The Importance of Executive Presence

“Owning the room.” “Being the boss.” To succeed as a leader you need to have the gravitas, the ability to quickly establish that you’re in charge. That’s the elusive quality of executive presence. We know it when we see it. But how do you develop executive presence?

Tune In

Executive presence starts with “presence.” Work is busy. Executives are constantly and chronically multitasking and context-switching, caught up in a sea of shifting priorities and urgent demands. So it’s easy to come across as distracted and overworked—and that’s not a formula for executive presence.

To develop presence in the busy and intense world of work, take a few moments out a few times a day to tune in to your inner state. You can simply tune into your breath for five to 10 minutes at a time or use a mindfulness app like Headspace. My client Lucy—an executive vice president of a division of a Fortune 50 company—employed this strategy when she wanted to rise to be president of the division. She got feedback that she often seemed frantic. After taking time to collect herself in the beginning and middle of the day, she could cue herself to be face situations in a calm, more present way. This change in disposition instilled more confidence in her from the people around her, leading to her being named the successor to the current president.

Find role models

We often hear the advice to “be authentic” and “be true to yourself.” It’s certainly important to be true to who you are, but growth comes from aspiring to more; it’s important to have a vision of what you’re trying to be. That’s where role models come in. Think about people who own the room—colleagues, politicians, movie stars. What do they do that gives them the feel of executive presence? Could you incorporate any of their techniques into your own behavior?

A founder/CEO I once worked with said that she admired tough-talking chef Anthony Bourdain. She liked that he “doesn’t take crap from anyone.” So we helped her envision herself gripping a knife with her teeth. She didn’t become rude, and she never actually brought a butcher knife to work, but carrying that image inside of her helped give her some more “moxie,” which got others to take her more seriously. At important moments, it helped her to focus.

Get feedback

The only way to tell if you have enough executive presence is to look at the results you get and take suggestions from others. Behavioral feedback is helpful and immediate. Do people gravitate to you and defer to you even when you are not the formal leader? Good. If not? Plan B. Ask for suggestions from others. Find trusted colleagues and pry the truth out of them. They may not want to tell you what they see— it’s hard to give people constructive criticism, because we all get defensive. In order to solicit feedback, you need to encourage them: “I can’t get ahead if I don’t understand how I come across. I promise I will appreciate your input and will not get defensive.” Then listen. And don’t get defensive. The very act of listening to such honest advice will help you achieve the executive presence you’re looking for.

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