What is That Elusive Something Known as “Executive Presence?”

Executive presence requires gravitas, appearance and communications

Executive Presence?

As former United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said when he couldn’t find words to describe obscenity in a film, “I know it when I see it.”

That’s how you feel when you’re in the presence of someone with “executive presence.” You can’t describe it; you just know it when you see it.

What is Executive Presence?

Author Sylvia Ann Hewlett in her book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success has “cracked the code,” as she calls it.

Hewlett is the founder of The Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank comprised of 80+ global corporations and organizations. It studies best practices to leverage employee talent across geography, gender and ethnicity.

In a survey of 4,000 college-education professionals, in 40 focus groups and in interviews of corporate leaders, The Center learned that executive presence (EP) rests on three pillars:

  • Gravitas: How you act
  • Communication: How you speak
  • Appearance: How you look

Gravitas was identified as the core characteristic meaning “you know your stuff cold.” You have intellectual firepower.

The pillars are interrelated. As Hewlett writes, “You communicate the authority of a leader – through your speaking skills and ability to command a room…these two communications traits are the top picks (one and two), of the senior executives in our survey.”

Projecting Executive Presence


Actions and appearance project executive presence. Do you walk on to the stage with a sense of a purpose and a smile on your face? Or do you slouch over and avoid eye contact with the audience?

You also project executive presence through your communication skills. It’s not enough to be smart. You must also organize your information and speak with authority, projecting your voice, engaging the audience and using appropriate gestures to emphasize important points.

Your key messages must support the overarching idea of your presentation, whether you’re speaking to a large audience or sitting across the desk from your CEO. This is how you demonstrate your intellectual heft.

Appearance is Key Filter

While only five percent of senior executives said appearance is inconsequential, Hewitt writes that this is deceptive. In fact, appearance is a critical first filter. No matter how impressive your credentials and no matter how brilliant you are, your appearance can knock you out of contention for plum assignments.

Hewlett told a story about herself going back to when she was a young woman with a thick Welsh accent from a working class mining community. She had passed the rigorous entrance examinations for admission to Oxford and Cambridge but knew she wasn’t their typical upper crust candidate.

So she and her mother set about buying an outfit for the next hurdle – her Oxford interview. They settled on an outfit they thought would impress the panel: a nubby tweed suit with a fox collar that you could fling around your neck. It had beady eyes and two sets of claws.

The interview was a disaster. The committee couldn’t get beyond a 17-year-old trying to look like the Queen Mother. She was devastated when she didn’t get in.

She had a second chance, though, in her interview with Cambridge. Emulating what she saw other candidates wearing at her Oxford interview, she borrowed a pleated skirt and a simple sweater from a friend. She got past the appearance “filter” in her Cambridge admissions interview and was accepted to the school.

As she points out, good grooming and how to dress can be learned. Yet, in our training practice, it never ceases to amaze me how many executives are careless about their appearance. They come to coaching sessions looking like an unmade bed.

It doesn’t show respect for your audience when you show up in a wrinkled suit, scuffed shoes, and hair falling in your face. They won’t be able to get past your appearance to appreciate your expert knowledge on a subject. You may be the smartest person in the room but no will ever know it.

Take Stock of Yourself

Hewlett has performed a valuable service for companies in helping them to identify employees with executive presence and grooming them for leadership roles. If you’re someone who wants to get ahead in your company, then take stock of yourself.

Do you have the necessary gravitas? Are you keeping up with the latest developments in your field so that you are the most knowledgeable person in the room? Have you practiced your presentations and not just winged them? Have you discarded the clothes in your closet that no longer fit or are out of fashion?

You must excel at how you act, how you speak and how you look. It’s having the total package. You can’t fake it, because only the audience can experience if you have the “it” factor that is called “Executive Presence.”

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