for effective communication.

This makes it more difficult to read the room and gauge others’ reactions.

Virtual communication also provides limited social interaction and lacks the opportunity for casual conversations that can help build relationships and trust between colleagues.

Executive Presence in the Virtual Workplace

This topic probably requires a whole blog post to itself…but here’s some tips for building executive presence in a virtual environment to get you started:

>> Be mindful of your appearance: Dress appropriately for video calls, ensure your background is clean and uncluttered, and try to minimize distractions in the house as best you can.

>> Improve your communication skills: Work on your verbal and non-verbal communication skills to convey confidence and authority in a virtual setting.

>> Manage your diary: Avoid back-to-back virtual meetings. Being online is more tiring than face-to-face so be ruthless about the meetings you do, and don’t attend.

>> Maintain a positive attitude: Keep a positive attitude and show enthusiasm and engagement during virtual meetings (you’ll need to manage your energy levels for this – see above)

>> Show empathy and active listening: Be an active listener, show empathy towards your colleagues, and be responsive to their needs and concerns.

>> Be prepared and organized: Prepare for virtual meetings by researching the topics to be discussed and organizing your thoughts and materials beforehand.

>> Use technology to your advantage: Familiarize yourself with the technology being used for virtual meetings and ensure that you’re comfortable with the platform. Turn up on time and don’t be fumbling with the Zoom link 3 minutes past the start of the call.

Final Thoughts: Executive Presence

Executive presence is a crucial factor for success in the workplace and beyond.

There’s a lot of different ingredients required for the executive presence ‘recipe’ – communication skills, self-awareness, confidence, and emotional intelligence to name just a few.

But they’re all things that can be learnt and developed.

Developing executive presence requires time, effort, and a willingness to learn and improve. You need to conduct an honest audit of where you’re currently at, put a plan together and then act. And then be patient and persistent in equal measures.

Developing executive presence can help you become a more effective leader, communicator, and collaborator, and take your career to the next level.

So, take action today to develop your executive presence and make a lasting impression as a confident, capable, and influential leader.

And remember, if you’d like some help and support to develop your own executive presence, be sure to check out my membership program for leaders, ‘The Exceptional Leader Collective.’

Now over to you. Leave a comment below and tell me the one tip you’re going to do first to develop your executive presence.

Written by

Jenny Ostick_Portrait i_White Background

Jenny Ostick

Chartered Organizational Psychologist & Master Coach

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2 Comments

  1. Stephanie

    I never realized how important body language and personal brand is in creating executive presence…this article was a real eye opener for me and the tips will be super helpful – thanks

    Reply
  2. Sasha

    Great read – I especially appreciated the section on building self-awareness. It’s easy to forget how others see you, but it’s so important to be aware of this if you want to have executive presence.

    Reply

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Hello!

I'm Jenny Ostick

As an Organizational Psychologist and Master Coach I’m on a mission to make good leaders exceptional leaders. My lifework is to help leaders overcome the unhelpful beliefs, behaviours and habits that are holding them back, so they can become the exceptional leader they’re capable of being.

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11 Mistakes to Watch Out For
Breakthrough Coaching

Hello

I'm Jenny Ostick.

As an Organizational Psychologist and Leadership Coach I'm on a mission to make good leaders exceptional leaders.

I've spent the last 20 years working with leaders across the globe and have had the privilege of working with 1000+ leaders during this time.

I've worked with the likes of Deloitte, Virgin, Nestle and Coca-Cola to name just a few, and this has provided me with a unique insight into the difficulties that leaders face and the real things they struggle with.

My lifework is to help leaders overcome the unhelpful beliefs, behaviours and habits that are holding you back, so you can become the exceptional leader you're capable of being.

learn more

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11 Mistakes to Watch Out For

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» Thinking about your next move up the leadership ladder? Ignoring these common mistakes could put your progression in jeopardy.

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