How to Cultivate Executive Presence

Someone in your company may have recently been promoted to a leadership position. This person successfully competed against other qualified candidates, some of whom were probably just as experienced and smart.

As often happens in judging one candidate over another, the decision most likely came down to degrees of “executive presence.”

Presence: Often referred to as “bearing,” presence incorporates a range of verbal and nonverbal patterns (one’s appearance, posture, vocal quality, subtle movements)—a whole collection of signals that others process into an evaluative impression of a person.

An Internet search on executive presence reveals definitions and advice on everything from dressing for success and patterns of speech to more fundamental issues of emotional and social intelligence.

In this day and age, executive presence comes in all shapes and sizes, including some you wouldn’t normally recognize. Who would have thought, 30 years ago, that Bill Gates would command it? Would Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old founder of Facebook, have stood out as a high-potential CEO? But as one of the youngest men ever to be named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, he certainly has presence—albeit a “Gen Y” version of it.


Most people aren’t born with executive presence. They develop the requisite skills with experience, maturity and a great deal of effort.

Eleven qualities contribute to executive presence:

  1. Transparency: Genuine, open, straightforward, comfortable in one’s skin. Aims for truth and clarity, even when difficult issues arise. Doesn’t try to please or cover up with spin.
  2. Passion: Loves the profession, job, industry and life in general. Believes in optimism.
  3. Clarity: Communicates thoughts, feelings and insights with clarity and simplicity. Master of metaphors and stories that make an impact.
  4. Intelligence: The ability to process, retain and apply information, whether it’s academic or street-worthy.
  5. Pattern Recognition: The ability to boil down complex factors and mounds of data to rare conclusions. Offers insights others may not see.
  6. Results-Oriented: Driven to succeed. Able to discern dichotomies and work with uncertainties. Flexible and willing to adjust goals. Decisive under pressure. A bias toward action. An attitude of giving, rather than getting. Works in the service of common goals for the organization’s and society’s higher values.
  7. Confidence: Not overconfident; has enough self-doubt to be objective. Asks questions and listens.
  8. Humility: Willing to admit mistakes, misjudgments, fears and uncertainties in ways that are endearing. Seeks answers and advice; listens to others.
  9. Courage: Willing to take risks and positions against considerable odds. May be seen as a maverick. Able to perceive possibilities and innovations.
  10. Humor: Not over-the-top, but in the right measure to disarm others’ defenses.
  11. Social: Genuinely cares about others; sees both strengths and weaknesses in people. Allows people to learn from mistakes. Promotes healthy self-esteem and respects others.

Keep in mind that no single leader possesses all of these qualities in abundance.


The art of crafting and telling a good story is a key element in leadership communication skills and a vital part of building executive presence. Cold, hard facts don’t inspire people to change. Straightforward analysis won’t excite anyone about a goal.

Stories help your staff make the connections among theory, facts, real life and real people. Consider the following options:

  • A negative story, a failure, a lesson learned
  • A success story, especially in the face of difficulties
  • A case study
  • History and mythology
  • A deeply personal story (a tragedy or rags-to-riches example)

When crafting a story, include as many specific details as possible to make it real to your audience. Be brief, and get to the point. Transport the listener by describing events in emotional terms. Use metaphors and analogies to summarize. Personalize your story with names, even if they need to be altered.


In Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success (Pfeiffer, 2009), management consultant Karl Albrecht encourages readers to work on the following dimensions of executive presence:

  1. Don’t mimic a CEO you’ve read about, admired or conceptualized in your mind. Personal authenticity is critical, so find your most natural way of walking, talking, dressing and interacting with others. Think about how you want to be perceived, and aim for these qualities.
  2. Identify your core strengths and values. Write a brief description of yourself from the perspective of someone who has just met you. Start working on specific aspects of this description to ensure they’re real.
  3. Leave a long message on your voice-mail, and play it back in a few days to get an idea of how you sound to a stranger. Note any aspects of your speech that you would like to change.
  4. Record a conversation with a friend on audio or video. Make sure it’s long enough so that you and your pal will forget you’re being recorded. Study yourself and your friend’s reactions to jot down any habits or behaviors that contribute to or inhibit empathy, clarity and/or authenticity.
  5. Ask one or more close friends to share their impressions about meeting you for the first time. Remind them to be brutally honest, and encourage them to offer insights into other aspects of your interactions.
  6. Review your discoveries with a coach or mentor. Practice. Change will take time, as personal habits in interacting with others are ingrained. After a while, however, you and your inner circle should begin to notice improvements.