Building a Strong Executive Presence: A Bolder Leader’s Guide

“Executive presence then is the leadership currency
that creates the conditions for results and long-term success.”
― Clara Conti

As an Executive Coach and someone who has been on a long journey to understand what it means to “own the room” as a speaker, I’ve learned a few things about what true Executive Presence is – and isn’t. Executive presence isn’t about checking boxes, pretending to be something we’re not in the name of putting on a good front. Executive presence isn’t strictly about our unique body language – for congruence between our nonverbal cues and inner worlds are key. Most importantly, executive presence isn’t just a buzzword – it is a vital tool that can make or break a leader’s ability to inspire and support those who follow us.

So, how to get there?

Understanding Executive Presence

“People are felt rather than seen after the first few minutes.”
― John Steinbeck

The first thing to embody (no pun intended) in executive presence is the “presence” part. Without question, those of us who are fully present can draw people in, unlike those of us whose thoughts and actions dart in all directions. Presence is literally where it’s at.

When it comes to being present in an “executive” way, this simply boils down to being as at ease in our skins as possible. Merely maintaining eye contact won’t cut it if our knees are knocking from fear. In a similar vein, having just the “right” words won’t help if our voice is trembling or shouting. Overall, then, executive presence means having a strong sense of presence within ourselves.

Executive Presence

In more specific terms, though, executive presence can be difficult to understand. It isn’t a single leadership trait, but a collection of behaviors that result in our ability to instill confidence in others. This includes both the tangible (the physical) and intangible (the emotional and intellectual) aspects of leadership. Leaders need to demonstrate confidence, poise, and general leadership competency, while also embodying ethical and emotionally intelligent behavior. Of course, appearance also plays an important role here: dressing professionally and appropriately helps us establish and maintain high credibility, which in turn lends itself to stronger executive presence.

The complexity of executive presence has created many misconceptions, but the most common that I’ve encountered is the sense that it is a matter of style over substance. Some of us tend to put a great deal of emphasis on the outward image of confidence and professionalism, usually based on dated and highly prescriptive leadership models. This often results in our trying to emulate other successful leaders, trying to adapt to our image of leadership rather than build one of our own.

Yet true executive presence needs to be built around our own unique personality and level of self-confidence. Otherwise, we can be seen as inauthentic and untrustworthy in our team’s eyes.

What Executive Presence Looks Like Now

While executive presence has always been important for business leaders, it is arguably more valuable than ever since the near-constant disruptions of the past few years. With many workers feeling disconnected from their organizations, the need for us as leaders to renew our efforts to rebuild these relationships is higher than ever. A strong executive presence can go a long way here, helping us serve as an example for our team and inspiring them to commit even more to their own growth, thereby also benefitting the organization. Approaching executive presence in this way requires a major change in mindset, however. While the core concepts of executive presence haven’t necessarily changed since the pandemic began, the specifics of how they are expressed in the modern workplace are still in flux and likely will continue to change.

For instance, as remote and hybrid work increasingly become the norm, we leaders need to adjust our communication approach and online image to build a strong online presence. From investing in a better microphone to making careful decisions based on remote teams’ varied schedules and preferences, there are many steps that we can take to strengthen our executive presence in the face of this new digital work environment. There are also several trends that have taken on heightened importance among workers, particularly diversity and emotional well-being.

Executive Presence in the Post-Pandemic Future 

“…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
― Maya Angelou

A lot has changed in the working world over the past few years and more shifts will probably come, but one thing that remains constant is the importance of strong leadership. Executive presence is just one element that makes up one’s overall leadership style, but it is something that has the most immediate impact on those around us. When cultivated and leveraged effectively, our executive presence will serve as a vital leadership tool, encouraging employee engagement and empowering teams to meet and exceed organizational goals.

Just remember that for our executive presence to truly shine through, it must be authentic and built upon our own unique leadership style. After all, there are many leaders with a strong executive presence, but only you can be you. And thank goodness, because the world needs all of our unique personalities and takes on leadership to help make this a better place.