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The five elements of executive presence

Updated: Dec 21, 2020

You've probably noticed that it's often not the most capable 'doers' who get the big promotions.

You may also have noticed that those who do get the promotions - and succeed - have a certain 'je ne sais pas quoi' that you can't quite put your finger on. They have an air about them, an unmistakable charismatic aura that tells you they're 'someone'.

That charismatic aura is executive presence.

However, executive presence - or EP - is far more than just charisma. EP can make the difference between leadership success and struggle and, if you see E or C level leadership in your future, it's absolutely essential that you become an EP master.

So what are the essential elements of EP?

There are five:

- Character

- Comportement

- Communication

- Consistency

1. Confidence

Confidence is the essential ingredient in every successful executive career. It's the cornerstone from which everything else holds together. Confidence is a feeling that can't be faked; it has to be cultivated. Whilst building your career, you cultivated your confidence by delivering the goods, time and time again. You employed your technical and tactical know-how, and you got results. As a leader, however, your technical and tactical expertise pale into insignificance: They're a given. To build confidence in leadership you must first learn to lead. Be prepared to be vulnerable, ask questions, learn from those around you - especially your team members - and know what questions to ask. Be bold, take calculated risks, make decisions and stick to them. And when things don't go quite as planned, adjust. In leadership, you must learn to be brave before you will ever feel confident. Waiting to feel confident so that you can be brave will leave you waiting for an eternity. In leadership, courage - informed, not blind - will build your confidence and the confidence others have in you.

2. Character

I had a client who was a self-confessed 'jerk': His word, not mine. He was brilliant, smart, and engaging, and dismissive, arrogant, and self-possessed in equal parts. He was undeniably confident, but his confidence had spilled over into arrogance and he became short, sharp, and condescending with anyone who couldn't keep up with his fast mind. His team had had enough; as had his colleagues and coworkers. It was his character, not his confidence, that was in the way of his next-level promotion and it brought him to my door.

Your character speaks to your temperament, values, moral fibre, and ethical beliefs. It speaks to the filters you use to make judgements about people and circumstances and the subsequent conclusions you draw. It speaks to how you treat people and situations based on your judgements and, ultimately, it speaks to how high up the ladder you go, and how long you stay on each rung (remember, down the ladder is also an option).

Fortunately, character can be adjusted. You can change your beliefs; they're not coded in your DNA. Your beliefs are mantras you've chosen to adopt. Therefore, choosing to believe something else can have a dramatic, positive effect on your character. For example, rather than choose to believe people are idiots, you can choose instead to believe they're doing their best and may need help to do even better: It changes your approach from 'jerk' to leader and ultimately, it will change the trajectory of your career with the added benefit of improving the lives of those who have to work with you.

3. Comportement

Perhaps obvious, though even the best-intentioned leaders can make the dreaded career-ending behavioural faux-pas.

The most obvious no-no's are flirting and/or sleeping with other employees, getting drunk, using inappropriate language, and making off-colour jokes, hints or remarks about gender, ethnic origin, religious beliefs, age, or sexual orientation (if any of these are remotely tempting to you, see point number 2). There's also the less-obvious temptation to dance on the table at the company annual conference, take customers to a strip-club, or hang out in the hot-tub with your team at a retreat. My advice to you is... don't. Despite what you might think, being 'one of the boys/girls' will do you no favours at all. Even if you believe everyone will forget your misdemeanors, I guarantee they won't.

Your behaviour sets powerful, unspoken expectations about what is and is not acceptable in your organization. It conveys standards about how people are to be treated, how the organization is to be represented, the attention you pay to customers, and how you engage with internal and external stakeholders. Your behaviour can create trust in you, your team, your products and/or services, and in your organization.

If ever you find yourself in a situation where you're doubtful of what you're about to do - irrespective of your reasons - your doubt should be enough to tell you it's a bad idea. If you're still not sure, ask yourself if you'd be okay with your actions plastered all over the front page of a national newspaper. And if that isn't enough to catch you, ask yourself what your mum/dad/wife/husband/partner/kids would feel if they knew about it. If you have so much as a slight rumbling in your gut, that should be enough to tell you that what you're about to do is probably best left not done.

4. Communication

You've heard the old adage about sounding like a duck, walking like a duck, and looking like a duck? Well, the same goes for executives.

To have executive presence, you must look and sound like an executive. But what does that actually mean?

First, it's about what you say and how you say it. Get to the point quickly and avoid the temptation to explain yourself. Say what you have to say and let it stand. Second, keep your pitch low. Research shows that people - men and women - with deeper voices are taken more seriously. Additionally, research shows that deeper voices win votes for politicians! If you're voice is on the high-pitched side, engaging the services of a voice coach can be a great investment. Also, pay close attention to your speed: Speaking quickly can make you sound nervous and flustered. Slow down and use silence where appropriate.

Perhaps not surprisingly, your body language conveys a very powerful message about how confident you feel and how strongly you believe what you're saying. Be conscious of what you're doing with your hands. Keep them away from your face, hair, and neck as touching those areas suggests you're feeling anything but confident and assertive. Take up physical space by sitting back in your seat, and placing your hands of your hips when you're at the front of a room. Avoid folding your arms and 'cupping' your hands in front of the groin area: The former suggests discomfort or defensiveness and the latter, vulnerability.

Finally, how you present yourself - the way you dress and carry yourself - conveys powerful messages about your confidence and self-respect. At the bare minimum, keep yourself well-groomed and, even on 'casual Friday's, keep your 'casual' edging more towards the business end than then casual end of the spectrum. If you want to get really sophisticated, consider a statement as part of your personal brand by wearing something that becomes part of who you are. For example, become known for your pens, scarves, cuff-links, or your shoes. As fickle and superficial as this sounds, personal branding is a key element in communicating who you are, what you stand for, and what you're about, and it helps people develop an emotional connection with you.

5. Consistency

Whatever you do, do it well, do it consciously, and do it and often.

In order to lead well, executives need information: Complete information, no matter how ugly it may be. However, one of the main challenges for executives is that people are commonly in awe of them or they fear them. Either way, it causes people to withhold information, distort the truth, or worse, hide the truth. Without the full story, you can't do your job. But it's not on your people to come to you with the truth: It's your job to earn the the truth. As a leader, your job is to create an invisible emotional bond with those you work with: Staff, customers, and stakeholders. And one of the most effective ways to do this is by being consistent.

Be consistent in your mood, your demeanour, and your reactions. Being helpful and kind one day, and irritable and patronizing the next is guaranteed to keep people - and information - away from your door. Without being emotional, show emotion readily. Without being overbearing, allow your passion and energy to be constantly visible. And without accepting failure and low standards, be understanding of mistakes. And do it always.

A word of caution here: Being an arse - even a predictable, consistent arse - will never bring out the best in people. If people know they'll be yelled at, they won't come to you when they make a mistake or learn something you really need to know. Be consistently tough on the problems and understanding of the people. Meet every challenge and misfortune with the same metered response.

This isn't about distorting your personality. It's about being conscious of your emotions and subsequent reactions to those emotions so that you can, and do, remain consistent.

To climb the leadership ladder, executive presence is there to be mastered. Wondering where to start? Choose the one element that you know is your main achilles heal. Get really good at it and then move to the second on your list.

If you would like to accelerate your executive presence, I work with leaders from across the world and guide their focus to the two or three things that will make the most significant difference in their executive presence and leadership career. You can learn more HERE.

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