Mar 16 • 32M

5 Ways to Build Your Executive Presence (Issue #363)

Who doesn't want to feel more confident?

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Who hasn’t wanted to walk into a room with total confidence? Or give a presentation where everyone trusts your recommendations? Or be given more responsibility because the leadership team knows you can handle it?

In other words, who hasn’t wanted a little executive presence?

But, what is executive presence? Even experienced leaders struggle to define it. They say, “you’ll know it when you see it.” It’s that automatic response you have to someone who exudes calm confidence and power and seems to be in control of the room.

I’ve witnessed the lack of it holding many people back in their careers. Frequently, when leaders hire me to coach high-potential employees on their teams, they tell me that someone is on their list for a potential management role. But, they don’t feel the person is ready yet for a few important reasons.

Guess what one of those reasons is?

Yep. They lack executive presence.

It really comes down to:

  • Projecting self-confidence and professionalism

  • Making tough decisions, often on the spot

  • Taking control and ownership when necessary

  • Holding your own around other strong personalities.

While you may have been told to just “fake it til you make it,” the reality is that executive presence takes emotional intelligence, strong interpersonal skills, and a willingness to step up and fully leverage your talents. When I was a vice president with Yahoo! Search, I was lucky enough to work with a few professional coaches who helped me cultivate that elusive executive presence so many people talk about in the corporate world.

In this article, I’ll share five steps you can take to start building your executive presence. All you need is a base of some self-confidence and an ability to deal with whatever comes your way calmly.

Whether you’re aiming for CEO someday or just want to feel a little more confident in your next presentation, this advice will help! Let’s dive into these strategies.

  1. Convey calm confidence

  2. Look and behave like a professional

  3. Improve your public speaking

  4. Get better at handling conflict

  5. Learn how to think on your feet

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1. Convey calm confidence

I always knew something really bad was going on at work when my manager’s confidence seemed shaken. He wasn’t good at controlling his emotion in the office.

Unfortunately, his nervousness and anxious behavior were contagious. Before you knew it, the whole team was whispering in the hallways, trying to figure out what was going on, and feeling panicked.

Great leaders know the last thing their teams want to see is them acting worried, stressed, or out of control. The ability to remain calm is an essential skill that helps you and others.

Practice conveying confidence and calm, even when you’re not feeling that way. It’s one of the first steps you can take to display a stronger executive presence.

  • First, smile warmly when joining meetings. But, it has to be a genuine smile. People can tell when someone is faking a smile. So, convince yourself that you are greeting old friends. This is a technique I used in the corporate world, no matter how contentious I thought the meeting might become.

  • Next, use deeper, slower breaths to relax. When we get nervous, we tend to retreat into shallow breathing. Our chest feels tight, and then we feel more stressed. Focus on breathing in slowly through your nose and into your belly, not your chest. Pause and hold your breath for a second. Then, slowly breathe out, taking a little longer than you spent breathing in.

  • Finally, take the time you need to respond to questions. We often get anxious in meetings when we feel put on the spot and don’t have all of the answers. It’s ok to sit silently for a second while you gather your thoughts. It’s also ok to say, “I’ll look into that and get back to you by the end of the day.”

Here’s the big secret: No one has all of the answers. The key is to portray confidence in your ability to get the answers and report back. Control your response, take ownership, and resolve issues on your timeline.

When I first became a manager, I definitely didn’t have all the answers. During stressful meetings, I felt very anxious on the inside, and my heart was racing. However, I did focus on externally displaying calm confidence at all times. Apparently, it worked.

One of my employees once said to me, “You’re always so calm in every meeting, even when people are arguing. Nothing seems to bother you.”

I thought to myself, “Well, good! I’m glad it’s working, and you think I’m calm. I’m super stressed, but my team doesn’t need to see that.

Try these tips next time you start feeling anxious in a meeting. Remember to smile and be friendly. Slow down your breathing and focus on centering yourself. Take time to listen and reflect, answer when you’re ready, and be heard.

Conveying a sense of confidence and calm begins with owning how you respond. Start with controlling yourself, and you’ll be on the path to genuine executive presence. 


2. Look and behave like a professional

Are you familiar with the saying, “Dress for the job you want, not the one you have?”

When it comes to cultivating your executive presence, it goes one step further. Behave as if you are in the job you want, too.

I know the advice of “look and behave like a professional” may sound rather obvious. What kind of professional? Where do you even begin?

The good news is the answer is probably right in front of you. Someone in your professional circle — whether that’s in the academic or corporate world — is operating at a level you admire. They also have the executive presence you desire.

This person could be your model for how you want to look and behave to cultivate your executive presence.

First, identify someone you view as your career hero. Perhaps they have the job you’d like to pursue. Or, they’re operating in a more senior role on your current career path.

The key is to choose someone who is not only in a role you admire but also behaves like the professional you want to be. They have that desirable executive presence.

Next, pay attention to your hero in meetings. What is it she does that conveys professionalism? How does she behave?

I had a career hero at one of my past companies. I thought he was on the path to executive greatness, and I was right. He went straight to the top.

I paid attention to everything he did.

  • How he walked into meetings.

  • Where he sat.

  • How he ran meetings.

  • The expressions on his face when others were talking and presenting.

  • And how he responded to questions.

Finally, pay attention to your hero’s style. Remember, dress for the job you want? Like it or not, your appearance does impact your executive presence.

A great deal of how you are perceived will indeed be how you speak and behave. But, people can’t help but notice your appearance, too, especially as you join a meeting and before you even begin speaking.

You don’t have to become a carbon copy of someone else, nor should you. But, your career hero gives you a sense of how a successful professional with executive presence looks and behaves.


3. Improve your public speaking

Did you know that approximately 20 million people in the U.S. are struggling with a fear of public speaking? I used to be one of those people.

However, can you picture a single person with a strong executive presence who is uncomfortable speaking in front of others? I would guess not.

Overcoming my fear of public speaking has been the number one thing that helped me advance my career. It made me comfortable with my leadership duties, taking the stage, and pitching investors for my startup.

If you want to strengthen your executive presence, invest in your public speaking skills.

First, make time for deep preparation to boost your confidence when you speak. Nancy Duarte — an excellent presenter and TED speaker — estimates that you should expect to rehearse at least one hour per minute of your presentation.

I’m sure that sounds extreme! But, I did that to prepare for a talk at a conference in Australia (pre-COVID) since I wanted to make sure that I nailed my presence on stage.

Guess how much time I spent rehearsing my talk?

Over 52 hours! Yes, 52 hours of practice and rehearsal over several months for a one-hour presentation.

Next, if you’re an introvert like me, create your speaking persona. I learned to think of my public speaking as a performance and visualized that my talking on stage was acting.

It is rather liberating. This helped me overcome being inwardly focused on my anxiety while speaking to the audience. Instead, I was someone else.

Finally, find your friendly fans. When you first start speaking, you face an imposing sea of faces, whether that’s on stage or using Zoom.

The key is to find the faces of your friendly fans. Rather than feeling like you’re speaking to a crowd, you have a series of one-on-one conversations throughout your talk.

There are always a few people smiling and nodding as you speak. Present to them! That will boost your confidence.

Becoming a talented public speaker requires a lot of preparation and practice. But, that investment is well worth it for your career and developing your executive presence.


4. Get better at handling conflict

Who wouldn’t want a workplace that is 100% free of anger, conflict, and misunderstandings? While we’re making wishes, I would also like a unicorn pony.

I’ve always been impressed by the people in meetings who can resolve conflict with ease. They can defuse a volatile situation and help everyone reach a resolution.

Conflict is a part of life, and it will occur in your workplace sooner or later. Sometimes the issues will be with your coworkers, sometimes with your boss.

But, have you noticed that the people with executive presence never let the conflict shake them? Perhaps some people are born with nerves of steel, but I know that you can develop your conflict resolution skills.

First, challenge your starting assumptions. Thinking the worst of someone else and playing through disaster scenarios in your mind won’t guide you to a positive outcome.

Pierre Omidyar founded eBay in 1995 on the premise that: “People are basically good.” That also influenced our approach to workplace conflict in the company.

When dealing with an issue with your coworker, start with the assumption that the other person is a good person. Assume they are a rational human being.

Next, use radical candor (my affiliate link). Have you heard of that before? As Kim Scott puts it, “Radical Candor really just means saying what you think while also giving a damn about the person you’re saying it to.”

Operate with essential integrity, authentic communication, and constructive negotiation. Be open and honest, and seek mutual success.

Finally, seek shared goals. Discussing common goals with someone is one of the most effective techniques I’ve used for handling conflict.

I often find we get too focused on the lower-level goals of our team and ourselves (e.g., “I want X, but you want Y.”). It helps to move the conversation up to higher-level shared goals that are good for the entire organization and company.

You want to metaphorically sit on the same side of the table and face the issue together. Reach mutual agreement on the shared goals, and focus on working together on a solution that lets you achieve them.

So, the next time you’re facing conflict at work, ask yourself how someone with an executive presence would handle the situation.

Assume the best of the other person, use radical candor to discuss the issues, and seek shared goals that will enable both parties to succeed.


5. Learn how to think on your feet

Real life is messy and chaotic, but you don’t have to let that chaos rub off on how you behave. People with executive presence rarely seem flustered.

First, always prepare ahead of time. Never come into a meeting cold. If you take control of your calendar, you’ll know what’s coming up and can be ready for the day.

Do your research on the topic and issues. Research the players in the meeting too. If you’re smart, you’ve already met with key players ahead of time to build the alliances you need.

Next, expect the unexpected. Practice answering expected and unexpected questions. Nothing in a live meeting will be identical to your rehearsal, but practicing your answers makes it easier to improv later.

That’s what meetings feel like sometimes — an improv act. People with executive presence know what they want to say and control the flow of the conversation.

Finally, it’s ok not to have all of the answers on the spot. The people I’ve observed with good executive presence didn’t always have every answer to every question.

However, they took ownership and were accountable. They always said, “I don’t know. But, I will find out and get back to you.


Behave like a leader before you’re a leader

Some people think you acquire “executive presence” once you become a senior leader or an executive. But, I bet you know a few leaders who don’t have it — and you’re probably wondering how they got promoted to that level. I’m pretty sure you also know a few individual contributors who exude executive presence even though they don’t have much official authority or a team to back it up.

Authentic leadership is expressed through your actions and words, not your title. Don’t wait for some magical promotion to grant you self-confidence and presence. Start building it for yourself right now. No matter what path your career takes, having a strong executive presence will serve you well.

After participating in countless performance review sessions, calibration activities, and promotion decision-making sessions, I know that a lack of executive presence can hold someone back. It might not hurt you for lower-level promotions, but it will be noticed and discussed during promotion decisions for senior leadership positions.

More than once, I recall a manager putting someone up for a promotion and having it shot down by a peer. They’d say something like, “Them? No, they aren’t ready for a Director-level role. They’re not confident enough. They don’t even act like a leader!”

Fair or not, impressions have an impact. If people don’t see you as a leader, they may not treat you like a leader. If you want it, step up and be it!


More to explore

Allison Kluger is a lecturer in Leadership at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in the areas of strategic communication, reputation management, and personal branding. Stanford published an excellent interview with her on their website, Improve Your Executive Presence, which I think you’ll find helpful.

You may be familiar with Dr. Amy Cuddy and her infamous “power pose” described in her TED talk on body language. Yes, that research was challenged, but she successfully refuted that criticism. She’s also published a new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges (my affiliate link).

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Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor who hosts a private mastermind community for ambitious professionals with weekly challenges, office hours, and confidential support. If you’re interested in starting your own business or side hustle someday (or accelerating an existing one), check out his “Employee to Solopreneur” course (launching later this year).

Larry lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a gigantic Great Dane. He does his best to share advice to help others take complete control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.

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