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Do You Stand Out as a Leader?


Tue Nov 17 2015

Do You Stand Out as a Leader?

One of my clients (we’ll call her Nancy) missed out on an important promotion recently. She sought feedback from the interview panel and was told that she had a “lack of executive presence.”

This is tough feedback to deal with because executive presence is such an abstract and subjective concept. However, as tricky as it is to define, let’s face it—we all know when we are in the room with someone who has executive presence, and when we’re with someone who doesn’t. There’s a certain quality in some leaders who can effortlessly command a room. Where they go, others will follow.


For aspiring global leaders, executive presence is increasingly the X factor that can earn them a promotion. A study by the Center for Talent Innovation, a nonprofit research organization based in New York, suggests that in today’s global marketplace, executive presence counts for 26 percent of what it takes to get ahead.

So, if you’re doing a great job but not getting promoted it might be that a lack of executive presence is to blame. It’s often a blind spot for people, because they are not always aware of how they are perceived by others.

It’s a Style Thing

So, what is executive presence? Can it be learned even if it’s not a natural asset?

Put simply, executive presence is credibility. It’s about getting people to follow you. Those who have executive presence are commonly described as confident, poised, and decisive.


In Nancy’s case, it wasn’t about her ability to do her job. You can be a high achiever and well respected for your performance and still be repeatedly passed over for leadership roles. For Nancy, it was a style thing: Her colleagues and those in senior positions simply didn’t see her in a leadership role.

Given how intangible the concept of executive presence can be, I wanted to dig deeper into the feedback Nancy received to find out exactly what her stakeholders were seeing—or, more likely, not seeing. The resulting feedback was that she was “too emotional,” “lacking in confidence,” and “too tactical.”

For example, when she spoke in meetings, she sounded unsure and often asked “Is that OK with everyone?” at the end of her presentations. Her peers said her contributions to discussions were always about granular detail rather than the kind of big picture thinking you would expect from a leader. She also giggled too much, which they found childlike—charming perhaps in a friend, but not awe-inspiring in a potential vice president.

If you’re thinking that this is a problem experienced more by women than men, you’d be right. Despite all the progress made in terms of equality, the modern workplace still often defaults to traditional male qualities and role models when it comes to assessing leaders. This is changing, slowly, and it’s up to the next generation of leaders to find a model of leadership that draws equally upon traditional male and female character traits. However, men do experience this problem too. Another client of mine (we’ll call him Walter) was also criticized for nervous laughter in tense meetings. Colleagues thought it made him sound out of his depth. Turns out it was his way of dealing with the tension, but it negatively affected people’s perceptions of him. A tiny, unconscious character trait had become a career-limiting problem without him even realizing it.

Make Your First Impression Count


There’s a reason for the expression, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” It doesn’t mean go out and blow your budget on a designer wardrobe. However, if your preferred dress is out of step with the company culture, you won’t make the impression you want.

Additionally, those with executive presence often speak up, use strong and clear language, and communicate with passion and energy. They use positive body language by standing tall, making eye contact, offering a firm handshake, and using an authoritative tone of voice. 

Fortunately, this is behavior that can be learned. Here are five ways to develop your executive presence:

  1. Get feedback. Understand the behaviors that are giving the wrong impression by seeking honest formal or informal feedback. Can you command the room? Do people stop and listen when you speak? Get people whom you trust to tell you how it really is.

  2. Think about how you present yourself. Speak slowly and articulate clearly. Avoid giving away your leadership power by undermining your authority. This can be as simple as brushing off a compliment about your abilities as a leader or cracking jokes at the wrong time. If you’re feeling uncertain, stay quiet and think through the situation until you’re ready to respond with authority. If your tendency is to seek approval, then reframe how you end your presentations so it’s less “Do you agree?” and more “This is what I think we should do.”

  3. Get your voice heard in meetings. Forget etiquette, speak up! Make sure you get one or two good points in so that your face and voice are on the map. Make sure your comments are about strategy points rather than tactical execution.

  4. Be their kind of leader. Fit in with the company or country culture, whether that’s making sure your clothing matches those in leadership or watching for clues as to what body language means to people. For example, in Eastern cultures standing with your legs close together or folding your arms tightly across your chest shows respect. In Western cultures these stances suggest you’re uptight, defensive, or unsure.

  5. Fake it ’til you make it. At the heart of executive presence is confidence, so behave as if you are confident until you find that you actually are!

Finally, observe how others do it. Who around you has leadership presence and what is it about them that makes you think they are in control? I am not suggesting that you copy them, however. That would be inauthentic and immediately apparent to those around you. It simply means watching what they do and finding your own version of it that feels natural to you. Developing your executive presence is about switching your style, not changing the fundamentals of who you are.

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