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 the same thing several times. 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 also when we’re with someone who definitely doesn’t. There’s a certain quality in some leaders who can effortlessly command a room that gives them the Pied-Piper effect. Where they go, others will follow.

For aspiring global leaders, executive presence is increasingly the illusive x-factor that can win them a hard-fought promotion or, in the case of Nancy, leave it languishing on the table. Indeed a respected study by the Center for Talent Innovation, a non-profit research organization based in New York, suggests that, in today’s global marketplace, executive presence counts for 26% 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. You might not even be aware of it. It’s often a blind spot for people as 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 defined in a way that allows it to be learned even if it’s not a natural asset?

Put simply, executive presence is a credibility issue. It’s about having the answer to the question ‘will people follow you?’ be a resounding ‘yes’. Those who have executive presence are commonly described as having the ability to project gravitas, exhibiting confidence, poise under pressure, and decisiveness.

You can be a high achiever and well-respected for your performance and still find yourself bumping up against a seemingly immovable glass ceiling.

Photo by Sean Benesh

In Nancy’s case, it wasn’t about her ability to do her job – as is so often the case. You can be a high achiever and well-respected for your performance and still find yourself bumping up against a seemingly immovable glass ceiling. No, 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 asked at the end of her presentation ‘Is that okay with everyone?’ 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 wondering if this is a problem experienced more by women than men, you’d be right. Despite all of the amazing 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 now emerging to find a model of leadership that draws equally upon 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 meetings when the going got tough. Colleagues felt it made him sound out of his depth. Turns out it was his way of dealing with the tension, but it served to undermine people’s perceptions of him. A tiny, unconscious character trait that had become a career-limiting problem without him even realizing it.

Does your first impression count?

Self-confidence is a common thread in those who display executive presence. However so are other qualities such as appearance, body language, and speaking patterns.

There’s a reason for the expression ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have’. That doesn’t mean going out and blowing your budget on a designer wardrobe. However, it does mean that, in a world where first impressions count, if your preferred dress code is out of step with the company culture your impact will be lessened. Unless you’re working for Google or Facebook, a hoodie simply isn’t going to get you that promotion!

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.

This is all good news because it is behavior that can be learned. So if like my clients, you had feedback that you’re not viewed as having an executive presence, the good news is that all is not lost. While some people have these attributes naturally, it’s possible that nurture can be as powerful as nature in this instance and executive presence is a skill that you can adopt on a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ basis.

In the latest of my 100 top tips for global leaders, here is my guide to developing your executive presence:

  1. Get feedback. Understand the behaviors that are giving out the wrong perceptions by seeking honest, formal, or informal feedback. Can you command the room? Do people stop and listen when you speak? It’s quite possible that you simply don’t know so get people who you trust to tell you how it really is.
  2. Think about how you show up. 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 from a ‘do you agree?’ approach to ‘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 on strategy points rather than on tactical execution.
  4. Be their kind of leader. Fit in with the company or country culture. Whether that’s making sure your workwear matches those in the leadership levels of the business 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 a confidence issue so behave as if you are confident until you find that you actually are!

This is a situation where becoming a people-watcher can really benefit you. Observe how others do it. Who around you has leadership presence and what is it about them that makes you feel they are in control?

I am not suggesting for a moment that you copy them. 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 style switching not changing the fundamentals of who you are.