The 3 things that make for Executive Presence – and how to build them

Reading Time: 5 minutes

We know it when we see it. People who can command a room, project confidence and calm, who just seem to exude leadership credibility. Yet I often hear women managers saying they don’t have executive presence – “it’s just not who I am… I don’t look any good in a jacket… I am too small… too young… too shy… “

And that’s a great pity because I see their budding executive presence in front of me and I know you can build your executive presence. What’s more you should because it is what makes us impactful, persuasive and effective as leaders. It is people’s experience of you, and as a leader that experience needs to signal that you look like you are in charge, and if you are not in charge, then you really should be.

The reality is we are making an impression all of the time so it is important we are intentional about what that impression is and what the experience of us is that people have. And that is not about having to act or sound or look like a man, or not be your natural self or being a fake. Let’s look closer at what constitutes Executive Presence.

Research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett identified Executive Presence as having three components:

1. Gravitas
2. Communication
3. Appearance

Here are some tips for building strength in all of those areas by taking control. Taking control of what’s happening on the INSIDE and what’s happening on the OUTSIDE to build your executive presence.

It is executive presence—and no man or woman attains a top job, lands an extraordinary deal, or develops a significant following without this heady combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we’re in the presence of someone who’s the real deal.” Dr Sylvia Ann Hewlett

1. Gravitas

Have you ever wondered how people project that self-assurance, how they carry themselves, consistently looking confident and calm? A great deal of it comes from their being comfortable in their own skin. Not arrogant, but confident. And they are able to project confidence even if they are not feeling it inside. Building our confidence means managing our fears, it is about gaining control. So let’s start with what’s going on inside.

Being aware of how stress manifests in you before a big meeting or presentation is important, it’s quite natural to have a dry mouth, be sweaty, talk too fast, breath too fast, forget your words, but how do you control it without avoiding the situation?

Controlling your emotional state means you are in change of your external behaviours. Sports psychology has long known the power of the tools of:

– Breathing,
– Visualisation, and
– Positive inner dialogue to get ‘in the zone’

Here are some tips.

Breathing. You can use breath to control your emotions. For example, try thinking of three words that will describe how you want to be, then sit quietly and breath them in gently three times each. When we are anxious we need to breath less not more.

Visualising the event, really imagining the details, including being nervous but managing it well and how it will go, and how you will be during and after. Create a clear picture of it and close your eyes for a minute and visualise and feel each detail.

Positivity. We can undermine our confidence by being our harshest critic, having our inner voice always default to the negative, telling ourselves things like “I don’t know enough about… I won’t be able to… people will think I’m…” So it is important to observe how we judge ourselves and turn any negative messages into positives, literally reword them and say them out loud.

Practicing gaining control of what’s going on inside means we can turn our attention to our outside. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. Ensure you prepare yourself physically, emotionally and psychologically before an important meeting or presentation to ensure your most confident self is in the room with people. So they can experience your gravitas.

2. Communication is both what we say and how we say it.

Voice, stance and expression all affect what people hear and remember. Data shows women use more PowerPoints and notes than men, tending to over prepare on content, which can risk distancing you from your audience. Observe how you are preparing. You know your stuff so spend as much time working on the impact you want to make. Record yourself. And listen to it and make changes where necessary and notice what you do really well.

Making an impact with voice isn’t about being all jazz hands and loud, it doesn’t need to be about having a big personality. Don’t tell yourself that’s ‘just not you’. Volume is one thing, intensity is another. Think of the amazing impact an Adele performance makes when she belts it out and also think of the impact Diana Krall can make when she almost whispers, you want to lean in and listen intently. Different performances but both achieve an authentic and compelling impact.

So make your voice count, it’s a performance so be conscious of:

– Slowing it all down
– Lowering your voice, our voices go up under pressure which can sound tentative and unsure
– Don’t be afraid of silence, wrap your powerful comments in it
– Be conscious that softening language reduces power. Words like just, would you, please, sorry, but…

3. Appearance

The third component of executive presence is that thorny old issue of appearance. Appearance is the first filter we use to assess executive presence. We all do it. And women are judged on appearance to a greater degree than men. This can be challenging for women leaders as there is a narrower band of acceptability, the rule book isn’t as well coded as the suit and tie uniform is for men.

You can’t be too provocative, nor too dowdy so finding that look that signals executive presence and really feels like YOU, takes time to tailor. Click To Tweet

There is the oldie but goody advice of dress two jobs ahead. Yet dress code can be a trip wire for women especially in a casual work environment when you need to signal your credibility. Design your very own beautiful, original finely-tailored (metaphorical) suit that speaks to your impact and confidence. Just don’t pretend it doesn’t matter.

It is all about how you SHOW UP

That is what your executive presence is about – how you show up. Working at it doesn’t mean being phoney, quite the opposite, it is core to your development as a leader. How you enter a room, take up space, use your voice…you need to look and act the part to give customers, suppliers, employees, peers and bosses confidence in you. It doesn’t come naturally, it takes practice.

So how DO you show up? Take a moment and ask yourself “what am I signalling by how I act, how I speak, how I look?” Click To Tweet

Then take control of building your executive presence working on gravitas, communication and appearance. There are so many tools at your disposal for all three arenas. My advice would be to start with understanding and getting under control what’s going on inside. Because working on your executive presence is simply creating the platform for that to shine through.

Drama is very important in life: you have to come on with a bang. You never want to go out with a whimper.” Julia Child

You might be interested in my podcast episode with Professor Natalia Karelaia on confidence and influence strategies for women leaders. Click here to listen.

As always thanks for reading this and sharing it. Feel free to read more on my blog page.

If you like this, please share:

  • “Penny’s compelling approach to leadership is steeped in her wealth of experience, knowledge and wisdom – she is an insightful and empowering mentor whose guidance has had a hugely positive effect on my approach to matters of presence, impact, self-awareness and authenticity.”

    Emma James COO Kamwell
  • “Penny for me is a stand out role model of women in leadership. She fought for my career, believed in me and showed firsthand what being a powerful woman in business can look like. For this especially I am eternally grateful.”

    Celine Floyd, Director of Leadership Assessment Capp & Co Ltd
  • “Penny was a catalyst for significant change, redefining the strategy and structure, developing the senior team to achieve their best through her coaching style and driving a more commercial approach. I am proud to have had the opportunity to work with such an inspirational, innovative and insightful leader.”

    Gaynor Lewis. Head of Commercial Development. ILM
  • “Penny is without hesitation one of the best CEOs I have worked with. …She is results focussed driven and challenging combined with an engaging style, an incredible sense of warmth and a clear passion for business.”

    Sara Barrie – Sara Barrie & Associates
  • “Penny is one of the most accomplished professionals I have had the privilege of working for and with…She has a real focus on results but creates an environment/culture that allows people to be their best”

    Stephen Randall Partner Melior HR
  • “Superb at managing stakeholders, calm in a crisis and always with her sense of humour close to the surface, Penny is one of the best CEOs I’ve ever worked with and I’d have no hesitation in recommending anyone take the opportunity to work with her if they get the chance”

    Kerry Simmons Marketing Director LHH
  • “Penny was my boss and inspiration for over three years…With Penny you want to work hard and be your best. And work hard we did, but we also had a great deal of fun and satisfaction in making a difference at ILM under Penny’s leadership”

    Helen Oldfield, Sales and Marketing Director, MRS
  • “She has a strong focus on customer experience and cutting through ‘stuff’ to deliver results. I can’t think of anyone better placed to provide first class advice on business and personal growth”

    Hilary Hall, Chief Executive, National Hairdressers Federation
  • “Penny is without doubt one of the most impressive senior professionals working in the people space. Her presence, intellect and stature dictate that Penny is a leading light in her field, bringing both a commercial and deeply wise approach to business. She has other rare qualities for a senior executive, genuine charm, authenticity and humility. It is always a happy experience when one gets the chance to work with Penny and a fabulous opportunity to learn.”

    John Renz, Director at Executive Action
  • “Penny was (and remains to this day) an inspiration to me and so many others. Working with her is a highlight of my career, and one that I sincerely hope happens again!”

    Rob Sayers-Brown, Customer Relationship Manager at Eliesha Training Ltd
  • “Penny is simply outstanding in the capacity of coach and mentor. She has a warm personality which coupled with her sharp business acumen, professionalism and generosity in the way she invests in others professional growth is something which I have rarely seen in leaders who have held positions such as Penny has.”

    Caroline Mellor, Global HR Director, Transformation and Effectiveness at Dentsu Aegis Network