7 strategies for building executive presence

 Want a powerful presence?

Work through this checklist!

A question I often hear from coaching clients is, “How do I get executive presence?” The question is tricky because “executive presence” isn’t easily defined.  Sure, there’s widespread agreement that leaders need it and great leaders have it.  But it’s not so simple to deconstruct the elements. 

Your definition may be based on a leader you actually know, who has great presence.  Someone who exudes confidence and energy, and who attracts other people like a magnet.

Presents. Photo (c) Kenishirotie via fotolia

Presents. Photo (c) Kenishirotie via fotolia

 Sometimes the value of executive presence seems most obvious when it’s missing.  I’m thinking of a brilliant corporate attorney I’ll call “Ed.” He repeatedly was passed over when spots opened up within the company’s management ranks. When I asked the COO whether Ed was likely to be promoted, she said, “No. He’ll always be valued as a talented technical lawyer, but we’re not going to move him up.  Ed just doesn’t have executive presence.” 

The COO didn’t try to define “executive presence,” but I knew what she meant.  The attorney could write memos like a dream, but when asked a question he seemed hesitant.  He’d mumble, then he’d shuffle down the hall.  He just didn’t have “It.”  He didn’t radiate that confidence, that dignity, that sense of control that others see as “executive presence.”

Do you sometimes worry that you don’t have enough of that “It” factor?  Do you fear you’ll miss out on career opportunities, despite your great work, because you lack a powerful presence?

Executive presence is an elusive quality, like love and happiness, that you can’t acquire easily or directly.  But there’s much you can do to appear more like a leader.  You can build your presence by changing the ways you look and behave, and even how you think and feel about yourself.

Here’s a checklist of some of the factors that contribute to executive presence.  If you want to seem strong and competent, read through the questions, and find points to work on:

1.    Can you talk yourself into confidence? People with executive presence seem confident and poised to handle whatever may come up.  But a superb record may not be enough to give professionals a belief in their own ability to master the next crisis.  And even if they do know they can perform, that knowledge may not be apparent to others. 

I’m thinking of “Lydia,” whose concern about details translates into successful projects. But Lydia was such a perfectionist that, when handed a new assignment, she immediately started fretting about the best way to get going.  Lydia usually knew she could do the work, but because of her worried demeanor she didn’t appear confident.

Whether you fear you can’t do the job, or have other nagging concerns, like Lydia, other people can sense your uncertainty.  It’s reflected in the expressions on your face, the way you move, and the tone of your voice.

You’ll seem more like a leader if you put aside your worries and generate an inner sense of confidence.  An effective way to do this is to actively manage the voice in your head.  You do that with “self-talk.” Let go of thoughts about things that could go wrong, and talk to yourself like you would to a valued colleague.  Say things like: “You always solve the big problems and you can solve this one, too.”

As for Lydia, she used two techniques for enhancing her presence.  Before entering a meeting or event, she would define her intent for the occasion. It might be something like, “I’m going to raise point X and come across as interested and positive.” Then she’d encourage herself with self-talk, like, “This point is important and you’re confident and optimistic about it.”  Lydia’s bosses noticed her growth, and they gave her a big promotion.

2.  Do you have a leadership vision?  It’s easier to act like a leader when you have a clear sense of the attributes that strong leaders possess. If you can’t easily describe your idea of what makes a leader, list characteristics you admire, like reliability, honesty and a positive attitude.  Look at your list frequently, so that you’re reminded to act more like that.

3.  Do you look organized?  If you’re typically late, if your papers are a mess, and if you have trouble meeting deadlines, then your presence is compromised. Others may see you as disorganized and unable to get the job done.  “Suzy” is a clever communications consultant who thought of herself as a ditzy, creative type.  She’d explain away her lateness by saying, “oh, you know us artists.” But finally she realized that her firm’s partners regarded her as a bit out of control. She saw they weren’t going to promote her to the role of client manager until something changed.  Suzy got her calendar and other systems in order.  And she told her colleagues that she was working with a coach to become more productive and organized.  She reshaped her brand, and soon she was managing client accounts.

4.  Do you need a makeover?  It may not be fair, but physical appearance is an integral part of presence.  To look like an executive, it helps to be well groomed and well dressed.  If your clothes are dated and untidy, or your hair is always messy, you may come across as unpolished and not executive material.

5.  Can you make a presentation?  The ability to give a speech or contribute useful remarks at a meeting will enhance your presence.  Of course, you have to be clear and concise.  But it’s also important to know how to engage with other people. Present your points in a way that makes them relevant to the audience.  Listen carefully to questions and comments, and respond without becoming defensive.

6.  Do you say what you mean?  Whether you’re speaking to a crowd or chatting one-on-one, you’ll have more gravitas if you speak directly, without hesitation or self-deprecation.  Ask colleagues to notice the way you talk, so they can help you spot self-critical phrasing or annoying habits like starting sentences with “I think,” or, “I’m not an expert, but.”  If you sound like you’re not confident of your abilities or of what you’re saying, you can’t expect others to be convinced.

7.  How’s your energy?  Managing your presence requires taking charge of your energy level.  If you’re sleep deprived, bored or way out of shape, you’re less likely to come across as a leader.  Being frantic isn’t good either, because your hyper-activity can translate into stress for those around you.  To appear more powerful, be serious about health and fitness, and stay calm with practices like meditation.

You can build executive presence by developing self-awareness and making choices about your values, behaviors and attitudes.  For more suggestions, read:

Is it time to strengthen your professional brand?

Should your personal style get a makeover?

Strengthen your career by building your leadership brand.

Is it time to rethink your organizational systems?

Code Blue: your speech habits can date you. 

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Bev, a former lawyer and Fortune 500 executive, is an executive and transitions coach, and a leadership consultant with a broad and varied practice.

Posted in career resilience, leadership, professional growth Tagged with: , ,

Beverly E. Jones

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Links to occasional colleagues

ECCA - Website
ThreeJoy - Website
Kerry Hannon - Website
Ohio University's Voinovich School - Website
Senior Entrepreneurship Works - Website
Congressional Management Foundation - Website
WOUB - Website
ShadowComm LLC - Website

Books with Bev’s Tips

Bev’s tips on career change are featured in the books and other writing of leading journalist Kerry Hannon. If you’re thinking about a career transition, try:

What’s Next? Find Your Passion and Your Dream Job in You Forties, Fifties and Beyond


“Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy and Pays the Bills”


Bev at Ohio University,
where she is a visiting
executive with the
Voinovich School of
Leadership & Public Affairs



Bev's garden at Buckeye Farm