The "x" factor: building executive presence

What is executive presence all about, and how do you build it?

"Jim is technically strong and a great team player, but we just don't see him as enough of a leader to support a promotion from finance director to CEO." What's the missing piece of the puzzle? For many individuals, it's a lack of executive presence. They simply aren't recognized as being partner material or suitable for the C-suite.

Personal presence is often underestimated. People often don't see personality or soft skills as critical factors that would affect someone's ability to progress in his or her career, but it can certainly have a strong impact. Executive coaches often see people who have great technical substance, but who just can't come across effectively to others. What does having executive presence look like? There are many factors ranging from one's physical presence, to the way one communicates and interacts with others.

The way you look and carry yourself is an important part of presence

Executive presence requires individuals to speak powerfully and exhibit confidence through body language. This involves sitting up straight or walking upright to convey authority as opposed to having a hunched-over posture. And it's important to make eye contact with listeners — don't stare at the floor or ceiling.

Let's start with physical presence. Sara dresses well, is friendly, warm and well-liked by colleagues. However, in team meetings, when it's her turn to talk, she shrinks in her chair, lowers her voice and looks down at the table. She's not able to effectively command the attention of her audience. Sara's nonverbal cues give off the impression that she is meek and shy — not attractive qualities for an executive leader. Sara needs to be mindful of her posture in these settings. If she focuses on sitting up and making eye contact with her team, she will come across more confident. It will require a concerted effort on Sara's part, but it is crucial that she learns how to better present herself from a physical standpoint, so she is treated and respected as the leader she is.

Laura has the opposite problem. She is a strong contributor. She manages her team well and has made significant contributions to her firm's results. Laura communicates and interacts effectively with others, but colleagues say she doesn't look like a professional. The style of her clothing is outdated and too casual and her hair is unruly. As a result, she's not seen as a polished executive. This may seem trivial but it isn't. Your appearance is the first things people notice when they meet you. While you don't need to have the latest fashions in your wardrobe, it's important to dress appropriately for your particular work environment and to take care of your appearance to look the part. Tailor your wardrobe choices to the level you aspire to as well — if you want to be an executive, dress like one.

The way you communicate

Related to how you carry yourself is how you communicate with others. Executives who speak with impact use short, to the point sentences that are spoken with conviction. They use a strong measured tone that is loud enough to be heard by everyone in the room, but not overbearing. They control their tone and pace, speaking slow enough to be heard and understood, but not so slow that they're monotonous.

Another important communication skill is a good sense of timing. This includes knowing how to interrupt others appropriately. People often have to present in meetings with a senior colleague who will dominate the conversation. They struggle with knowing how to jump in so their points and opinions will still be heard and without being rude. You don't want to be in a position where you aren't contributing to the conversation, especially if your role is to lead the meeting.

The key to doing this effectively is to politely say, "Pardon me for interrupting, but I want to add to your point and highlight that. ... " Some people find it helpful to use visual media aids. If you have PowerPoint slides, you can flip to the next one and interject by saying, "That's an excellent point, Tony. Now let's get back to our earlier discussion. I want to direct everyone to. …" Although it may feel awkward to interrupt others, if done so politely, it's an important skill to develop to ensure that your point is heard, especially in situations where others may monopolize the discussion.

People with strong presence are most attuned to others

It is counter-intuitive but usually those with the greatest presence are people who most understand others and manage accordingly. This goes beyond general interpersonal skills of being polite, friendly and courteous. It really involves managing relationships by paying close attention to others. Do you show an interest, understand their point of view and provide positive reinforcement to the members of your team? If you do, chances are people think you have great presence.

Cam is has great executive level presence. He is especially effective at engaging and connecting with others. When he has a meeting in his office, he makes people feel comfortable by taking their coat, offering a seat and a coffee. He treats others as guests in his home — this level of hospitality speaks volumes. Cam also adapts his style to the person he is meeting with. He gives quieter people more time to speak and gently encourages them to share their thoughts and ideas. With extroverts, he allows them to speak their mind and talk through issues. He's aware that some colleagues prefer to get right to the task when they meet, whereas others like to share stories on their personal lives. Cam has an uncanny ability for remembering key pieces of information about others. It's these little things that cause him to have that X factor. His boss would have no hesitation in putting Cam in front of clients and would have no doubt that they would be treated extremely well.

The image you project

Finally, a big part of having executive presence is in the image that you outwardly project. How would people describe your overall demeanor? Are you consistently confident and in control, or are you easily flappable when things start to go wrong? Some people carry themselves very well when matters are status quo. However, when client issues arise or team members get emotional in times of stress, they quickly loses patience and composure.

A key is projecting a sense of self confidence at all times. A helpful analogy is to think about a theatre production. When you go to see a performance, it's distracting and unprofessional when you can see the stage hands or performers out of character in the wings. The same concept applies to the workplace. Any stress or frustrations should be kept back stage, behind the curtain. Even in difficult or ambiguous situations, it's important to show that you can maintain control and project a sense of calmness and composure at all times. You want your direct reports and colleagues to have unwavering assurance in your ability to operate effectively in all types of situations that come your way.

For some people, executive presence comes naturally. For others, it takes more effort. It is possible to make adjustments to your behavior in the areas discussed. A key to developing executive presence is practice. Apply these concepts in a safe place — during internal meetings with people you trust. Ask them for feedback on how you are doing. Having support helps —knowing that people are observing you will help you be more conscious of your presence and can boost your skills and confidence.

Make sure to use every opportunity to make a great impression. Whether you are in front of a client, at a team meeting with direct reports, or collaborating one-on-one with peers, you should always be on. Dress and carry yourself professionally at all times in the workplace and at client or supplier sites. Communicate and interact effectively with every level of the organization, from administrative assistants and support workers up to the CEO. And always be conscious of the image you are projecting. Those with executive presence inspire confidence in others, stemming directly from the confidence they have in themselves.

Sandra Oliver is a business coach and owner of Impact, a global business coaching firm. She is also CPA Magazine's technical editor for people management (


Let's face it the 'beauty premium' exists at work," By Leah Eichler, The Globe and Mail. Jan 10, 2014.

"Deconstructing Executive Presence," By John Beeson, Harvard Business Review Blog Network, August 22, 2012

"7 Traits of Executive Presence: The Key to Winning People Over," By Jun Medalla, Business Insider, September 24, 2013

"Do You Have 'Executive Presence'?", By Jenna Goudreau, Forbes, October 29, 2012