Executive Presence

5 Expert Tips for Establishing Your Executive Presence

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In business, it’s all about the intangibles. “Executive presence” is the distinguishing factor between an entrepreneur or businessperson who gets the venture capital, rises the corporate ladder, wins a larger market share, outcompetes their vertical and one who doesn’t. Even the best business idea and execution in the world needs to be backed by your executive presence to succeed. 

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, researcher and author, defines executive presence in her book, aptly titled Executive Presence. She explains that during her research, she discovered that executive presence is, “an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be.” It breaks down into gravitas, assertive communication, and appearance. Her research is backed by interviewing over 4,000 college graduate professionals in large corporations.

With these characteristics, you appear to be a natural leader. You gain the trust of employees and impress your peers. Luckily, leaders with executive presence can be made and not only born. 

If you want to create an atmosphere of authority that sets you apart, these five expert tips can be a great place to start.

1. Show Your Teeth

Ursula Burns, the first African American CEO in the United States, reached her position by not being afraid to let her superiors know what she thought. “I learned from my mother that if you have a chance to speak, you should speak. If you have an opinion, you should make it be known,” she says in Makers: Women Who Make America, a PBS documentary

Even in roles where she was junior, she gained the respect of her superiors by speaking openly about what she thought and felt.

Especially as a newer businessperson, it can be hard to feel like you can really let loose with your opinions. However, research shows that acting decisively “showing teeth” is one of the hallmarks of executive presence. It demonstrates confidence as well as integrity. 

2. Make Good Grooming a Habit

According to Hewlett’s research, appearance is “a filter through which your communication skills and gravitas become more apparent.” In other words, it’s not the main attribute of executive presence, but you absolutely need it to make sure your communication and gravitas skills stand out.

Dawn Creighton, Director of the Western Massachusetts Chapter of the Dress for Success non-profit, explains that good grooming isn’t about the latest fashions or the best-applied makeup. “If you don’t have the most stylish clothing, that is not going to hurt someone,” she says. “No employer is going to hold that against you. But have it clean, have it tucked in, have it look neat.”

The difference can be as simple as ensuring you know how to dress for your face and body. This can include anything like how to choose eyeglasses, the best outfits to wear for your body type, or what hairstyles will suit your face. There are countless guides on the internet for these, so it’s an easy step to take. This one from EZContacts, for example, provides advice on pairing frames with different face shapes, skin tones, eye colors, and hair colors.

3. Remember the Power of the Pause

While freely sharing your opinions is a key hallmark of executive presence. So is knowing that the room is waiting to learn what your thoughts are. The best way to do that is with a simple pause after being asked a question. 

Melissa Corwin, VP-HR, Diversity & Inclusion at AT&T, shares an example of this in a recent webinar on how to establish executive presence. “If I’m sitting in a room with people staring at me waiting for my opinion,” she says, “I would say something like, ‘That’s a great question, give me a moment to think through that.’ Be comfortable in that pause and then respond.”

Just by taking a short pause, you show you have control over the conversation. It also shows you’re willing to take time in order to ensure you give the best possible answer. This establishes confidence in what you have to say. 


4. Don’t Rescue Everyone Who Needs It

Sometimes, it’s tempting to feel that your role as leader is to help your entire team succeed, no matter the personal cost to you. However, that is falling into what Founder and CEO of CORE Executive Presence, Devika Das, describes as the niceness trap. This is where your team overlooks your competence and takes advantage of you.

“Letting people sink and swim will lead to a stronger team,” she writes. “The more you add value, the more self-worth you may be stripping your team of.” Instead of spreading yourself thin to help everyone who needs it, focus instead on empowering your team to make their own choices. 

Hold them accountable to their deadlines and responsibilities. This will help you appear more as a leader, rather than a friend, to your employees. It also demonstrates competence to your peers and superiors. 

5. Practice Speaking Well

This seems like a no-brainer, but many executives and businesspeople believe that as long as their ideas are good, the presentation is secondary. In fact, the way you communicate your ideas is of utmost importance to obtaining executive presence. No matter if you’re speaking to one or thousands at a time. 

Former opera singer and public speaking expert Allison Shapira shares a few simple corrections that can increase executive presence when you speak and communicate with anyone from a peer to a group of thousands. 

  • Don’t use jargon. “We are not inspired by jargon. We are inspired by clear, concise messaging,” she says in her keynote. Many executives may feel they can hide behind technical words. But, that does not help you radiate executive presence.
  • Reduce the ums and “ahs.” “These words can be so destructive when used too much,” she explains. She recommends that you find someone who can call your attention to when you use these, so you can begin to notice and reduce their frequency. 
  • Imbue your speech with warmth. “I do two things before I answer the phone. I stand up and I smile. It totally changes the energy in my voice,” she says. This helps your audience know you care about them and you’re excited to speak and listen. 

Bringing executive presence to public speaking as well as casual conversation can feel like a real challenge. But with these small tips, you can begin to change the way you speak and start being recognized for the leader you are. 


Executive Presence Can Make or Break You

These five expert tips can help you transform yourself from the inside out. With executive presence, you can become the person people look at when you enter a room, and the voice people most respect and listen to. This kind of presence can help your business in practically any aspect, from personal connections to establishing a market presence. 

With these changes and modifications, you’re not pretending to be confident, or faking it until you make it. You’re developing your presence to be that of a true leader.