What Is Executive Presence? January 10 2013

During the past couple of months, I’ve been in four or five conversations with leadership development professionals who are looking for a way to build executive presence in their organization’s high potential managers. Most of them have tried different programs and approaches and they’re not happy with the results they’ve gotten.

I have a theory about why that’s the case. Executive presence is one of those terms that’s often used but rarely clearly defined. If you do a Google search on the term you’ll find articles that talk about confidence, communications, personal appearance, body language and other factors that don’t get a lot more specific than that. It’s a great case of what the French would call je ne sais quoi – something that can’t be adequately described.

That, of course, makes executive presence hard to teach to people. If you can’t describe it, you can’t teach it.

Based on the research I did for my book, The Next Level, and more than a decade of coaching senior executives and high potential managers, I’d like to offer a two part definition of executive presence. First, it’s about your ability to get results, especially when the expectations around results are continually changing. Second, it’s about the behaviors you exhibit at the personal, team and organizational levels. When your behaviors align with the expected results, you have executive presence.

Let me break it down in a little more detail.

In today’s world, the results that were good enough last year aren’t good enough this year. This year’s results won’t be good enough next year. For leaders, then, it’s a continual state of getting different results. As Einstein would likely tell us, different results require different actions. That means that leaders need to be aware of when they need to pick up and let go of skills, behaviors and mindsets even if they’ve worked for them in the past.

A leader’s executive presence, then, changes over time. In working with my clients, I break the behaviors of executive presence down into three categories and nine distinctions about what leaders need to pick up and let go of get different results.

Here’s the breakdown:

Personal Presence

  • Pick up confidence in your presence; Let go of doubt in how you contribute
  • Pick up regular renewal of your energy and perspective; Let go of running flat out until you crash
  • Pick up custom-fit communications; Let go of one size fits all communications

Team Presence

  • Pick up team reliance; Let go of self reliance
  • Pick up defining what to do; Let go of telling how to do it
  • Pick up accountability for many results; Let go of responsibility for a few results

Organizational Presence

  • Pick up looking left, right and diagonally as you lead; Let go of primarily looking up and down as you lead
  • Pick up an outside-in view of the entire organization; Let go of an inside-out view of your function
  • Pick up a big footprint view of your role; Let go of a small footprint view of your role

Over the past six years, my company has conducted 360 degree assessments for hundreds of high potential leaders on the 72 behaviors (eight for each of the nine pick up and let go distinctions) that underlie this model of executive presence. In the weeks to come, I’ll share much of what we’ve learned about the specific behaviors in additional posts.

For now, though, how do you define executive presence? Do any of these pick up and let go of pairs match up with your experience? If so, which ones?

10 Responses to “What Is Executive Presence?”

  1. Scott, this is a great breakdown of a concept that many view as totally subjective or so intangible as to be nearly indescribable ("I know it when I see it"). It is real, quantifiable, and coachable when you process it into these categories. I especially liked the "custom-fit communications" advice, and anything having to do with optimizing our EQ. Strong EQ keeps us tuned in, and being tuned in to individuals fuels our ability to apply moral persuasion.

  2. Lori Ermi says:

    I have two clients I have forwarded this to. You have given us some excellent distinctions on this topic. Thanks for your generosity.

  3. Allen Hollander says:

    Thanks Scott. Like how you have the multi-faceted view. Under Organizational Presence I would expand with picking up understanding how your business, customers and suppliers make money. In Personal Presence, it would include speaking the unspoken truth – especially in meetings.

  4. Mary Jane Reed says:

    Scott, I agree that the definition of executive presence is like beauty…it is in the eye of the beholder. I would add that it is: the visible demonstration of genuine self-confidence (not arrogance),: the ability to listen and pick up signals from one's surrounding environment and audience; and interacting with others so they feel important.

  5. rikerjoe says:

    Scott – I like your definition and the components that comprise executive presence. I look forward to you follow up posts.

  6. Don Peterson says:

    Great post Scott! I have many clients who are looking to increase/enhance their executive presence. (And like Lori, I intend to share this post with them.) For so many of our clients it comes down to letting go of self-doubt and picking up self-confidence. EP is also a very somatic experience — how do we shape ourselves to project the type of presence we desire? It's both an outside-in and inside-out process.

  7. Terry says:

    My understanding of 'presence' is more in line with your definition of personal presence. However, I'm not sure it needs to derived from past good results – although this would clearly help. Some leaders I meet can walk into a room and everyone knows they've arrived. Often the people in the room don't know the leader's background. It's also not dependent on the leaders physical stature. Not sure how they do it. I think it is how they hold their posture, move around the room, facial expressions etc.

  8. Mary Utley, MA PCC says:

    I too have many execs looking to improve their executive presence. Bottom line is their belief in themselves and what they bring to the party..then others
    'get it'. It seems to be a transfer of energy..
    Thanks for all your insights.. always helpful to me and my clients!
    Mary Utley, MA PCC

  9. Simon says:

    Thanks for this discussion of an interesting topic.

    I find that the most important attribute that feeds into presence is the ability of an executive to connect with other people in a way that engenders a feeling of trust and credibility. Ironically, many execs are so caught up with trying to be impressive, that they miss the opportunity to genuinely connect with those around them. In my own coaching work, I encourage execs to "get out of their head and into the moment" – to notice what's happening in the room and to constantly adapt. To that end, there are some great skills and techniques that can be learned from the world of improvisation, which I've found can make a huge impact on an executive's ability to connect with others.

    As you say Scott, results have to back it up – but your great results don't count for much if people don't feel that… "je ne sais quoi"!

    Simon Dowling

  10. Lots of interesting perspectives here everyone. Thanks for sharing them!

    Cheers –


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