When you need to cut through the noise and be heard, executive presence is the thing that persuades people to listen. Without it, if you feel your value is overlooked you might find your voice is too. A key part of leadership, executive presence conveys confidence, which in turn invites trust. It brings an authoritative note to judgements and actions, and paves the way to recognition, pay-rises, and promotions. So, for aspiring leaders aiming to develop it, where should they begin?

Executive presence brings together the main character traits of leadership such as authenticity, empathy, integrity, confidence, composure and assertiveness. Ultimately, it’s a skill that can be learned. Here’s how.

What is executive presence?

Executive presence is the skill of staying in the moment, whatever pressures you face. It’s the angel on your shoulder telling you that your ideas are valuable and that you believe in them. It’s the calm tone of conviction that keeps your audience spellbound, it’s the empathy that helps you connect with them, and it’s the voice of experience that gives them something to trust. Executive presence is not about appearing like an executive, it’s about how to be yourself. It’s 99% presence, the rest is just doing it well.

How to develop executive presence

Here’s a simple thought experiment. Imagine a line in a script that says “I’m hungry”. Say these two words in different ways, as if you’re an actor.

Depending on your tone of voice, you might be suggesting that you haven’t eaten in a while. A child saying it to a parent might be giving a gentle nudge. A prisoner saying it to a guard might be protesting about treatment. When a new recruit says it to their boss, it might be a positive statement of ambition rather than a negative comment about lunch.

There are many ways you can say the same thing, what matters is the underlying sentiment. Sometimes we hear the unspoken sentiment more readily than the actual words. We’re good at reading between the lines. We know who to believe, who to trust, who to listen to.

When a lover says ‘let’s just be friends’, we know the sentiment is ‘whether we end up friends or not, we’re over.’ When a politician says ‘let me be clear’, we know they’re saying ‘forget being clear, I’m telling you what matters to me.’ In these two examples, someone has made up their mind. The words aside, it’s the clarity of their initial sentiment that resonates.

To develop executive presence, it helps to know your own mind. Once you’re clear about sentiment (ie, how you feel), your voice will cut through more clearly. That’s presence. The executive part of ‘executive presence’ is simply a reminder aimed at leaders. Executives are expected to know what their opinion is. Nevertheless, clarity is always beneficial whether you’re a leader or not.

Executive presence in women

Devika Das, an expert in executive presence, warns leaders to be aware of what she calls ‘the niceness trap’. Das cites an example of a client who “was popular [but] her connections were transactional. Colleagues and stakeholders got what they wanted, and she in return received validation for being the ‘nice team player’. She realised that her executive presence needed an upgrade.”

Das suggests five ways to get out of the niceness trap:

Don’t be everything to everyone: Rather than trying to compete with everyone on everything, recognise your own strengths.

Set the intention: Focus on meeting targets, rather than trying to meet a need for popularity or approval.

Get out of the rescuer mentality: Take off your cape, let individuals have agency. Let them rescue themselves and each other.

Maintain direction: Last-minute stress is a sign of poor leadership. Mature executive presence relies on calm confidence.

Fill your own void: Skip the need for validation. Asking colleagues to verify your own abilities is counter-productive.

Updating gravitas

Executive presence is sometimes confused with gravitas, a spirit of leadership that can be described as ‘you know it when you see it.’ According to Tom Cassidy, Head of Executive Coaching at Working Voices, gravitas is sometimes used as a get-out clause, a catch-all that allows managers to say of someone ‘well they can’t join our leadership club because they lack a certain gravitas.’ Cassidy believes that “gravitas can be used to mean that someone isn’t eligible to join our club, full stop.”

Almost 90% of men and women around the world are biased against women, according to the UN’s Gender Social Norms Index. With boardrooms predominantly white, male, and middle-aged, a perceived lack of gravitas has often been wheeled out as a barrier to entry.

Gravitas implies competencies. To keep hold of this idea while stripping away unhelpful connotations, Cassidy believes it’s better to focus instead on executive presence, which has many things that gravitas doesn’t.

Presence is about being relevant. It’s about earning a meritocratic right to be heard rather than a privileged expectation of power. It’s about being able to listen, acknowledge, and adjust accordingly. It’s about remaining agile rather than sticking to a limiting sense of entitlement.

In connecting with an audience, some people do better by stepping back a bit. Others may need to demonstrate more of an assertive sense of ownership. Cassidy encourages leaders to ask whether they feel they are pushing forward, punching their weight, and getting what they want from situations? If not, he helps them focus on presence, developing this through understanding and practise, until new and stronger habits develop. For example, understanding how to use stories to create substance.

How to show executive presence

While the best way to develop executive presence is through a training course, there is of course a little wiggle room for those faking it ‘til they make it. Keeping a clear head, staying calm under pressure, and speaking with conviction can’t be bad things to try in a meeting – whether they reflect how you feel or not. Faking it will only get you so far though, your actions need to be just as sure-footed as your confident appearance. To avoid slipping up you’ll need something deeper.

In a well-attended meeting, big personalities may back competing ideas. To ensure equal air-time for yours, how will you present yourself? If you feel anxious and overlooked, your words might sound doubtful. If you’re not convinced about your own thoughts, it’s possible others won’t be either.

Show executive presence through conviction in your thoughts. When people see that your clarity is cutting through to others, they’ll want to be in on the action. They are more likely to listen when they feel they need to hear what’s being said.

Leadership is about knowing when to lead from the front, when to take a back seat, and knowing that either way you’ll be trusted. It’s about standing tall, come what may. It’s firmly rooted in self-belief and calm clarity, leading to a sense of presence that others can’t fail to notice.

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