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Succession planning

The How-to Guide to Developing Executive Presence and Influence


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:

  1. Gravitas (the way you behave)
  2. Communication (the way you speak and interact with others)
  3. 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:

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:

  1. Taking action
  2. Getting feedback
  3. 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:

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:

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:

Effective networking relationship building

Relationship-building is essential for leaders, given they act as liaisons on two fronts:

  1. Internally, between teams and functions
  2. 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:

Seeking and utilising feedback

This is about seeking feedback on your presence overall, rather than on your communication or emotional intelligence alone.

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:

Key takeaways

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.

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