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To Develop Executive Presence, Learn These Key Skills

“You lack Executive Presence.” Ouch. The feedback came after I’d interviewed for a stretch role. At the time, it felt vaguely like an insult and, if I’m being honest, unhelpful.

What did it even mean? My first assumption was that I didn’t look the part. I’m from Texas and my accent can slip out sometimes. I’m not one for excessive formality and I have long, wavy hair that is time-consuming to tame. How was I going to develop this elusive “executive presence” without sacrificing who I am and what makes me uniquely me?

As I started learning more about the topic, I realized two important things:

1. Executive presence is not about performance.

This was both good and bad news. The good news was I wasn’t lacking in terms of my accomplishments or abilities. I didn’t need to earn another degree or develop a new technical skill. The bad news was that my behavioral signals weren’t showcasing my competence or my leadership potential.

2. Executive presence is a set of skills that can be learned and mastered.

This was great news. I could learn to adjust my behaviors now that I knew what “executive presence” really meant. The skills that make up executive presence are grouped into three pillars: how you act, how you communicate, and how you look. Let’s dig in:

How you act (gravitas)

This is the most important element, and the goal is to demonstrate your ability to stay cool under pressure. The defining characteristics of “gravitas” are confidence, poise, decisiveness, integrity, emotional intelligence, reputation, vision, and charisma. To signal confidence and poise, take yourself seriously and keep your composure. Define your non-negotiables to help you make decisions faster and act with integrity. Connect with others by sharing relevant anecdotes. Be careful not to let your ego get in the way, or to try to “cover up” any mistakes you make. These behaviors will undermine your efforts and erode trust.

How you communicate

This is the easiest element to develop, and the goal is to build credibility. The defining characteristics of strong communication are a concise and compelling style, the ability to command attention, assertiveness, and the ability to read a person, situation, or audience. To ensure your message is heard, make eye contact and choose your words carefully. Ditch the props (slides, notes, etc.) when you’re presenting and focus on landing your points. When you’re participating in a meeting or presentation, avoid checking your devices constantly, or looking bored. These behaviors send signals that you aren’t interested in hearing what your colleagues have to say.

How you look (appearance)

This is the least important element, but can be highly subjective and prone to bias. The defining characteristics of “looking the part” come down to grooming and polish. Dress appropriately for the culture and situation. The best way to do this is to find a role model to emulate and pay close attention to those who have the job you want. Avoid looking unkempt or disheveled. If you’re working remotely, take time to evaluate your office setup, lighting, and camera/microphone. You don’t want environmental or equipment factors to be a distraction for others.

Putting it into practice

A few minor adjustments can make a big difference. I made a conscious decision to stop reacting and start responding. I became more deliberate with my words and focused on making eye contact. And I started wearing my hair in a low bun to make sure my appearance wasn’t distracting. Whatever skills you need to develop, don’t go it alone. In our Rise Leadership Program, you’ll find a trusted group of colleagues to help you understand where you have opportunity to grow and a safe environment to practice your new skills. Explore what Rise can do for you and submit your application to join our next cohort. 

Download our guide to learn more about the dos and dont’s of developing executive presence and start building your skills.


Take Charge of Your Future 

For more leadership guidance, consider participating in the Rise Leadership Program. This three-month virtual program is dedicated to helping mid-career women move their careers forward by focusing on their own leadership strengths. Rise is built on the premise that leadership starts from within. Learn from leadership experts and executive coaches as you develop an authentic leadership style that suits your skills and personality. Interested in being part of our next cohort? Apply now! 

*Adapted from Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

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