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The Enigma of Executive Presence

Most advice on improving “executive presence” revolves around improving your external projections – your confidence, poise, clarity of thought, positive body language and so on. On the contrary, the external appearance is merely a reflection of something more fundamental and core to who you are as a person.

The Enigma of Executive Presence

Wednesday July 19, 2017,

3 min Read


Early in my career, most of my peers along with me received consistent feedback to improve executive presence. Few offered insights on what it actually meant and fewer had actionable inputs to share. Over the years, I have come across countless articles that emphasize on developing communication styles that focus on the "executive" and very little that talks about the "presence".

Focus on the "executive" includes working on the appearance and presentation skills, like using vocabulary that is palatable to senior leadership, or using positive body language, or communicating with energy, and so on. These outside-in development areas can elevate your persona in the short-term, but cannot substitute the core essentials required to have a trust-based, open, and collaborative exchange with your leaders.

These core essentials represent an inside-out change and focus on the "presence", or simply put, your mindfulness and commitment in the conversation. For me, these remain a work-in-progress but had maximum impact so far in not only presenting myself better but also strengthening relationships over time.

Active Listening: Probably the most underrated of all, listening with intent and empathy has the potential to completely transform your interactions with the outside world. Often, we are guilty of thinking our response even before completely hearing out what the other person is stating. On the contrary, active listening requires a genuine commitment free of any inherent bias for the speaker or the topic. Being heard and understood is a basic human need. No wonder that active listening is one of the foundational elements of Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) that has helped millions of parents around the world since 1962.

Bringing Your Authentic Self: Simply put, staying authentic requires one to be the same person whether you are at work, with family or with friends. More specifically, it mandates an unfaltering commitment to align your actions with your internal compass. Bill George, author of True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, states that discovering one's internal compass can take years of hard work. Individuals who accomplish this embrace vulnerabilities in their life and are able to candidly share their personal struggles, failures, and triumphs. When you follow your internal compass, your presence will be authentic, and people will naturally want to associate with you.

Bias for Action: A guesstimate from a survey done three decades ago puts the cost of poorly run meetings at $37 billion. The amount of time and money at stake when a team struggles with "analysis paralysis" or is at a stalemate with conflicting points of view cannot be understated. Pushing for forward momentum in such situations requires a results orientation mindset to facilitate and drive decisions. Being that change agent will establish you as a positive influencer. In fact, one of Amazon's leadership principles perfectly embodies this notion.

Bias for Action: Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

To conclude, things that help you elevate your appearance and presentation are important accessories for an impactful presence. However, they cannot substitute what you bring to the table as an inner self who is authentic with genuine commitment to drive results. In fact, your external projections like confidence, body language, assertive voice etc. are simply by-products of staying true to that inner self. Also, by no means these three topics exhaustively cover what is needed to deliver a strong presence.

What's been most impactful for you in building your executive presence?