Can executive presence be learned?

What is executive presence? Do you have it? What are the intangibles, the “je ne sais quoi” or X Factors that make the difference between being the person who stands out and commands a room, or who disappears and becomes invisible in the crowd?  How is a person able to inspire confidence and trust of those around him or her, to become a respected authority and pillar of any organisation?

Research from the Center for Talent Innovation, suggests that the key elements, gravitas, communication and appearance are vital. Being perceived as leadership material is essential to being promoted into leadership positions. In the study, 268 senior executive participants said “executive presence”  contributed to 26% of what it takes for career advancement.

So what are the elusive ingredients that make up executive presence?

According to the study it is a cocktail of:

  • Gravitas: is perceived to be a combination of behaviours and characteristics that convey confidence,  as well as to ” inspire trust, poise under pressure and bolster credibility”  Synthesize these with a clear demonstration of moral integrity,  burnishing reputation and vision all important attributes for the perfect presence combination .
  • Communication: is not just about superior presentation skills, but having an authoritative style with a powerful and persuasive message that compels people to listen. It also encompasses EQ – an ability to understand people and what motivates them, to listen and read a room.
  • Appearance:  this represents only a part of it and encompasses demeanour and physical attributes that are  both “distinctive and appropriate.” Those surveyed indicated that major faux pas in this area are damaging, especially seeming to be unkempt. For women, wearing  clothes that are too clinging was an additional issue.

Challenges and bias

All of these factors make it more challenging to manage expectations, especially when unconscious bias plays a role.  Research from Cook Ross tells us that only 15% of U.S. men are over 6 foot tall, yet 60% of male C.E.Os seemingly are above that height.

I’m assuming that a height criterion is not specified in any job description. We still gravitate towards and select men who can protect and “lead” us in fight or flight and place high value on those characteristics, even though in the 21st century those attributes are no longer as important. Women report that feedback on executive presence is often mixed and confusing, which accounts for 81% suggesting they are unsure what action to take.  Ethnic minorities also feel harshly judged.

Yet history also tells us that here are many exceptions to these rules. It can also be about a serendipitous combination of characteristics that work at any given moment.  We make trade-offs on a regular basis, actually accepting some quite strong negative characteristics and poor behaviour from our leaders and executives, for other compensating factors. So the reality is that “executive presence” is not the indefinable, hard to achieve holy grail  we are led to believe, but a set of attributes and skills we can all work on acquiring.

It’s not even about being unique. But about being able to appear confident and trustworthy in a style that works for us.

Check out the Executive Presence Coaching Programme.

Learned skills

Few of our most charismatic leaders claim not to have had any support at all. It’s obvious that there are some who are consistently perceived to have that elusive, natural ingredient, charisma. For most, executive presence can be developed and honed and requires a degree of professional investment, either personal or by a company, as well as hard work.

It is possible to perfect a message both in terms of content and delivery. Understanding strengths and development needs,  as well as having clear goals are vital career management tools for any potential leader. Being able to convey that message succinctly, memorably and persuasively can be taught and even the most basic abilities enhanced.  Some people are born with both innate speaking and listening skills, but most acquire and develop them through diligent and focused training or coaching, notable cases being Margaret Thatcher and David Beckham who both had voice coaches.

Non-verbal communication such as appearance, posture and demeanour can all be improved with professional input. We have seen the make-overs of numerous public figures who have been groomed, re-packaged re-branded and totally made over. It’s nothing new.  Hillary Clinton was coached to be “real” and to soften her image. It will also depend on a target market and brand history. Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie, while distinct, is not trad corporate dress. Neither was Steve Jobs’ turtle neck.


Perhaps there are just too many exceptions for there to be a rule. For us lesser mortals asking some trusted friends for constructive feedback could be a helpful starting point. But if you hear the same comment a number of times there is a clear need to sit back and listen, but more importantly to act.

Time to see a professional  – or possibly more than one.

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