July 31, 2018

Executive presence: Recognizing it and growing yours

What is “executive presence,” and why does it matter?

Consider these examples.

Jane Williams is self-assured, always well-prepared for meetings and respected by her colleagues.  However, when she arrives at a meeting, it’s typically 10 minutes late, and she needs another five minutes to settle herself, shuffle papers and open her laptop or phone to answer an email.

Bill VanDyke is highly knowledgeable on the technical issues facing his company, punctual and prepared at meetings, and he speaks with confidence in public settings.  But his clothing is typically rumpled and his shoes are scuffed.

Ellen Teston is quiet but articulate, knowledgeable about the business and committed her organization.  She often waits for others to speak first, but always seems to be thoughtful, measured and accurate in her analysis of a situation.  Her personal style is muted but professional.

Which of these individuals would you choose to succeed you as CEO of the company you have built?

Most of us would choose Ellen, and you may have some sense of why you would make that choice, but can you articulate those reasons clearly?  Can you assess yourself against your own criteria for executive presence?

The building blocks of executive presence

Executive presence has been defined by management consultant Suzanne Bates as “the qualities of a leader that engage, inspire, align and move people to act.”  Writing for Harvard Business Review, John Beeson describes it this way:

“It ultimately boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.”

Bates goes on to describe the three core elements of executive presence to be character, substance and style.  She says character involves the inner values and core traits that define who you are to others.  Substance is your social presence, maturity, demeanor and ability to project gravitas in difficult situations.  Style is the most outwardly visible of the three elements, but it is more than just outward appearance and dress.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Bates articulates five key components of style that are worth cultivating in yourself and noting in others.  These are:

  1. Appearance: this is where clothing and personal appearance matter, including hygiene, attention to detail and a polished overall look.
  2. Intentionality: this is the ability to have a vision, articulate it and share dialogue about that vision with others, listening to their input along the way.
  3. Inclusiveness: this characteristic requires soliciting input and ideas from a broad and diverse group of others beyond yourself and your leadership team.
  4. Interactivity: this reflects the ability to put others at ease and have a conversation without shutting others down, even those whose processing style is different than yours (introverts versus extroverts, for example).
  5. Assertiveness: to be assertive in ways that are effective, you must be able to not only give clear and concise directions, but also be accessible and open to changes given feedback from others.

Finally, consider this list of six components comprising executive presence presented by Cindy Wahler for Forbes:

  • External demeanor
  • Body language
  • Tone of voice
  • A concise description of how you add value
  • An ability to share your view, even when you’re unsure it’s right
  • Emotional resilience

Build your own executive presence

Executive presence is a complex phenomenon, and if you are trying to build your own, it’s not helpful to just have someone tell you, “you’ll know it when you see it.”  Use these lists to guide you, and consider the following steps to build your own executive presence over time:

  • Write an honest self-assessment of your own executive presence in one page or less.
  • Find a trusted friend, mentor or colleague (or all three) and ask for their impressions of your executive presence.
  • Compare their feedback with your self-assessment, and identify any traits you want to amplify, as well as any that might represent areas for development.
  • Use this list to choose one characteristic of executive presence to enhance over the next three months.
  • Enlist your advisors to give you feedback on a monthly basis — let them know what trait you are working on, and get their feedback on how they would know you are improving in that area.  Ask for a monthly progress report from them.
  • At the end of three months, decide to either continue building the trait from the last quarter, or choose a new one, and repeat the process.

What does executive presence look like to you?

I’d be interested to know what your experience of executive presence is in the leaders you most admire.

— Last updated July 31, 2018