Leaders are the workforce’s north star, guiding productivity and performance to drive business success. To be an effective leader, they need an “X-factor”, also known as executive presence. But not every leader inspires confidence flawlessly and naturally—rather, executive presence is more about learned behaviours.
We’ll dive into what executive presence is and the strategies you can implement to develop it for your personal and professional growth.
What is executive presence?
Executive presence refers to the intangible leadership qualities and characteristics leaders possess that make them influential, credible, and effective in their role. It’s what allows leaders to inspire confidence within the organisation as well as among their peers and stakeholders. Generally speaking, executive presence is described as the confidence, charisma, and ability to communicate with others.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, who coined the term “executive presence”, describes it as consisting of three components:
- Gravitas (the way you behave)
- Communication (the way you speak and interact with others)
- Appearance (the way you look and present yourself).
Why is executive presence important?
Executive presence goes beyond charismatic leaders—it’s a defining factor that significantly impacts the company’s performance, culture, and reputation. It’s something that should be developed and cultivated to support the workforce, improve the company’s bottom line, and ultimately drive business success.
But how does executive presence do that? It all depends on the seniority of leaders. After all, mid-level leaders don’t have as broad a scope of impact as the C-suite does. Executive presence becomes more important the more senior and complex the leadership role is. At higher levels, executive presence should:
- Enable leaders to showcase strategic decision-making on issues including complex business challenges. This filters down through your leadership chain; where senior leaders define strategy, they use executive presence to inspire middle managers to execute strategy in day-to-day operations. (Side note: This also role models executive presence for your leadership pipeline.)
- Allow leaders to utilise their influence to gain buy-in from stakeholders and accurately articulate the organisation’s vision and mission. More junior leaders would be concerned with aligning their team’s efforts with those broader business objectives.
- Positively represent the company, as C-suite leaders are more frequently called upon to represent the organisation externally. This isn’t to say other leaders won’t need to positively present themselves as representatives of the company’s values in external settings, but their appearances are likely more limited to specific projects or initiatives compared to higher-level leaders who are “ambassadors” for the company. Think how Elon Musk is synonymous with Tesla, or Tim Cook with Apple.
- Inform how they behave during crises. Being involved with strategy, C-suite leaders need to demonstrate composure, decisiveness, and transparency, while mid-level leaders’ executive presence enables them to manage and support their team through challenges.
All of which are necessary aspects of leadership, creating opportunities for cultural change through role-modelling and leadership influence. For instance, workplace biases act as a barrier to leadership and leadership presence, meaning that supporting the development of it goes a long way to creating equity in the workplace.
Despite making up almost half the workforce, only 29% of C-suite leadership positions are held by women, and the number is even lower for women of colour. This is mainly because unconscious bias tends to cast men (particularly white men) as the charismatic leaders with executive presence, despite the fact women and people or colour are just as capable. In other words, women exist in a different working landscape to men, and therefore need more support in cultivating stronger executive presence, enabling better strategic decision-making and improving organisational culture and performance.
Strategies for developing executive presence
A successful leader works to develop an executive presence as part of their continuous growth, and good leaders have strategies for that. In other words, they have a growth mindset. It’s the belief that your abilities can be improved with constant development, training, and perseverance. So, generally speaking, the method to develop executive presence is a combination of:
- Taking action
- Getting feedback
- Implementing feedback for continuous improvement
Mastering communication skills
Great communication skills are essential for leaders to possess. They allow them to command attention and convey meaning and information to their teams. Leaders are employees’ first port of call when it comes to support, guidance, and understanding organisational priorities, so it’s crucial that leaders can communicate ideas and concepts to them effectively, both verbally and non-verbally. Otherwise, miscommunication leads to misalignment on business objectives and projects.
You can develop communication skills by:
- Participating in workshops, seminars, and training programs that cover presentation and public speaking skills, and provide the different communication techniques and strategies you can employ in your day-to-day work.
- Practicing active listening, such as repeating what people have said back to them to ensure you understood correctly, asking open-ended questions to move the conversation forward, and maintaining eye contact.
- Fostering a culture in which employees feel comfortable communicating with you. This includes being open with your body language (such as using open hand gestures during conversations), making eye contact, and reacting to communication with others positively and with a level head. This also means actually taking time to wait for employees to answer or respond to questions, rather than quickly jumping onto the next one or answering for them.
Developing emotional intelligence
Developing and practicing emotional intelligence allows leaders to better manage their own emotions as well as the emotions of others. They can use it to forge stronger relationships and trust within the team, enhancing communication and giving leaders a better understanding of their peers, team members, and stakeholders’ perspectives and talking points. When leaders demonstrate they understand others’ perspectives it inspires employees’ confidence in them.
Emotional intelligence can be developed by:
- Assessing current emotional intelligence capability. This could be with a self-assessment, 360-degree feedback, or even by working with a coach.
- Developing self-awareness. Essentially, leaders need to take time to sit back and reflect on their emotions, triggers, and biases to improve their emotional responses and ability to recognise and manage them.
- Practicing empathy. Get to know others to build strong relationships, trust, and collaboration. It also helps to more effectively resolve conflict between others.
- Being resilient. Bouncing back from setbacks and challenges is one of the crucial leadership personality traits that sets them apart from others as a leader. It means they won’t break down in tears or a rage when things don’t go their way, as their emotions are better managed. With training or coaching, leaders can learn to manage stress and maintain motivation and focus.
Personal branding and image management
Your personal brand and the way you market yourself is crucial to your credibility and presence as a leader. With the right image and reputation, employees are more likely to trust and be inspired by you, increasing engagement in their work as well as their performance. You can develop your personal brand by:
- Cultivating your image, from your appearance to your communication style. A leader who presents themselves as both confident, capable and approachable comes off as having more authority, which is an essential part of executive presence.
- Effectively marketing yourself, through networking events, work social events, and even in your public social media. Remember to market yourself both externally and internally within your organisation. Not only does this improve your reputation internally, but it also improves your reputation among others in the industry who might be able to offer opportunities in the future.
- Create a dedicated mode of living to build your credibility. Be intentional in the way you present yourself, so that your (personal) brand promise is clear to others and they know what to expect from you. This also includes cultivating expertise in your chosen area to become a subject matter expert.
Effective networking relationship building
Relationship-building is essential for leaders, given they act as liaisons on two fronts:
- Internally, between teams and functions
- Externally, between the organisation and stakeholders (especially if they’re C-suite).
In other words, leaders who engage with employees and stakeholders build trust and engagement, which in turn increases their credibility as competent leaders.
When you’re looking to network and build relationships, you should:
- Participate in industry events. It’s a great opportunity to meet like-minded professionals. These people could be future collaborators or mentors for you, and can provide opportunities for meaningful discussion and innovation.
- Engage in company social events. This might seem obvious, but employees want to see a leader who is involved with the business and its workforce. When a leader seems untouchable, employees disengage (and company culture can suffer as a result). So, attending work events is a great way to build both physical and executive presence.
- Organise follow-up meetings. After important discussions (think action plans, feedback or reviews, or discussions that resulted in unresolved points of conflict) organise a follow-up with the person or people involved. This is a great way to re-engage in those discussion points and practice active listening and communication skills, too.
- Express gratitude. This might seem strange, but it’s important for building long-lasting relationships and impressions. A simple thank-you to people who have taken the time to speak with you or provide mentorship can leave a positive impression.
Seeking and utilising feedback
This is about seeking feedback on your presence overall, rather than on your communication or emotional intelligence alone.
- Regularly ask for feedback from colleagues, mentors, employees, or an executive coach on your executive presence. Doing this regularly gives you a basis for continuous improvement, as well as how you’ve progressed as a leader.
- Ask for examples. This way you know what specific aspects of your leadership style and presence need to be developed and improved further, as well as the aspects you’re strong in.
- Identify common patterns and themes. When multiple people bring up the same concerns, that’s a sign you need to prioritise it.
The most important aspect to remember in seeking feedback is that employees won’t give feedback if they don’t feel it’s safe to do so. It’s important that you create a safe environment for people to come to you with criticisms and answer honestly when asked directly. (Note: This is where having good emotional intelligence can help.)
The impacts of not developing executive presence
Leaders are meant to be inspiring and motivating their team members, but without leadership presence, they won’t inspire the incremental changes that push the business towards long-lasting organisational transformation. At the end of the day, this means lost opportunities for innovation and development, and that’s just going to damage your competitive edge—and bottom line.
And let’s not forget succession planning. If leadership presence is ignored entirely, then the leader who eventually takes over an individual team or even the business itself might not have the know-how to keep the team (or even the company, in the case of business succession planning) afloat. For example, 81% of HR leaders found the reason for high-potentials failing to successfully fill leadership roles was due to a lack of readiness.
At a smaller scale, it also negatively affects the workforce around leaders. When you don’t develop an executive presence in leaders, those leaders become the missing link between employees and the business itself. It would cause:
- Low employee morale and engagement, creating unengaged employees, decreased productivity, and higher employee turnover.
- Bad organisational culture, which leads to low morale among employees, and again, contributes to turnover. This can be particularly demoralising for people who face more barriers to leadership roles, such as women or people of colour.
- A negative business reputation, making it harder to find and retain new hires.
- Sub-par communication between leaders and employees, misaligning action from organisational strategy and negatively impacting business success and growth.
Executive presence is an essential aspect of effective leadership, and includes a range of personality traits and leadership qualities that enable an individual to be effective in a leadership role. Leadership presence doesn’t come naturally though—it has to be developed beyond simple charisma.
When you take action to develop leadership presence, just remember it’s not a one-and-done activity. Rather, it’s a constant, continuous effort to develop your presence, seek feedback on your progress, and repeat the process for continuous leadership capability improvement.
Related Reads on This Topic
Why a Leadership Development Program Improves Business Agility
A leadership development program builds your employees into the leaders of the future. Learn how it drives strategy and business agility…
Strategies for Effective Women’s Leadership Development in Your Organisation
Dive into women’s leadership development and the methods you can use to effectively build women up for leadership roles in your organisation…
Emergent Leadership: The Key to Empowerment Within Your Business
Individuals will distinguish themselves as leaders from the group even without being assigned. What causes this and how can you encourage it…