What Is Executive Presence?

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Look at a rundown of the characteristics required of leaders, and you’ll see several concrete traits—decisiveness, intelligence, flexibility—but at the very top of the list, you’ll notice one big buzzword: “executive presence.”

There are countless articles and studies out there that discuss why executive presence matters, and many—like this one from Forbes—start to touch on what it is:

So what is executive presence? The ability to project gravitas—confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness—seems to be its core characteristic, according to more than two-thirds of the executives surveyed. Furthermore, communication—including speaking skills, assertiveness and the ability to read an audience or situation—and appearance contribute to a person’s perceived executive presence.

You’ve heard the term thrown around, and you’ve probably even used it yourself. You know executive presence when you see it, and you can definitely tell when somebody doesn’t have it. And you know that professionals who master the art of executive presence are promoted more often, command higher salaries, make better team leaders, and drive more results than those who don’t.

But do you know exactly what makes or breaks executive presence? Do you know how to develop it—or help your organization’s leadership develop it?

The article referenced above cites a few traits that support executive presence—gravitas, communication skills, and a “wow factor” that helps leaders influence others. But, like so many other sources on the subject, it fails to dive deep. How can a leader project gravitas? What kind of communication skills will have the biggest impact on audiences? And what does “wow factor” even mean? (Here’s a hint: it’s charisma, and you can develop that, too.)

And in terms of developing executive presence, the advice out there is equally fuzzy. “Ask someone you trust for feedback” is the most common recommendation, and while that’s a great step, it isn’t perfect. As we’ve said before, asking for feedback from peers, superiors, and subordinates—or even professional mentors—may lead to some honest insights, but the response will likely be sugarcoated, and they’ll certainly be subjective, colored by someone’s bad morning, oncoming cold, or good hair day.

In short, without benefitting from years of experience or costly professional coaching, there’s no clear way to develop—or define—executive presence.

There Must Be Another Solution

What if there was a way to shorten that learning curve, removing the nebulous advice and subjective feedback?

Think about the last several big business decisions you and your organization have made. What were they based on? My guess is data.

So what if you could apply data to executive presence? If communication—both verbal and nonverbal—is key to a leader’s presence, maybe what leaders and aspiring leaders need is hard data on which communication skills will help them have the desired impact. Are the words you’re using inspiring trust? Are your gestures and facial expressions instilling confidence? Do you appear authentic?

All of these things (and many more) add up to that elusive concept called “executive presence,” and the rapid evolution of natural language processing, vocal and visual analytic technology, and machine learning—paired with years and years of academic research on communication—have opened the door to data-driven communication evaluations. This means organizations and their leaders no longer have to settle for general, opinion-based feedback or steep learning curves. Instead, their leaders can define exactly how they want to be perceived, receive objective insights into the specific traits that are enhancing or hindering their success, and build clear, actionable roadmaps to achieving their goals.

While “executive presence” may have a reputation as a lofty buzzword or an elusive quality reserved for the luckiest of professionals, the truth is that it’s a critical trait for any leader to possess. And the good news is, now it’s a skill we can measure and develop.