What is Executive Presence?
Imagine this. You walk into a business meeting and immediately notice one who exudes confidence, composure, and charisma. Without saying a word, they have captivated the attention of the room. This illusive aura is executive presence.
But what exactly is this enigmatic quality? How can CEOs and C-suite executives harness it to propel their personal and company brands, grow their businesses, and make an impression on the media and the marketplace?
In this article, I will dive headfirst into the heart of executive presence, unravel its mystique, and reveal the surprises behind this coveted leadership trait, with the ability to transform leaders from mere spectators into master conductors of influence and authority.
Executive presence is a term that describes the intangible qualities that make leaders stand out from the crowd. One study from The Center for Talent Innovation (now Coqual) aimed to understand and define the critical components of executive presence and provides valuable insights into the attributes and behaviors that constitute powerful executive presence.
The study identified three main pillars of executive presence:
- Gravitas: The dictionary defines gravitas as “a serious and dignified demeanor.” It can also refer to the quality of having a weighty and authoritative presence. In general, gravitas is a quality associated with a respected, serious person capable of making important decisions. The study found that gravitas accounted for 67% of the overall perception of a leader’s command. As defined by the study, the term refers to the ability to project confidence, poise under pressure, and decisiveness. Leaders with gravitas can communicate effectively, demonstrate emotional intelligence, and handle difficult situations with composure.
- Communication: Effective communication accounted for 28% of the overall perception of executive presence. The study found that it encompassed verbal communication and the ability to read an audience, listen actively, and convey messages with clarity and impact. One of the most important communication skills is storytelling, which helps leaders inspire and motivate their teams.
- Appearance: While appearance is the least significant of the three pillars, it still shapes executive presence. This includes dressing appropriately for the position, displaying good grooming habits, and exhibiting a polished and professional demeanor. Appearance accounts for approximately 5% of the overall perception of executive presence.
However, the study also found that if a person’s appearance was deemed poor, it could negatively impact their overall executive presence by up to 20%. The conclusion is that while appearance alone is not a significant factor in executive presence, it can still significantly impact how others perceive a leader’s confidence and charisma.
It’s that potent combination of a CEO and C-suite executives’ appearance, communication skills, and Gravitas, all of which create a commanding executive presence that inspires confidence and respect.
The Importance of Powerful Executive Presence in Leadership
Executive presence is critical to business success. It can set a founder apart when looking for investors, resulting in greater talent attraction and employee retention. It can enhance a CEO’s ability to make significant changes and upgrade the power to inspire and influence the organization.
A solid executive presence helps leaders navigate difficult situations and make tough decisions. It gives them the confidence and credibility to lead their teams through challenging times and effectively communicate their vision and goals.
Developing Your Executive Presence
Developing powerful executive presence takes time and effort. It’s not an overnight effort but rather an ongoing commitment. Three of the most important attributes to focus on include:
- Uplevel Your Communication Skills. In a world with unlimited ways to approach the topic, there are several proven methods leaders can use to upgrade their communication skills. These include:
- Seek Feedback: In my work with CEOs and executives, almost nothing has inspired them to improve their communication skills more than feedback from others. Seeking opinions from your colleagues, team members, and other stakeholders about your communication style, tone, clarity, and effectiveness can be a powerful motivator.
A study published in the Harvard Business Review found that leaders who seek feedback are perceived as more effective by their subordinates, peers, and superiors. The study also found that leaders who received more feedback were more likely to improve their performance over time.
- Become a Master Storyteller: A study published in the Journal of Management Education found that leaders who use storytelling to communicate their vision are more likely to achieve their goals successfully. Compelling storytelling involves a variety of elements to engage and inspire an audience. Some of the critical elements of compelling storytelling for leaders include:
- Authenticity: The story should be genuine and authentic, reflecting the leader’s personal experiences and values.
- Relevance: The story should be relevant to the audience, connecting with their interests and experiences.
- Clarity: The story should be clear and concise, with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end.
- Emotion: The story should evoke emotions in the audience, such as empathy, inspiration, or motivation.
- Conflict: A good story often includes overcoming a conflict or challenge and demonstrating resilience and problem-solving abilities.
- Purpose: The story should have a clear purpose, such as illustrating a point, inspiring action, or conveying a vision.
- Delivery: The story should be delivered with confidence and energy, using effective body language and tone of voice to engage the audience.
- Invest In Communication Coaching: Whenever I engage in an executive coaching process with a CEO or C-Suite executive, I focus not only on how they can increase their “technical” skills but uncovering the insights that lead to a fundamental shift in the quality of their overall communication style. One study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that leaders who received communication training demonstrated significant improvements in their communication skills and were rated higher on leadership effectiveness.
- Practice Active Listening: The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines active listening as “paying close attention to a speaker and asking clarifying questions to ensure full understanding of the message being communicated.” Active listening requires listening attentively, asking questions, and reflecting on what you hear. Sounds simple. However, simple does not mean easy.
A study published in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies found that CEOs rated as high in active listening were also rated as more effective by their employees. However, the study also found that active listening was not a universal strength among CEOs, with many CEOs receiving low ratings on this skill.
Another study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that more power-focused leaders were less likely to engage in active listening behaviors, such as paying attention to the speaker and providing feedback.
- Increase Your Emotional Intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EI) is the set of abilities that involve the awareness, understanding, and management of one’s own emotions, as well as the ability to recognize and respond to the feelings of others. It is the capacity to perceive, express, understand, and regulate emotions effectively in oneself and others.
There are several different models of EI, but most include elements such as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Emotional intelligence is a non-negotiable component of powerful executive presence. The research is clear. Emotionally intelligent leaders can better connect with others, build trust, and navigate complex situations.
A meta-analysis published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that leaders with high emotional intelligence were more effective at leading their teams. They were perceived as more transformational, inspiring, and empowering the individuals in their organization to achieve their full potential. To develop your emotional intelligence, consider the following:
- Emotional Intelligence Training: Formal training that focuses on developing the key elements of emotional intelligence, such as self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills.
- Executive Coaching: Executive coaching can provide leaders with individualized feedback and support to help them develop their emotional intelligence skills, identify areas for improvement and develop strategies for building emotional intelligence.
- Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and yoga, can help leaders develop self-awareness and self-regulation skills, vital elements of emotional intelligence.
- Feedback from Others: Soliciting feedback from peers, subordinates, and superiors can help leaders identify blind spots and areas for improvement in their emotional intelligence skills.
- Exposure to Diverse Perspectives: Leaders exposed to a wide range of perspectives and experiences are more likely to develop empathy and social skills, essential elements of emotional intelligence.
- Self-Reflection: Encouraging leaders to engage in self-reflection, such as journaling or regular check-ins with a mentor or coach, can help develop self-awareness and identify areas for improvement in developing emotional intelligence skills.
- Build Up Your Confidence, Charisma, and Poise. There is an abundance of studies that show the power of certain qualities in leadership. Among them, confidence, charisma, and poise rank high in their impact on executive presence. Some of the keyways to develop these qualities include:
- Commit to Practice and Preparation: Leaders who prepare thoroughly for important meetings, presentations, and other events are more likely to feel confident and charismatic during the event.
A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that leaders who engaged in proactive preparation, such as practicing their delivery and anticipating questions, were more likely to be viewed as more charismatic.
- Develop a Growth Mindset: Leaders who embrace a growth mindset are more likely to approach challenges and setbacks as opportunities for learning and growth. This has been shown to help them develop greater confidence in their judgment and abilities over time.
A study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that leaders who embraced a growth mindset were likelier to be viewed as effective by their subordinates and peers.
- Don’t Forget About Body Language: Leaders who pay attention to their body language can use it to convey confidence and charisma. Even simple actions such as standing up straight, making eye contact, and using gestures to emphasize key points can communicate confidence and increase engagement.
A study published in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior found that body language can significantly impact perceptions of charisma, with confident and engaged body language being associated with higher levels of charisma.
- Commit to Public Speaking: Leaders who engage in regular public speaking opportunities, such as keynote presentations, webinars, moderating and being on panels, and even leading Zoom meetings, can develop their confidence, charisma, and poise by improving their presentation skills, delivery, and overall stage presence.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) has published numerous articles on the subject, emphasizing the value of public speaking for developing a powerful executive presence. According to HBR, articulating one’s thoughts and conveying a sense of authority is vital for leadership success.
Another study from The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) researched the importance of communication skills for leaders. According to CCL, strong public speaking skills can help leaders build credibility, motivate their teams, and drive organizational change.
One of my favorite thought leaders on this topic is my colleague and author of several books Olivia Fox Cabane. Check out her books The Charisma Myth, The Net and The Butterfly, and The Einstein Myth.
- Upgrade Your Appearance. While the research shows that appearance is not the most crucial component of powerful executive presence, it plays a role in how leaders are perceived and assessed. several key aspects to consider include:
- Dressing for Success. The type, style, and even color of a CEO or C-suite executive’s clothing can amplify (or detract) from their message. Sartorial choices can also convey an immediate sense of professionalism, credibility, confidence, and attention to detail. In a split second, what you wear can engender trust or distrust, approachability or distance, competence, or incompetence. Consider some of the studies conducted on the topic.
- “The Impact of Workplace Attire on Employee Self-perceptions” In Human Resource Development Quarterly found that employees who dressed more formally tended to have higher self-perceptions of competence and professionalism, crucial traits for executives.
- “The Influence of Clothing on First Impressions: Rapid and Positive Responses to Minor Changes in Male Attire.” Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management. This study showed that minor changes in clothing, such as a suit’s color and quality, significantly influenced first impressions. This finding is particularly relevant to executives, who often must make a solid first impression to build credibility and trust with stakeholders.
- “Tailored Meanings: On the Meaning and Impact of Organizational Dress.” Academy of Management Review. This article explores how organizational dress can communicate various meanings, from status and power to group membership and conformity. For executives, understanding these meanings can be vital for managing their image and navigating different professional contexts.
Although these studies focus on various aspects of professional attire, they all emphasize the importance of dress for executives.
- Clothing and The Covid Curse. About three months into the COVID shutdown, I spent significant time on Zoom calls like most leaders I work with. I immediately noticed the impact the pandemic was having on executive dress. The dramatic increase in remote work and virtual meetings both during and post-pandemic has had a definite impact on sartorial choices. In short, there, a more relaxed approach to dressing has occurred, and business or smart casual is the norm.
In addition, many leaders now dress for the “waist up” effect. With video meetings becoming the norm, more attention is on the top half, with little occasionally funny. Finally, the pandemic has given rise to an almost messianic clothing should be comfortable stance. Many executives have opted for high-quality loungewear or athleisure outfits.
Now I don’t think any of these trends are inherently harmful. They have sometimes provided much-needed relief from a stifling dress code. However, as is often the case, it must be taken further. A sartorial throwing out of the baby for the bathwater has occurred. The solution is likely somewhere in the middle.
- Create a Consistent Online Personal Brand. In today’s digital age, having a strong online personal brand is essential for building a powerful executive presence. This can include your website, social media profiles, podcasts, media appearances, articles, blog posts, books, videos, and more.
The goal is to create a consistent, cohesive online brand across all platforms. Having the same profile picture, messaging, and overall brand tone is essential. Taking the next step by sharing valuable content relevant to your audience and engaging them is integral to powerful executive presence. Remember, your online brand is often the first impression people will have of you and can set the tone for your executive company.
Executive presence is not just a buzzword. It’s a crucial and necessary leadership aspect that sets top-tier CEOs and C-suite executives apart from mediocre ones. Looking good and dressing well matters, but cultivating a confident demeanor ultimately exudes confidence, authority, and authenticity. The ability to command attention, communicate persuasively, and build trust is essential for any leader who wants to make an impact.
Much like the elusive Bigfoot, executive presence is often talked about, not often seen in the wild. It can seem like an exquisite blend of gravitas and charisma that leaves onlookers in awe, yet scratching their heads, wondering, “How on earth did they pull that off?” It’s akin to a business suit-clad superhero swooping in to save the day with a well-timed anecdote and a PowerPoint slide deck.
In essence, executive presence is the secret sauce that gives color to an otherwise drab corporate landscape. It can transform the humdrum boardroom into a stage for world-class leadership.
How SMG Helps CEOs and C-suite executives master executive presence.
For over 20 years, I have helped CEOs and C-suite executives build their executive presence, thought leadership, and personal brands. Much of what I’ve learned about this topic comes from up close and in the field consulting work with leaders from Inc. 5000 companies, mid-cap companies, and startups.
As an author and columnist for Inc.com, I constantly search for studies, surveys, real-world examples, and techniques to help my clients achieve stronger rebrands that keep them on trend, on brand, and up to date with the marketplace.
If, after reading this article, you find yourself thinking, “yes, I get it. I need to do this,” but are in a quandary about how to get there, consider booking an initial consultation with me at no charge.
I will review your current brand before our call and give you at least one or two specific ideas you can use to rebrand: no sales, just useful information, and insight. You can book a session with me here.
Book a free consultation to discuss today.