Executive presence – what is it and how do you get it?

The second most important leadership skill in order to be promoted to the top is executive presence according to a recent survey from Gartner. A lot of Coaching assignments start out with the objective of improving executive presence. So, what exactly is executive presence and how do you get it and how on earth do you convey it in the digital environment? This is an interesting one, because what exactly great executive presence looks like depends on a lot of different factors, and lies in the eyes of the beholder, in short it is hard to define.

[1] According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett ’gravitas is at the core of executive presence: it’s the ability to exude integrity, courage and confidence in time of crisis.’

Integrity is only perceived when leadership is authentic and consistent. For this the leader needs to be in sync with his values and he needs to follow through on how he wants to live these values even in times of crisis. Leaders who act according to their values appear more grounded, which in itself leads to consistent leadership.

Knowing your values will help you identify what drives you: You will become conscious of what gives you energy and also what makes you angry or drains your energy. Understanding what values drive your decisions and making these accordingly will translate in confidence and will hopefully give you the courage to make tough decisions when the time comes. Decision making is definitely on the list of skills for executive presence.

The knowledge of what values are behind your decision should certainly help you standing by it, because it was made in compliance with your values. Even if you feel looking back you made a mistake or should have decided differently, you took that decision as an active choice, knowing it was according with the way you want to live your values, so hopefully you shouldn’t feel too much guilt. Which doesn’t mean you can’t learn from mistakes, on the contrary: draw your conclusions, re-examine how you want to live your values (often, we change in our lives) and be aware in this moment how you want to move forward with this learning.

Another part of this definition of executive presence is surely how you are received by people, which is not only external in the way you dress, your gestures, body language etc, but more importantly the internal quality of staying present in the moment, as the word presence suggests: Being present means you are focused on the here and now, while keeping your future vision in the back of your mind. Don’t get stuck on past solutions of problems, but be open to change. You focus on the situation, meeting, communication, problem solving etc at hand. A lot of that focus has to do with the ability to blend out your monkey brain and stop following these racing thoughts. You just bring back your focus on the situation or meeting, you listen actively when communicating and stop your inner dialogue based on defense, distractions or daydreaming. Right now this is even more of a challenge as many of us are working remotely and only see each other in video conferences.

Listening doesn’t just mean to focus on what is being said, but it is equally important to read the room. Being present and in the moment, so you perceive vibes from your audience and consequently are able to change your delivery, react to concerns or know different information is key. This is why empathy plays an important part in having great executive presence. It also is crucial to create rapport and connect to people. If empathy doesn’t come naturally you can use mentalizing skills to figure out what motivates them and understand on a cognitive level what they are thinking. The most essential skill behind creating these crucial connections is being able to inspire trust. In these times of virtual connecting it’s even more necessary to spend enough time connecting one to one and have meaningful conversations.

Yet another part of executive presence is how you communicate and drive followership. So there needs to be a good balance of being convincing and getting buy in for your vision, but also the need to communicate the latter.

Apart from the listening skills mentioned earlier, your communication needs to be straight forward, concise and inspiring. If you sat in all day video meetings during this pandemic, you know exactly what I mean. Think bullet points and try to engage with your communication partners interactively. 2 forward communication boils down to walking the talk and being up front about bad news as well as admitting when you don’t know something. Concise 3 communication is versant, to the point, easy to follow and well structured. A leader’s communication needs to be open, consistent and authentic in order to inspire trust and influence people. Being prepared is another important factor: anticipate questions as well as issues, find out where the audience stands on your topic, etc.

Part of leadership presence is also creating a vision plus getting the buy in for it. That in short is creating an elevator pitch that conveys what your future goals are and how you intend to reach them. This is a mix of strategic skills and transformative skills like innovation as well as communication: to not just derive and formulate that vision but getting people behind it. A great skill to have is political savviness: being able to not just understand, but drive corporate politics. Have a solid network and offer support to that network. Have a good think what you have to offer and how you can contribute before asking for something first. Define who your supporters are, who can mentor or sponsor and who you trust to give you feedback. Feedback is an integral part of your journey to the top. Only when you receive timely and honest feedback can you work on the change you need for your next career step. Make sure you communicate clearly how you want to receive that feedback.

So executive presence consists of a variety of skills that a leader needs to master. Coaching can help to achieve great executive presence by looking at a wider skillset in the coaching process like said values, decision making, confidence, presence, active listening, empathy, different aspects of communication, networking, being politically savvy and more.


Julia Atkinson is an ICF PCC cerfified execufive coach and provided successful execufive coaching and leadership team development in various global Top 500 companies for over 12 years. Prior to starting an executive development firm, she gained first hand leadership and business experience both in Corporate and StartUps in IT and Telecommunicafions. Julia’s coaching process helps clients to uncover different perspectives and insights and synthesise them into a vision. This process unearths core values and triggers enabling desired behavioural change and clarity to form new habits. Together with each client she identifies resources and tools to ensure the change is lasting.


[1] Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success – Illustrated, 3 July 2014 by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

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