What qualities make a good executive? Poise, thoughtfulness, decisiveness, empathy and rapport, to name a few. But there’s a certain something that sets top-notch executives apart that can be hard to define — that intangible quality that inspires people to follow their lead: their executive presence, or EP.
But what, exactly, is executive presence? Here we take a look at what comprises executive presence, how it can be developed, and how biases in the workplace can affect how executive presence may be interpreted or conveyed.
Executive presence defined
Executive presence is the unique combination of qualities and the authentic capacity to connect in a way that inspires while remaining true to who you are, says Sarah Greenberg, lead coach and program design lead at mobile coaching platform BetterUp, as well as a licensed psychotherapist and author.
“[No one] attains a top job, lands an extraordinary deal, or develops a significant following without this heady combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we’re in the presence of someone who’s the real deal. It’s an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be,” writes Sylvia Ann Hewett in her book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success.
According to research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), which partnered with several enterprises in surveying nearly 4,000 college graduate professionals in large corporations to get at the essence of executive presence, EP accounts for 26 percent of what it takes for employees to get the next promotion.
“It depends on getting three things right: appearance, communication, and gravitas — itself a set of behaviors. Additional findings from eighteen focus groups and some 50 interviews revealed how these elements interact to generate that aura of authority that sets leaders apart. Presence alone won’t get you promoted, we learned — but its absence will impede your progress, especially if you’re female or a person of color,” write the research authors Sylvia Ann Hewett, Lauren Leader-Chivée, Laura Sherbin and Joanne Gordon, with Fabiola Dieudonné.
Bias and executive presence
The intangible and subjective nature of executive presence can become problematic in IT, where most people, asked to describe what “leadership” looks like, cite a man, Greenberg says.
“A huge part of this is shifting the unconscious assumptions around leadership so that it’s inclusive of everyone,” she says. “There’s proven assertiveness behaviors, and behaviors that are associated with dominance and leadership, but when a woman does those things she’s viewed negatively. That doesn’t mean they don’t work; it means that you have to make them work differently depending on who you are.”
The traditional approach to building your executive presence is to focus on three areas: how you act, what you say and how you look, Greenberg says. The problem with this approach is that it excludes many women, people of color and those in the LGBTQIA community who may not look, act or speak in the way a “leader” — read: a man — would.
“You can be enacting a leadership behavior expertly in a way that moves people to action — and someone isn’t going to see it. These external behaviors — no one is saying they don’t matter, but a lot depends on how people see you, and it’s subjective,” Greenberg says.
Executive presence tips
Still, because executive presence is in the eye of the beholder, there is room for everyone to exhibit it, Greenberg says, assuming you take the right approach. Rather than focus simply on what you say and how you look, there are concrete steps that can help you build and develop executive presence no matter your age, sex, gender, race or your career stage.
Greenberg advocates using your values, your self-awareness and your sense of purpose to drive and develop your own unique brand of executive presence. While much of this will involve “internal” work instead of the more outward-focused approaches to developing EP, the effects will be just as potent. Being able to map these internal behaviors to how they manifest in the external world of your professional life is executive presence in action.
1. Establish your values
Identifying the values that are most important to you in your personal and professional life is the foundation of executive presence. Core values act as a north star, shining a light on important decisions and guiding how you prioritize your time and energy, Greenberg says. Being clear about and embodying our values allows us to make deeper connections and find common goals, she adds.
Start by listing ten to fifteen values that are important to you — justice, empathy, respect, community, family, service, stability, decisiveness, independence, community, growth, friendships, grit are all examples of values. Now, winnow those down to the most important three or four by asking yourself which values are non-negotiable? Which must I honor to feel like my “best self”? Do patterns emerge? For example, choosing family, friendships and community could indicate that one of your core values is “relationships.”
Finally, ask yourself if the values you’ve identified feel authentic, as opposed to representing what you think you should value.
2. Develop self-awareness
Once your values are identified, you should evaluate how well your personal and professional life reflect those values. It’s okay if they don’t — one of the keys to executive presence is unearthing and then building on your most authentic self. Greenberg advises using a simple writing exercise to help understand the ways in which your values do — or do not — align with your personal and professional lives.
“You want to picture a future that makes you feel like your best possible self. Imagine that everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You have worked hard and succeeded in accomplishing all your life goals. Think of this as the realization of all your life dreams. Write about what you imagined,” she says.
As you’re writing, don’t stop to worry about spelling, grammar or punctuation. You can write longhand or type or even speak into a recorder or your phone. You can write — or speak — as much or as little as you’d like for fifteen minutes.
“If you run out of things to write about, just repeat what you’ve already written. Using this exercise can help you not only remind yourself of what’s important to you, but give you insight into how to make it happen,” she says.
3. Act with purpose
Finally, use the previous two exercises to craft a mission statement for yourself, Greenberg says. A personal mission statement can motivate, inspire and help you make those tough decisions quickly by bringing your values to the forefront, she says.
To create your mission statement, identify — either in writing or simply in your mind — what is most important to you by reflecting back on your core values. Then, extrapolate from that to visualize your desired future based on your previous writing, as well as identify what impact you want to have on others around you. You can also ask yourself what you’d like to be remembered for, or what you wish your legacy to be.
Once you have those thoughts fleshed out, craft a two- to three-sentence mission statement. Greenberg gives as an example this statement from Oprah Winfrey: “To be a teacher. And to be known for inspiring my students to be more than they thought they could be.”
You should then share your mission statement, make tweaks accordingly, and then revisit at least monthly to make sure you’re taking steps personally and professionally toward fulfilling that mission.
“All of this starts from the inside out,” Greenberg says. “It’s about doing the inner work so that your authentic self shines through. One behavior associated with EP is quick decision-making. So, being clear about your values means you can make faster decisions that align with those values. Another example is being a visionary — that’s associated with leadership. So, if you have the self-awareness you can clearly visualize the way decisions will impact the future, and that’s how this takes root and grows. This is how you and your authentic self can be seen as a leader, instead of conforming yourself to an ‘idea’ of what a leader looks like.”