Executive Presence: An “Inconvenient Truth”

by | Sep 27, 2018

Each time we interact with someone at work, we subconsciously assess the other person regarding his/her abilities to complete the task at hand.


Each time we interact with someone at work, we subconsciously assess the other person regarding his/her abilities to complete the task at hand.  Do they speak to us with a calm confidence, looking us directly in the eye? Or do they seem unsure, anxious and lacking knowledge or confidence?  Business Insider reports that most people will make up their minds about us within the first seven seconds!   This universal phenomenon occurs across all geographies and cultures despite whether “we” like or agree that it ought to be so.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes executive presence as a “combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we’re in the presence of someone who’s the real deal. It’s an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be.” (Source: Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success (Kindle Locations 191-193). HarperCollins).  In fact, Hewlett suggests, “You can have the experience and qualifications of a leader, but without executive presence, you won’t advance.”

Executive presence has three primary components according to Hewlett – gravitas, communication, and appearance.


We perceive gravitas largely through nonverbal cues.  Janine Driver discusses nonverbal body language in her book, “You Say More Than You Think.”   According to Driver, when a person has gravitas, her nonverbal cues transmit to us confidence and authority – two key characteristics of executive presence. Just how important is gravitas? According to Hewlett’s research, out of those polled, 67% said it was the most important factor.


Communication in this context is verbal acumen – how to communicate valuable information in a concise manner.  Although you may be capable of expounding on a given topic for 15 minutes, you increase your executive presence when you provide a brief summary of relevant facts vs. all of the details.   The key is to create an impression that, you could provide much more information on the subject, if needed. Hewlett describes this as,  “a knack for conveying tremendous amounts of knowledge and giving people the impression you could go ‘six questions deep’ on the subject you’re talking about, but in a way that’s concise.  Attention spans are so short now that, whether it’s in a speech or in a meeting, you have to show how you can add value in a way that’s both compelling and brief.”


In many workplaces, virtually “anything goes” in terms of dress and appearance. What once was frowned upon as unprofessional dress is often viewed now as an authentic expression of self.  While it’s important to be authentic, consider which “self” does it behoove you most to reflect at work? Most of us would consider ourselves to be somewhat multi-dimensional – we occupy a range of different roles in our lives.  At work, if you consistently present your most professional, confident self, then you will be far more likely to be viewed as someone with executive presence.

Hewlett shared a personal example of how she adapted her style to better fit the persona she wanted to reflect.  She was a young professor (one of the few female ones and the youngest) and since she was working on a college campus she didn’t think dress code was all that important. She describes her appearance like this, “So I wore my hair waist-long and I specialized in flowing ethnic skirts—my favorite was hand-stitched and had a rather loud patchwork quilt pattern. I failed to understand that looking as though I was on my way to Woodstock got in the way of establishing authority on the job.” (Source: Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success (Kindle Locations 111-112). HarperCollins).

A study done by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania asked respondents what qualities they associated with professionalism. Appearance was ranked second after communication. Another study posted in the Los Angeles Times revealed that 47% of employers felt like their employees dressed too casually. Whether your workplace is more formal or informal, if you want to project executive presence, ask yourself whether your day to day appearance tends to support or detract from your professional image.

Wendy’s Tips
  • Eliminate filler words (e.g. “um”) and hedge phrases (e.g. “like”, “kind of”, “sort of”) from your vocabulary.
  • Make your request or main point clearly first, then provide additional detail in both your verbal and email communications.
  • Identify someone at work you respect who projects strong executive presence.  Pay attention to how they sit, stand, make eye contact, and use hand gestures.  What can you incorporate into your repertoire?

Final thoughts

Developing executive presence takes time and sustained effort.  It involves unwinding familiar speech patterns, gestures and mindsets and retooling them.  Specifically, ones that will allow us to continue to express our most authentic selves while better reflecting our professional capabilities.   Many of us struggle to accomplish this feat on our own.  Fortunately, there are great resources available to help – personal shoppers, image consultants, communication coaches and leadership coaches abound in every city.  Engage one or more of these passionate and skillful experts to help ease the journey.



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