What Executive Presence Is and How to Get It

Executive presence is sometimes hard to define, but the result is instilling in others the understanding and acceptance that you are in charge, to be followed and respected.

A critical component to being an impactful leader is having what is commonly known as “executive presence.” This is sometimes hard to define, but the result is instilling in others the understanding and acceptance that you are in charge, to be followed and respected. 

Some say you have to be “born with it,” but thoughtful leadership coaches people believe executive presence can be learned. It represents behaviors that we all can learn and exhibit with a little practice. The key is to believe in yourself, and to exhibit your quiet confidence from day one in your leadership role. 

“It’s a cliché that ‘you only get one chance to make a first impression,’ but it is also true,” says Hugh Shields, principal and co-founder of Shields Meneley Partners, a coaching and career transition firm catering to the C-suite. “If a leader is uncertain and uncomfortable coming out of the gate, it can be difficult to rebound.”

All leaders have several characteristics in common. The first is the ability to inspire others to follow and buy into the mission or the goal. “Having executive presence is about making people feel you can handle things—that you’re smart enough to know your strengths and can figure out things you don’t,” says Allison Kluger, a leadership lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business who focuses on strategic communication, reputation management, and personal branding. “Act like the leader you want to be…it’s important to know your content, be prepared, and then present it with authority.” 

Kluger encourages managers to define the kind of leader they would like to be and then to act like that leader. To create believers, you need to believe you can bethat person. Some call it “faking it until you make it.” To be sure, faking it will only go so far. While executives can train themselves to be a strong leader, there is a component that is vital.

“People who are moving into leadership roles must have the confidence to know that they candevelop the skills they need to exhibit executive presence,” says Shields. “They must have enough faith in themselves to know that they have learned other skills, and that they will ‘get it’ eventually.”

Executive presence is also exactly what the term says—presence. How a leader looks and comports herself or himself is important. Even in today’s laidback, casual, work-from-home-in-your-pajamas landscape, maintaining a professional appearance positively impacts how others perceive you. 

“Part of having executive presence is dressing the part,” writes CNBC. “You don’t need to necessarily dress formally for a meeting, but if you have an active role in it, you should dress up slightly.”

Finally, strong communication skills are vital to executive presence. Given today’s hyper-focus on all communication platforms, it’s important to communicate crisply, compassionately, and authentically. This is an area where many people are uncomfortable, but many books have been written on this topic that emphasize these points: Be succinct, avoid jargon, use storytelling to communicate your vision, and establish a personal connection with your audiences with upbeat and positive energy. 

Marc Raybin is the president of Cardinal Communications Strategies, a specialty firm that works with leadership and coaching clients to improve their public profiles in order to reach key audiences.