Think of a great leader. It can be any leader—a historical political leader, an executive you look up to, a fictional character, or anyone else that inspires you.
What makes them great?
I bet I can guess a few of the qualities that stand out to you. They’re confident and calm under pressure. They know what to do in tough situations and lead by example. They communicate clearly.
Someone with these qualities has executive presence. A leader with executive presence “gets it.” They know how to lead.
This is the kind of person you want leading your company. And if you want to be that person, you need to develop your own executive presence.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a born leader to be a great one. You just need to work at it.
Keep reading to find out how to develop executive presence so you can become the great leader your company needs to succeed.
What Is Executive Presence?
Although executive presence is highly intuitive and difficult to pin down, it ultimately boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.
That’s how John Beeson describes executive presence in “Deconstructing Executive Presence” on HBR.
While that gives you an idea of what executive presence is, it’s not exactly a clear definition.
Gerry Valentine says it’s
your ability to inspire confidence—inspiring confidence in your subordinates that you’re the leader they want to follow, inspiring confidence among peers that you’re capable and reliable and, most importantly, inspiring confidence among senior leaders that you have the potential for great achievements.
And Suzanne Bates told Fortune that it’s “the ability of the leader to engage, align, inspire, and move people to act.”
It’s clear that there’s no single definition of executive presence. But there are some commonalities between these definitions. Executive presence requires
- leadership skills—to get people to take action;
- confidence—and enough of it to inspire it in others;
- willingness to act—to tackle hard problems head-on; and
- communication skills—so you can engage employees and spur them to action.
Much of executive presence comes down to that last point, communication skills.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’re constantly telling people how great you are. Most of the time you’ll communicate your executive presence through how you act, how you approach problems, and how you treat both people and the running of your business.
All of that is highly theoretical. Executive presence isn’t something we can nail down. But we can talk about practicing it.
How to Practice Executive Presence
How do you “do” executive presence? What habits and qualities will you need to put in place to inspire others and lead your company to success?
Here are four pieces of advice to keep in mind. They’ll help you practice executive presence:
Understand Your Value
Knowing the value you bring to your company brings together your confidence and your authority. When you don’t know the unique value you bring to your company, you’ll struggle with imposter syndrome.
You’ll engage in a lot of negative self-talk and doubt yourself at every turn. That doubt sabotages your effectiveness as a leader, even if you’re able to act confident (we’ll talk about that shortly).
Keep reading to discover some exercises you can do to understand the value you bring to your company and use it to create self-confidence. And keep this point in mind as you’re reading the rest of this article.
Improve Your Confidence
Executive presence is about leading other people. But many descriptions of executive presence start with self-confidence.
You won’t convince others that you’re a great leader until you convince yourself. But don’t worry—even if you don’t have a great deal of self-confidence right now, you can still develop a powerful executive presence.
To start working on your self-confidence, check out Zen Habits’ “25 Killer Actions to Boost Your Self-Confidence.” It walks you through actions like visualizing success, dressing well, acting positively, and other ways to develop self-confidence.
Amy Cuddy’s TED talk about body language is a great resource, too (and one of the best videos about executive presence):
Own Your Authority
This is a tough one when you’re starting to work on your executive presence. Especially if you haven’t been an executive for long. In many cases, you need to start acting like an executive before you feel comfortable as one.
Allison Kruger has a great story about acting out executive presence:
For example, I’m not good with numbers. I was at a new job overseeing a department of 70 people, and they called me in and told me everything I would be doing, and then they told me, “You’re going to also have to do the budget.” And I said, “No problem.” But when the meeting was over, I went into the stairwell and started hyperventilating. I thought about all the things I could do specific to my talent, and there I was focusing on the one thing I was going to be uncomfortable with. I was hyperventilating and crying, and I was a wreck.
But then I calmed myself, went to my department assistant and said, “Who is the person who deals with expense reports?” I found that person and asked if she had worked on budgets, and she said yes. I said, “Tomorrow we’re going to set aside three hours to work on the budget,” and she said, “No problem.”
Kruger went from hyperventilating in the stairwell to a sense of control. And all she did was use the authority of her position to get help.
It’s not easy to start acting on your authority. But you have it, and you earned it. People trust you to make these decisions. Use that trust and the power that comes with it to become a better leader.
Executives are starting to realize the value of mindfulness (we’ll talk about a few of them a bit later on). Mindful leaders are more effective in their leadership, and they can both improve and make better use of their skills and qualities.
The benefits of mindfulness go beyond the walls of your company. If you can integrate mindfulness into the rest of your life, you’ll see benefits in everything you do. And that helps develop executive presence, too.
Being mindful of how you’re feeling, what you’re thinking, and what you’re about to say is valuable because it helps you make the most of every situation. That’s a powerful characteristic of the world’s best leaders.
Executive Presence Exercises
You should be getting an idea of what executive presence looks like now. It’s calm confidence, even when you doubt yourself. It’s strong leadership, no matter what the situation is.
But few people have naturally strong executive presence. You need to cultivate it.
So we’ve put together a free PDF called Exercises for Developing Executive Presence. It contains over 16 exercises that you can use to build a more powerful presence and be more successful in leading your company.
The exercises are broken down into four different categories. Here are those categories, along with one of the exercises from the downloadable guide:
Executives at Google, Salesforce, Apple, Medtronic, the Hartford Financial Services Group, and other companies leverage mindfulness and meditation for better decision-making and management.
You don’t need to start meditating (though I do recommend it!). But you should start cultivating mindful habits.
What is mindfulness, and how does it help you develop executive presence?
Mindfulness is the understanding of what’s happening in your mind without acting on it.
You’ll learn to recognize when you’re feeling stressed without lashing out at your direct reports. You’ll discover when you’re feeling inadequate and stop yourself from being too self-deprecating in meetings. You’ll know when you have to seek out help to make you more effective in solving the problems you’re facing.
Mindful business leaders are able to avoid the obstacles that stand in the way of a strong executive presence. They communicate clearly, leverage their strengths, and seek help when they need it.
Again, it’s worth noting that mindfulness has benefits in all areas of your life. And many of those will come back to improve your executive presence as well.
Start this exercise today: Start a mindful journaling practice. Use a pen and paper, and spend 10 minutes each morning or evening writing down your thoughts. They can be business-related or not. Pay attention to how you feel about those thoughts and what that means for your leadership.
Build Good Daily Habits
You can do lots of little things to build executive presence. If you can turn them into daily habits, you’ll progress much faster.
Building new habits takes dedication, so it’s a good idea to start with one at a time. Once you’ve made something a part of your daily routine, you can start adding more. Eventually you’ll have more of the habits that make a great leader.
Here are a few habits you might consider building:
- Dressing for the position and reputation you want (this includes grooming!)
- Engaging in positive self-talk before you start your day (believe it not, positive self-talk has strong connections to creativity and originality, two things you’ll need for strong presence)
- Practicing strong posture and positioning
- Spending an hour working before checking your phone in the morning
- Taking an extra moment to think before you speak
- Identifying three primary tasks each day
These and many other habits will help you build a stronger executive persona. Choose one that will be useful and start working on it.
Start this exercise today: Identify one habit that you’d like to build, and make recurring calendar entries to remind yourself to take action. You don’t have to schedule something every day of the week. Even three days a week will help you build new habits.
Think back to the leader you identified when you read the introduction of this article. How do they speak and write? Do they say “I just think that,” “I’m no expert, but,” or “I wonder if we should”?
Communication is a big part of executive presence. If you hedge a lot and use other “weak” communication practices, people will see you as less sure of yourself. And that undermines your persona.
Start being intentional about how you communicate. Get rid of hedges like “I think” and “Maybe we should.” Make sure that your instructions and requests are as clear as possible (usually this means using fewer words). Be polite, and say “please,” “thank you,” “sir,” “miss,” and “ma’am.”
And don’t be afraid of silence. Filling quiet spots in conversation with meaningless chatter makes you look less confident.
Start this exercise today: Download Just NOT Sorry, a Gmail extension that points out when you use weak words. You’ll be amazed at how many you use. Use this tool to think about how you speak, too.
Build a Strong Network
Leaders with strong executive presence have networks of people that trust them and that they can rely upon. Having a valuable network is great for any executive—but if you’re looking to establish your executive presence, it’s crucial.
How do you build this network? By being helpful. When someone at your company needs help, volunteer your time and effort. Go to networking events and conferences with the goal of finding someone who could use your expertise, and offer it freely.
Stay in touch with people that you connect with, too. It’s easy to help someone and then get too busy to follow up and see how things are going. But when you show that you care, you’ll develop the trusted, confident persona you want.
Start this exercise today: Put a reminder on your calendar or task management app to reach out to one person each day. Offer to help, ask how they’re doing, or try to set up a coffee meeting. Your network will expand quickly.
A Free Executive Presence PDF
If you’d like more executive presence exercises, download our guide. “Exercises to Develop Executive Presence” will give you lots of things to think about and act upon to build your leadership persona.
Grab 16 of our best executive presence tips here:
Building Your Executive Presence
Executive presence isn’t something that you’re born with. It’s a set of skills and qualities that need to be cultivated.
With intentional practice and good habits, you can develop a strong presence. And that helps you lead with confidence.
One of the most important things you can do is to start with a positive attitude. If you think that you’ll never be a charismatic leader, you’re starting the process all wrong. Put a stop to negative self-talk, and when you catch yourself thinking negative things, reframe them positively.
Remember that every challenge is an opportunity to improve your presence and that every time you miss one of your goals is a chance to make better plans for the future. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s one of the best ways to practice executive presence.
If you can do that—and use the exercises above—you’ll build an executive presence to be proud of.
And don’t forget to download our free PDF. It will help you remember to focus on what’s important when you’re feeling lost.