The Executive Toolbox: Executive Presence

Executive presence is that certain something that causes other people to recognize an executive as a leader.

It provides the confidence that an individual will be able to perform as an executive. Without it, even extremely competent people can be overlooked for leadership positions.

One example that comes to mind is a client I recently coached. This woman had been with a company since its inception – more than twenty years. She had advanced to a certain level and stopped. Although she was widely respected for her ability to “get things done” and was often called upon to “do the impossible” when a project was in trouble, she was devastated to find she had not been selected for a new executive position.

The day she learned she’d not been selected she came to see me.  I have rarely seen someone so devastated.   She was at a loss to understand why, after all her contributions and hard work, she wasn’t selected. I had been working with the organization for some time, been privy to the selection process, and had worked with her on several initiatives.

We had a quiet conversation that day about her presence and the need for her to develop an executive presence. To her credit, she approached her new boss and asked for support in that area.

Conversely, extremely competent people who have demonstrated their loyalty and commitment to an organization, but don’t exhibit executive presence, yet are selected for executive positions can put an organization at risk if they’re selected for positions where they lead others.

This is often an issue in organizations who have complex technical products or services. Executives in that type of organization rise through the ranks based upon their technical contributions but, when promoted to a leadership position, can fail because they lack the necessary executive presence required of the position. Wisely, some organizations resolve this by promoting these individuals to higher level technical staff, versus line positions.

Executive presence can and should be developed; however, few organizations today make the investment in their employees. Regardless of the level of executive presence you currently possess you can; however, improve your own executive presence by first understanding the components and then developing and executing a program of growth.

In Jane Goudreau’s, October 29, 2012 article for Forbes magazine, she defines the three traits necessary for executive presence as: Gravitas, Communications, and Appearance.

Put simply, gravitas is the manner in which you conduct and present yourself, based upon who you are as a person, and as a leader. Too often executives confuse gravitas with hubris or bravado, both of which will eventually produce negative results, either professionally or personally.

Gravitas is not developed overnight – at least for most of us. It’s best learned by examining your current conduct and style and deciding to develop that part of who you are. For some it helps to have a model or balance set of standards to work toward.

The second component of executive presence is communication. An executive’s ability to write, speak and present his ideas and information clearly will either propel him through the executive ranks or stop his career progression.

Additionally his ability to understand the audience for each piece of communication and tailor the approach and message appropriately is key.

Finally his ability to listen to others, get to the crux of what they’re trying to communicate and comprehend is an important skill.

The third component of executive presence, appearance and its importance to career progression, is often under estimated to the detriment of many executives’ careers, which is regrettable as it is the easiest of the three to master.

Basic grooming is expected of an executive in most companies, and can be the topic of break room chatter when an executive violates basic grooming standards.

An executive’s wardrobe doesn’t have to include $800 suits; however, clothes that are clean, appropriate for the work environment, well fitted, and not dated are expected.

One of the most important elements of an executive’s appearance is the one least talked about – presentation. The manner in which you walk into a room, the banter in which you engage, your overall attitude toward you colleagues and subordinates overrides anything else that you do.

Presentation includes your behavior. More than one executive has missed out on an opportunity or lost a job due to their behavior. Even small infractions many executives consider “executive privilege” such as being late, breaking appointments, or participating in office gossip, can reflect on an individual’s characters and be seen as an absence of executive presence.

As an executive you are always a role-model. Everyone you come in contact with judges your company by you.  As an executive and business owner I, for one, need to remind myself of that every day before I walk out the door.

Published by Leah Ward-Lee

Leah Ward-Lee, the author of "$1,000 Start-Ups", is a serial micro-entrepreneur. She opened her first business at ten after lobbying for and receiving a shoe shine kit for Christmas. She pulled her wagon through the neighborhood, going door-to-door, offering to shine her neighbor’s shoes for twenty-five cents a pair. Once her wagon was full, she took the shoes home and polished them. Unfortunately that business was short-lived. She hadn’t tagged the shoes and couldn’t remember whose shoes were whose, so her dad went with her to retrace the route until every pair was returned. Since then she’s had businesses developing and teaching college courses, instructing aerobic classes, owning half a plane that was rented to a flight and maintenance school, and renting homes. She’s also owned a consignment store, a gift shop, a gift basket business, a consulting firm, hosted The Executive Toolbox (a weekly radio show), and a publishing company. She also spent twenty years in the US Army, served as the Chief Information and Technical Officer for two major insurance companies, and has a second career as a management consultant. Leah resides in Dallas, TX and on Amelia Island with Sammy and Goliath, her two rescue dogs.

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2 Comments

  1. Excellent synopsis. Ep. Gravitas- what to expect from who you are. Grave, gravel, gravity.

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