Improving Executive Presence One Bite at a Time

Justice Potter Stewart coined an idiomatic phrase so useful it’s like a linguistic hammer. Instead of continuing the struggle to define a nebulous term (in his case, hard-core pornography), he simply stated that “I know it when I see it.” In addition to potentially revealing a little too much information about what he did in his spare time (how does he know it when he sees it if he hasn’t seen it before?), Justice Stewart gave us a catch-all term that relieves us from the burden of succinctly describing the indescribable. Since that fateful judgment in 1964, every elusive word or phrase too subjective to be neatly corralled by a singular definition gets nailed into our lexicon by the conclusive force of the description “I know it when I see it.” Executive Presence is one of those terms.

You Know Because You’ve Seen It

Executive Presence is best defined by the behaviors of people who possess it. In a comment about the post Executive Presence: The Power of First Impressions, Gina Rudan of Genuine Insights said, “Whether you are a right brainer or a left brainer doesn’t matter it’s how you carry your expertise, passion and credibility.” V.J. Singal, speaker, coach and author, says Executive Presence is “Displaying gravitas in the way you speak or move.”

As you read through the following check list of qualities exuded by people with Executive Presence, decide which of these you possess and to what degree:

  • Commands attention without demanding it
  • Displays a level of personal engagement that leads everyone they meet to immediately conclude he/she is exceptional
  • Shows confidence
  • Handles pressure gracefully
  • Treats others, regardless of their status, with respect in all circumstances-good or bad
  • Easily and naturally relate to others
  • Is genuine
  • Is humble enough to listen to others and continue to learn

If you could increase the degree to which the above qualities describe you, and therefore improve your Executive Presence, how would that impact your results at work, in your career, in your community?

Creating a Development Plan for Executive Presence

Improving your Executive Presence is a lot like eating an elephant. If you think of trying to swallow it whole you become overwhelmed. The best approach is to take it one bite at a time.

Select 1 to 3 of the items above which describe you to the least degree. For each item, select one behavior you will commit to changing. On an index card, or someplace where you’ll be able to reference it throughout the day, write down a brief example of how you display the behavior today. Below that, write an example that describes how you’d ideally like to behave. This second description is your goal. Every morning, take a few minutes to read your notes and re-commit to this goal. Every evening, write down (or at the very least think about) specific examples of how you behaved according to or more closely to your “ideal” level for each behavior. Once you’ve mastered a behavior, pick another to improve.

Case in Point

Dawna Watson, a successful realtor, one of the best listeners I know, and a person who radiates Executive Presence, wrote “You can’t be “genuine” if you’re thinking about where you’re headed next or who you need to talk to. I often find myself leaving a conversation realizing I never said much. I get so wrapped up in the other person’s story and trying to help or support them that it ends up being all about them.”

If Dawna’s words were to inspire you to “Be humble enough to listen to others and continue to learn,” your development plan might look like this:

Current State: I find my mind wandering when others are talking. I have to ask the other person to repeat what they said. Often, I just keep my reaction vague enough that it appears to be an appropriate response.

Ideal State: Stay in the moment when others are speaking. Instead of planning my response while they talk, try to anticipate where they are going with their ideas. Paraphrase what others have said to demonstrate that I’ve heard their point of view. Respond to others with open ended questions instead of my opinions.

Notice how easy it would be to review a day’s interactions and categorize them as either “Current State” or “Ideal State” level behavior.

A Few Examples to Get You Started

Here are some ideas to help you develop your own Executive Presence Development Plan.

Posture and Body Language

Sit up straight, arms uncrossed, both feet planted on the ground. Women, although we were taught at a young age to keep our legs crossed, we command a stronger presence with two feet flat on the ground.

Stand with your weight equally distributed on both legs. Try not to sway, rock, or shift your weight from side to side.

Keep a note pad with you for an entire day. Every time you catch yourself fidgeting, slouching, cracking your knuckles, etc. make a note of the behavior and the circumstances. Once you have your baseline of undesirable habits, use a tally system to track your progress. Your goal is to go at least three days in a row with no marks.

Before delivering your next presentation, video yourself practicing. Do you look confident, secure, and in command of your content? Are you speaking with authority, enthusiasm, and passion? If you’re not seeing Executive Presence, pick one behavior or attribute to change. Capture yourself on video practicing the presentation until you’re able to consistently maintain the behavior change. Repeat the process for each behavior you want to change.

Meeting Etiquette

Come to all meetings prepared with relevant materials as well as a pad and pen. No laptops open in front of you, no using your Blackberry to capture notes—sorry, both are just too impersonal and create a physical barrier between you and others. Do not answer calls or check emails during meetings. Even if your CEO does this and/or it’s ingrained in your company culture, the point is to be perceived as exceptional. Be the exception to this norm. Stay focused throughout the entire meeting.

Voice Quality

Tape your side of a phone conversation. How would others perceive you? Practice speaking in deeper more even tones. Unless you are asking a question, do not end sentences with an upward inflection. Eliminate generational colloquialism from your vernacular. For example, drop such timely classics as: “dude”, “cool”, “awesome”, “whatever man”, “um”, “like”, “no, really?”, “groovy”, “neomaxizoomdweeby” etc.

Measure your Words

Listen more than you speak. You’ll be leveraging the laws of economics in your favor. Think of supply and demand. When you’re constantly putting in your “two cents,” ultimately that’s all your opinion and ideas will be worth. Whenever possible, replace your “two cents” with the $64,000 question.

Facial Expressions Make Big Impressions

An important skill for improving Executive Presence is the ability to control your facial expressions so that you don’t inadvertently send the wrong message. For example, when I am concentrating, I tend to furrow my brow. This gives people the impression that I’m confused or upset—when in fact I’m just intent on what they are saying. When I feel my eyebrows draw together in a conference above my nose, I loosen my facial muscles and relax into a more open expression.

Stand in front of a mirror. Cycling through a range of emotions, watch and feel how your face changes for each. During the day, be conscious of how your face feels as you react to others. Practice controlling your facial expressions so that you are remaining neutral to warm in as many situations as possible. Make a conscious effort to smile at others as often as possible.

You Don’t Have to Go It Alone

The combination of self diagnosis and personal accountability require you to climb the mountain without a Sherpa. Although possible, the journey could be more treacherous than necessary. A less stressful more productive approach to better Executive Presence is to engage the expertise and support of an Executive Coach; someone who can help you develop a personal plan, guide you, and hold you accountable. I recommend Dennis McGurer at McGurer & Associates, Inc. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Denny on several projects and the transformations his clients achieve are dramatic. You can go it alone but it’s nice to know you don’t have to.



Filed under Business, Change, How To, Leadership, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Improving Executive Presence One Bite at a Time

  1. Hi – I want to say thank you for an interesting post about a subject I have had an interest in for a while now. I have been looking in and reading the comments avidly so just wanted to express my thanks for providing me with some very good reading material. I look forward to more, and taking a more active part in the discussions here, whilst picking up some knowledge too!!

  2. Pamela Mitchell

    Invaluable insights and tips. If I master these skills, then I just might become a better poker player, too. Terrific! Thanks!


      Hi Pamela, hadn’t thought about the pro-poker by product. Yet another way to prosper from executive presence!

  3. Genius is always practical! Bravo for the great piece and thanks for spreading the insights. XOXO

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  5. Dawna Watson

    Excellent as usual! I suppose it’s no surprise that this is one of my favorite posts. I love the way you write, because you pack so much great information into something that can be read quickly.