What is Executive Presence?

DG - 2-what is Executive Presence

It seems “executive presence” is the new thing to have, but most people I ask in my professional practice give me wide and varying definitions. No one seems to be real clear about what it is – so what is it, exactly?

Presence: Often referred to as “bearing,” presence incorporates a range of verbal and nonverbal patterns (one’s appearance, posture, vocal quality,
subtle movements)—a whole collection of signals that others process into an evaluative impression of a person.

—Karl Albrecht, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success (Pfeiffer, 2009)

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, surveyed 4,000 college-educated professionals (including 268 senior executives) to find out what coworkers and bosses look for when evaluating executive presence.

Three criteria proved critical:

  1. How you act (gravitas): 67%
  2. How you speak (communication): 28%
  3. How you look (appearance): 5%

Gravitas signals intellectual expertise, but also confidence and credibility. Senior executives picked projecting confidence and grace under fire as presence’s most important qualities.

You communicate authority through your speaking skills and ability to command a room, the top presence picks by senior leaders. Eye contact matters enormously, according to executives surveyed, as do voice, bearing and body language.

The 5% importance attributed to appearance is misleading. Standards of appearance for leaders matter, but do not appear as critical as gravitas and communication. Yet, research from Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital suggests that colleagues size up your competence, likability and trustworthiness in 250 milliseconds, based simply on looks.

First impressions do matter but after that, it’s up to you to fill in the rest of the story by exuding your executive presence.

Applied to leadership, we generally think of presence as commanding others’ attention. And….

“For us, presence is the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts
and feelings of others, in order to motivate and inspire them toward a
desired outcome.”
 Lubar and Halpern, in Leadership Presence: Dramatic Techniques to Reach Out, Motivate and Inspire

I found this to be so very true in coaching executives who work hard on their speaking and appearances. Although a certain bearing counts, it does not matter as much as what you say and do, i.e. your consistent character grounded in your values, strengths and purpose.

And, all the competence and wisdom doesn’t matter either unless you can connect authentically with your people to motivate, influence and inspire them for the greater good.

What is your experience with defining what executive presence is for you and your team members? I’d love to hear from you – contact me or connect with me on LinkedIn.


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