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  • Writer's pictureThomas Watson

Develop Executive Presence

Updated: Jun 26

Executive presence (EP) is a term that is often cited, but poorly defined – even by those who reference it in talent decisions. In a recent study, the majority of HR leaders struggled when pressed to describe it, defaulting to “I know it when I see it.” In another study, of 400 CEOs and other leaders with hiring and promotional decision-making authority, 78% stated that limited presence holds people back.

I was unsatisfied with the notion that something so important to the career success of those I work with on executive searches and coach could not be adequately described, understood, and potentially developed. So, I spent several months doing primary and secondary research, and in this month’s blog I share a synopsis of my findings.

Let’s dispel some misconceptions upfront. Executive presence is not just charisma, nor gravitas. It is also not the mere physical presence of a leader, even those with an imposing stature. Executive presence is an amalgam of qualities, and no single individual possesses every characteristic at maximum levels.

Two of the most comprehensive studies of executive presence were done by: 1) Gavin Dagley and Cadeyrn Gaskin and 2) Suzanne Bates and her team of researchers. Both groups conducted extensive research and empirically defined executive presence. Their work illuminates the term by describing the characteristics of leaders with EP.

Below I weave together those key characteristics from the respective studies, as well as other sources, and provide insights about how to project executive presence.

Reputation. Individuals with EP have had significant achievements in their career, which generates an aura and a mystic. I would highlight that a successful track record is the cornerstone on which EP is built. Past success provides a level of credibility that is foundational.

Confidence. Those projecting great confidence display a special calmness and composure.

Communication. These leaders articulate messages in succinct, clear, and convincing ways. They share a view of the future which inspires others. Their messages are thoughtfully tailored to their audience. They’ve learned how to make themselves heard, using voice modulation when appropriate.

Self-awareness. The leaders with EP have high EI/EQ. They are attuned to their impact on others and show concern and empathy.

Appearance. They bring a level of energy and are seen to be on top of their game. These leaders are eager to engage, friendly, and charming. They are mindful and considerate of culture, and dress and groom appropriate to the setting. Their use of nonverbal body language, such as eye contact, style of walk, and posture is deliberate.

Integrity. These leaders display high standards of morality, adhere to their espoused personal values, and are found to reliable and trustworthy over time. 

There are other characteristics, and a few are admittedly innate. However, most of those DNA-based characteristics (like physical stature) have been found to be of less relative significance. The conclusion, executive presence can be developed.

Now What?

You can start to develop your EP right away. While it is not advisable to try to be someone you are not, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek to represent yourself more favorably and increase your odds of career success and earning power.

A great first step is to get some objective data to determine where to focus. The Bates team took their work further and created a statistically validated assessment tool called the Bates ExPI. It is an anonymous, multi-rater assessment tool that provides insight into why people have, and what circumstances led them to have, the perception they do about your level of EP.

As you reflect and consider your own executive presence, there is one other significant point I want to add - EP is about balance. When one virtuous characteristic overpowers another, it can detract from how you are perceived. What is all too common is those leaders most passionate about climbing the corporate ladder discover (some don’t) that their bias for action that served them so well mid-career is now causing them to be overlooked for that coveted C-suite role. The feedback from the interviews is: “as an independent contributor he got things done, but he is too aggressive. I don’t think he’s learned how to get work done through others.” And, “he doesn’t have the interpersonal skills needed, nor the emotional intelligence to build commitment and sustain a team’s momentum.” It can be hard to self-diagnose and determine what has been holding you back. Often the candid feedback you need is not given, or perhaps not accepted. Find an astute, accomplished executive coach, and get to work on developing / refining your executive presence.


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