Developing Executive Presence

The concept of ‘Executive Presence’ (EP) was touched on in the “Leadership and Management” session of this year’s Afro Ant Young Achievers Programme (11 June 2016). This review briefly explores EP, drawing on the aforementioned session and a selection of articles.

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.” [i]

While EP (also termed ‘personal presence’ or ‘leadership presence’) is not easy to define, there is a degree of consensus on the characteristics and qualities that personify EP and on the correlation between EP and good leadership. The amalgam of features includes, amongst others, strong skills in communication and relationships, high emotional intelligence, self-confidence without arrogance, composure and dignity, positive body language, decisiveness and the ability to effectively work under pressure.

According to Sylvia Hewlett and the Center for Talent Innovation, EP is a dynamic, cohesive mix of three elements, namely appearance, communication, and gravitas. The latter element encompasses several behaviours, including the use or display of: ‘grace under fire’, emotional intelligence; authenticity; decisiveness; courage; and constructive honesty. To have true EP, an individual must know how to use all three elements of communication, gravitas and appearance to their advantage.[ii]

Just as some argue that leaders are ‘born, not made’, so too is there a myth that EP is innate. “While it may be true that executive presence comes more naturally for some than others, the reality is, everyone can work on developing executive presence.”[iii]

Strategies to Develop Executive Presence

Recognising that leaders are not necessarily born with executive presence, Bruna Martinuzzi presents seven ‘tips from the experts’ to help cultivate EP; This section is extracted from her article, “7 Strategies to Help Stand Out as a Leader”.

A lot of well-meaning advice on EP weighs heavily on a person’s outward appearance, but ‘looking the part’ constitutes simply part of the package. Other elements:

  1. Hone your Conversation Skills:
    Individuals with EP can often put people at ease. They try to be inclusive of everyone when conversing in a group setting. Ask yourself this: When people walk away from having interacted with you, do they feel better about themselves, or worse? Have you ignored anyone in the group? Being aware of how people feel about themselves when they’re in your presence can be a key aspect of executive presence.
  2. Cultivate Character and Authenticity:
    EP is usually an inside-out job. A fancy suit or knowing which fork to use at a formal dinner are no replacement for character and authenticity, which come from having a strong inner core of values and beliefs, and a strong sense of clarity about who you are and what you stand for.
    Straight talk, self-confidence and simplicity: These are the building blocks of substance. Think about how you might make these a daily habit.
  3. Show Warmth:
    Some people adopt a professional and crisp persona, hiding their genuine warmth to appear more executive-like. They adopt a formal approach to their relationships. But people who have EP are often approachable and engaging, whether they’re dealing with a receptionist or a CEO. They tend to exude warmth and show a genuine interest in those around them.
  4. Be Present:
    It is a misnomer that EP is about “commanding a room.” Consider the three circles of energy described in Patsy Rodenburg’s book, The Second Circle: How To Use Positive Energy for Success In Every Situation [iv]. The First is energy is inwardly directed; an insular and excessive focus on the self, and the Third Energy Circle, the opposite of the First, is the energy of those who want to “command a room” and are ‘out there in everybody’s face’.
    The Second Energy Circle is when your energy is focused toward your audience, a give-and-take exchange of energy, exemplified by great communicators, teachers, and performers. “It is when we are fully present that we do our best work and make our deepest impression on others.” [iii]
  5. Develop Executive Maturity:
    Executive maturity is the ability to handle whatever cards you’re dealt without losing grace. The fast pace of business and the mounting pressures brought about by continuous change may strain our ability to stay composed at all times. Yet the mark of someone who has EP is often an ability to stay poised under fire. Knowing what your triggers are may help you keep these under control.
    Executive maturity doesn’t have to be age-related. You can help cultivate it by raising your self-awareness about your habitual behaviours when things don’t go well during your day and making a conscious decision to choose how you’ll respond the next time something vexing happens.
  6. Master presentation skills:
    The ability to stand in front of a group of customers, peers or employees to deliver key company messages with clarity, confidence and poise is a prized quality—and often a fundamental skill for anyone who aspires to have EP. As the global management consultants at McKinsey & Co. put it, “Presentation is the ‘Killer Skill’ we take into the real world. It gives us an almost unfair advantage.”
    Investing the time needed to master this skill may open the door to executive presence. An experienced coach may also help.
  7. Seek feedback:
    If you’re a small-business owner unable to marshal your troops or get past the gatekeeper to speak to the executive decision-makers, seek feedback about how you can improve your executive presence. Ask a trusted advisor to give you honest feedback so you can take steps to manage the perceptions others have of you.

“Executive presence, based on authenticity, can be a powerful tool in your leadership toolkit because it gets people to pay attention to you. This authority and respect will hopefully fling the door wide open for you to inspire and influence others to achieve important company goals or land extraordinary deals.” [iii]

Go to: to access the original article by Bruna Martinuzzi. Find other articles of interest by this author at

[i] Beeson, J. (22 August 2012) “Deconstructing Executive Presence” in Harvard Business Review [accessed online:]

[ii] Hewlett, S.A. “Executive Presence” [accessed online:]

[iii] Martinuzzi, B. (25 May 2016) “7 Strategies to Help Stand Out as a Leader”(originally published on 30 June 2014) [accessed online:]

[iv] Patsy Rodenburg (31 May 2007) The Second Circle: How To Use Positive Energy for Success In Every Situation. Cited B. Martinuzzi (25 May 2016)