Executive Presence: Talking Points
by Eleanor Hooks Ph.D.
April 13, 2023

Many men and women in corporations may wonder what makes executive presence so important. Executive presence, according to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, is the missing piece between merit and success. It is a combination of personality and character traits that make a dynamic executive. That sounds great, but what are the practical actions to take if you’re not certain of your executive presence?

Leadership Examples

Perhaps you can think of examples of leaders with gravitas: Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, Ruth Bader Ginzburg, Jacinda Arden, Mary Barra, Sonia Sotomayor, Malala Yousafzai. These leaders exemplify integrity, leadership, and the power to understand the needs of their constituents or followers. Executives with a presence inspire others to do their best work and follow the model of the leader’s self-confidence and clarity. Leaders with executive presence have gravitas; they know what they’re doing, and others know it, but that’s not enough. Nearly 70% of their impressiveness is their competence, so many people can check that off their list. Corporations are full of competent people. How deep is that competence?

Leaders who are curious are also agile and expanding their knowledge continually, so their competence is deep and broad. Life in a corporation is full of challenges, so it’s important that leaders have grace under fire; that’s a marker for confidence. But it’s more than simply keeping cool. Leaders must be decisive but also willing to take full responsibility for their ultimate decisions. Their decisions aren’t likely to be mandates or fiats but the result of listening to others and collaborating for the best outcomes.

Being decisive can be difficult in a society where women and people of color have a growing number of leadership positions in male-dominated work environments or industries. The dilemma for women is that they are often seen as pushy or aggressive if they are “too” decisive. The presence of this gender bias makes collaboration even more important. There are opportunities for women to balance soft skills of communication, empathy, understanding, and emotional intelligence with such so-called hard skills of process improvement, technological competence, strategic planning, and business acumen. Underlying the actions of successful leaders are versatility and mental resilience.

Women and people of color have an opportunity to leverage their competence and make strength work for them. There are real signals of presence:

1. Communicate in a way that is concise and compelling. When possible, speak without notes contemporaneously.

2. Learn to tell stories. People can relate to stories that provide insight but also show humility or a sense of humor.

3. Sit in a space, at a table, in a way that communicates your ownership of the space – backbone straight, sitting tall, leaning in to make a point, and positioning yourself to see as many people in the room as possible. Proxemics, the study of the use of space, also recommends that you sit in a chair that supports your posture and, when possible, face the door. Some powerful leaders attend team meetings in-person and position themselves in a corner seat but command authority when they comment. Play a critical role in every meeting.

4. Use silence strategically. Speak when it is necessary to make a point, or you want to change the direction or summarize after listening to others but get your voice in the room early in the discussion, preferably within the first 3-5 minutes. Less is more, fewer words.

5. Develop the ability to read the audience or direct reports. Be conscious about revealing personal information; do so strategically when it generates an intended result.

6. Lose the props. Focus on people, not devices- phones, laptops, etc. Give your attention to others when it’s necessary, making eye contact with everyone in the room or with an individual in a one-to-one encounter.

7. Become both self-aware and self-compassionate. People will notice.

8. Show up professionally appropriate. Attire will vary with work environments. Casual may be tolerated on some sites and not in others. Knowing the cultural rules of the organization will help with grooming decisions.

9. Be wary of self-judgment, judging behaviors of others, and judging situations or challenges. Look for opportunities or solutions to the challenges. Fearless leadership is possessing mental resilience in the face of challenges and finding calm in the chaos so that the best direction can be identified.

10. Be aware of your own worth but never hesitate to celebrate the successes of others publicly. When your team does well, tell them. They will appreciate the recognition.

A note of caution…some see executive presence as charisma, but that can be a mistake. Charisma is sometimes grounds for mistrust. There is a history of charismatic people leading people down dangerous paths. Authenticity is a welcome substitute for charisma. Leaders with executive presence are trustworthy. Followers align with them but also respect their clearly articulated vision.

In closing, how you feel about others and how you feel about yourself can develop presence from the inside out. There is greatness in everyone.

©2023, Eleanor Hooks, Ph.D. | All rights reserved.