Cultivating Executive Presence

Executive Presence for individuals: Why it matters, what gets in the way & how to authentically have it in any situation 

‘people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

-Maya Angelou

What is Executive Presence?

Executive Presence is a critical capability that allows us to communicate who we are, the problems we solve and the value we create in a way that lands with authenticity. It is not about mechanically employing presentation techniques. It is an organic, intrinsic ability to communicate with clarity and command attention, so that the right information is shared with stakeholders. This in turn fosters connections and builds trust, which encourages stakeholders to have confidence in your value proposition. When you walk into a room (or dial into a virtual room!) having Executive Presence helps convey who you are as a leader. Creating that impact with others ensures they can rely on the integrity of who you are and what you say and do. 

How Does Executive Presence Feel?

When you are in a room and there is someone at the table who exudes grace and composure under pressure, who confidently contributes to the conversation, who listens attentively and asks great questions, that quality is often referred to as Executive Presence. It can be hard to define exactly and yet you know it when you see it. As an experience, it is the ability to speak and take aligned action from a place of authentic power without having to consciously or unconsciously curate what we let others see. 

Presence vs. Experience

Many women tell us about their frustrations of working so hard and having an expert depth of knowledge in their respective areas, and yet struggle making traction on their career goals or are being overlooked for promotions and opportunities. We know industry competence and work ethic are important, but in our experience, at a certain point they are not enough when it comes to getting ahead in your career, especially in today’s remote working world where it is easier than ever to go unnoticed.

Enough with letting “the work talk for itself”

Being a visible leader, who is seen, heard and known to interact regularly with stakeholders across the organisation is crucial. Your work alone will never be a full representation of who you are and your potential. As uncomfortable as it can feel, it is essential to make sure key decision makers across the organisation know more about you than your job title. They need to explicitly understand your value proposition: who you are, the problems you solve and the value you create.

A Willingness to be Vulnerable 

Executive Presence requires absolute authenticity, so when we water down or filter out parts of who we are to protect ourselves from judgement, we can come across as too ‘prepared’ or ‘rehearsed’. This inevitably feels inauthentic and can erode trust among stakeholders. 

This is the paradox of Executive Presence; the only way to sustain it is to be willing to embrace vulnerability and share more of who we really are. At first this may feel uncomfortable and risky, and yet, that is exactly the moment where others can truly connect with you and be open themselves. Vulnerability invites trust and inspires confidence in others to follow your lead as they perceive you as the leader they want to follow. 

The Ripple Effect 

When female leaders embody their authentic Executive Presence, they have more influence and impact across the organisational system. Other women see women with Executive Presence role modelling this capability, which leads to a more robust pipeline of female talent. When your voices show up and contribute to the conversations and outcomes, the ROI of diversity is activated, where organisations that access the power and intel of multiple perspectives can generate better solutions, increase collaboration and foster more innovation.

Executive Presence for individuals: What gets in the way & How-to? 

What is getting in the way?

Executive Presence is the ability to project confidence and gravitas irrespective of circumstance. We have talked already about what Executive Presence is and why it matters. Despite best efforts in self-preparation and improving self-confidence, many women still struggle to navigate the social norms and power dynamics of their workplaces and achieve their desired results. 

Our need to be liked, to fit in, and belong

It is only human to want to be liked, fit in and belong. Further, it is natural to be afraid of judgement and being criticised, especially when we have shown the courage to be vulnerable and open to others.

To show up and share all of who we are, to leverage all our personal and professional assets to be of service and achieve the outcomes we desire does mean that, inevitably, we will be judged. Instead of avoiding change or cautiously diluting our self-growth out of fear of judgement, we can welcome and accept it as a natural part of our journey. That does not mean we must internalise every judgement, but rather that we understand that judging is a human instinct and anticipating and managing it as part of our journey makes us stronger. 

Observing unwritten rules

Within the workplace, there are many unwritten rules and norms that contribute to the status quo. Any deviation could invite judgement and criticism that could have personal and professional consequences, and so understandably, we hesitate to challenge those norms and be our authentic selves. Out of self-protection we consciously and unconsciously observe these unwritten rules, some of which you may recognise:

  • Be confident and speak up, but not so much that you are seen as rude or direct
  • Smile and be chatty, but not so chatty that you are seen as aloof and scattered
  • Seek feedback and be consultative, but not so much that you are seen as unsure of yourself
  • Be sure to take care of your team and colleagues, but not so much that you are seen as too soft and let people off the hook
  • Speak up and share your value, but not so much that you are seen as full of yourself or look like a know-it-all

Observing these rules will stifle our growth, paralyse our Executive Presence, and compromise our authenticity as we filter out pieces of us that may not fit to these unwritten rules. Often these are the very pieces that are our strengths or part of our character that make us the brilliant leaders that we are. However, it can feel safer to withhold these parts of ourselves, rather than risk the potential of judgement from the corporate snake pit. 

Whilst we talk about inclusion and the freedom of self-expression, the reality is that these unwritten rules and these patterns of human behaviour have been created over decades and reinforced by many people and situations, making them very hard to unwind. 

Given all this noise, how can we sustainably develop Executive Presence?

Cultivating Executive Presence requires a deep sense of confidence within ourselves. In the past, people focused on Executive Presence as an external phenomenon and focused on what to say, how to use body language, and what to wear. In our experience, Executive Presence is really all about the inner game – the more clarity and alignment you have internally, the easier it is to fully show up as yourself anywhere, anytime. This conscious alignment creates a psychological continuity in who we are and how we express ourselves. There is no such thing as ‘faking it’. Practically, this means that our presence and how we communicate and interact with others is 100% our authentic selves.  

Executive Presence has often been seen as something male leaders naturally have and something female leaders need to work on. Done well, Executive Presence offers leaders the opportunity to share more of who they really are and to own their authentic power in any dynamic. In our experience there are three crucial elements for leaders wanting to enhance their Executive Presence in the workplace: 

Have Purpose – A clear why

Being intentional about what you want to achieve and how you want to be seen either in a conversation or meeting provides you with a clear and focused direction as you navigate these dynamics. Unfortunately, some people tend to minimise their presence because they are uncertain of their role. If there is any confusion about your purpose in being there, be proactive and clarify intent and expectations. It may also help to understand who will be in the room ahead of time, so that you can anticipate certain expectations and conversational styles, which may be factored into how you deliver your ideas so they resonate with impact.

Do your Preparation – Know yourself 

Preparing mentally, physically and emotionally are all important; if your role is as a subject matter expert, you will likely have a specific contribution to make. Just as critical is your ability to remain calm and composed under pressure. It is worth taking note of your physiology – if you feel anxious or worried, focus on what works to calm down your nervous system. 

Tools such as having good language or a go-to phrase to meet an unexpected comment or question, or simply taking 2 deep breaths, is often all that is needed to regulate your body so that you don’t go into fight, flight or freeze mode.

It can be useful to get feedback from others both within and external to your organisation (where appropriate), as we can sometimes be unaware of how our speech, tone, behaviour and body language are perceived by others. It is valuable to talk to both supporters and those that can be more critical so that you can calibrate the information and have a clear understanding of the impression you are creating with others.

Step into your Personal Power – Be yourself

Claiming and owning your authentic power is not a process of acquiring more skills, capabilities and experience although we are 100% on board with the continuous learning journey! Rather it is the willingness to reveal more of who you already are with those you are seeking to lead and influence. From this place of grounded confidence, you will have a deeper understanding of your unique contribution, and how to share that in a way that feels congruent to you. There’s a sweet-spot where what you do and who you are is in harmony; it feels both powerful and humble.

Part of being all of who you are is having the courage to let go of the things that are no longer serving you. As you become willing to tame your inner critic and show up as your authentic self, it gets easier to access your personal power. You spend less time worrying about external pressures and judgements of others and more time trusting yourself and knowing that ‘I’ve got this’ no matter what happens.

How organisations can support women to activate their Executive Presence

Supporting employees to develop their authentic Executive Presence is a valuable investment in building organisational resources and leadership capability. 

When female leaders embody their authentic Executive Presence they have more influence and impact across the organisational system. Extensive studies have demonstrated the ROI of diversity; we know that when more voices fully show up and contribute to the conversation, this capability is role-modelled throughout the organisation leading to an improvement in the pipeline of female talent.

Like all capabilities that are a little intangible, there is no clear formula about how to go about doing this perfectly, but here are a few places to start:

Set clear expectations 

Leaders should explicitly communicate the purpose and reason each team member is in the room and how they want them to show up. The clearer people are about what a great job looks like, the easier it is for them to meet those expectations without worrying about stepping on someone’s toes or being out of place. 

Encourage small acts of confidence 

If being visible and making an impression is a developing area for a team member, encourage them to start small. Asking a good question or identifying an opportunity where they can make a contribution with something they are a subject matter expert on is a great small step. Be mindful that what may feel easy to some people could feel complex or confronting for others. Encouraging them to be 10% bolder is a great stretch assignment.

Seek and provide feedback 

Counsel team members to actively seek feedback from stakeholders and coach them to approach this feedback from a learning perspective. Where opportunities exist, leaders can share their own experiences and provide feedback to their team members of where they may (perhaps unconsciously) be undermining their impact and influence.

Value it 

Make it a priority to incorporate Executive Presence into professional development goals. Regularly talk about it with your teams and showcase good role models to create a culture of continuous learning. 

Encourage them to be their authentic self 

Executive Presence is developed over time and requires people to leverage their strengths, capabilities and innate traits. When people are free and safe to be their authentic selves at work, they can more readily access these inner traits and more confidently use them in service of themselves and their organisation.  

No team member who may be perceived to lack Executive Presence is a lost cause. They may require more attention and time than others, but for leaders especially, it can be a golden opportunity to coach and mentor someone to develop this critical capability. We know the ripple effect can be transformative.

If you’d like to learn more about Executive Presence – Download our Guide 

If you or someone in your team is ready to Amplify their Executive Presence, get access here.