By Mari Geasair, Founder and Principal, Prism Impact—Working with leaders ready to reduce stress, expand influence, and boost productivity. Training and consulting in executive presence, leadership communication, vocal presentation, and public speaking.
Lies We Tell About Executive Presence: And How to Find Our Truth
Many conversations about Executive Presence leave me with the mental equivalent of a nasty rash. This is because, more often than not, when people talk to women about “Executive Presence,” they are lying to us.
Sometimes the lies come from a place of utterly unconscious bias, sometimes, they come from conscious bias, but usually, they come from a place of ignorance and insufficient information.
Discussions about Executive Presence often treat it as a highly undefinable quality rather than as an achievable set of professional skills. Worse, the vague descriptions often leave an implication that, as professional women, we are somehow simultaneously “too much” and “not enough.”
Common falsehoods about Executive Presence we tell ourselves and others about it are:
- It can’t be defined.
- It is an inborn quality that you either have it or you don’t.
- It is mainly related to appearance and dress.
- It is all about self-confidence.
- It is a one-size fits all approach to fitting into the dominant culture, and is the opposite of
These definitions are not particularly helpful and don’t present meaningful research or measurable skills related to Executive Presence.
As a result, we waste energy trying to win a game with ever-shifting rules based on opinion and cultural bias. Or we dismiss the subject as either irrelevant or outdated.
However, conscious and unconscious decisions about who to hire, who to promote, and who to trust with breakthrough opportunities are made daily based on the elusive quality of Executive Presence.
In fact, according to a study by the Center for Talent Innovation, senior leaders believe that Executive Presence can account for as much as 26% of what it takes to get promoted.
And we don’t need to be climbing the corporate ladder for it to matter. Entrepreneurs seeking clients or capital, activists seeking buy-in for their messages, and even students seeking support from fellow students and their professors can benefit from showing more of this elusive “it factor.”
But this is where ambiguous definitions and lies we tell ourselves become harmful.
When we know we need Executive Presence but don’t know what it is, we unknowingly put obstacles in our own way.
Rethinking what it means to exhibit Executive Presence and learning how to build it in ourselves while remaining genuine can help to stop unconsciously sabotaging ourselves and attract success more easily.
Our work starts with first understanding how common misconceptions negatively impact us.
1) They take away our agency.
When we don’t know the rules, we don’t have a way to win the game. For example, a recent coaching client shared disappointing feedback her boss received when submitting her for a promotion to a role she was well qualified to perform. He told her that the executive making the final decision had said:
“Her work here has been exceptional, and her resume shows solid experience before she joined us, but I am still not sure she has the Executive Presence for this role. I would like to see her stay in her current position for another year or two before considering her for a Director role.”
If my client had accepted this feedback at face-value, she would have had no clear path for improving her skills or demonstrating her progress to the leadership team.
She would have had to stay in her current role with no action plan other than to do more of what she was already doing, or she would have been forced to look for another job.
Instead, she created a checklist of skills and behaviors outlining her own understanding of Executive Presence as it related to her specific job and workplace.
Then, she asked her boss to discuss it with her. The result was clarifying her job expectations, coaching paid for by the organization, and promotion to Director within eight months.
While not all situations like this will turn out as rosy, the point here is that she claimed agency.
She was powerfully proactive.
By refusing to accept a subjective or non-existent definition, she reclaimed her ability to engage in meaningful action and stay in control of her opportunities. As a result, even if she had not received the promotion or had decided to move on to another company, she would have done so with clear information and a greater sense of personal power.
2) They encourage us to waste energy on the wrong things.
Cultivating Executive Presence requires women to walk a fine line, thanks to the many contradictory messages we receive about what it means to be professional.
We can end up caught in a trap of being judged as aggressive and bitchy if we show too much assertiveness or judged as unserious or unseasoned if we are too friendly.
In addition, we can find ourselves swirling in a sea of contradictory advice on how to dress, speak, and behave. As a result, we can end up overly worried about the wrong tactics.
One of the main problems with all the contradictory advice is that it implies that women need to change who they are.
It is more fruitful to start looking for the specific strengths and behaviors which are already part of our personality and skill sets and which also match the needs of our environment.
We can then create a plan to strategically amplify what already works for us and enhance our natural influence.
For example, a naturally introverted finance expert might struggle to implement some of the common advice given to women seeking to enhance their presence. Thinking about how to “dominate a discussion” and “show more gravitas might feel awkward and fail to produce results.
Instead, she could choose to take an already well-honed talent for encapsulating complex information into simple terms and focuses on amplifying her talent. In that case, she will likely discover herself easily adding more leadership and gravitas to her communications in a way that a more authentic way.
3) They deprive us of a way to track and measure our growth.
When we think of Executive Presence as an undefinable quality or as adherence to the images and norms others are using to define what “looks and feels like a leader,” we have no way of measuring or even seeing our own progress as we develop our capacities.
When we begin to look at Executive Presence as the natural outcome of possessing specific skill sets, we can measure our growth in definable areas.
For example, admonishing ourselves to “own the room” during our next meeting can be discouraging and confusing. However, setting a goal to keep our body language open and relaxed during the crucial first 45 seconds of the discussion can feel more achievable. We can then observe how practicing that little skill (and others) contributes to the larger skill-set of staying calm under pressure and projecting confidence.
It is time to replace outdated definitions of executive presence with a more helpful definition.
The truth is that as much as I advocate for a more specific and defined understanding of the term Executive Presence, there is still a subjective element in play.
We do “know it when we see it.” The trick is to open our eyes and “see it” more often and in more contexts.
When we re-think our definitions, we can realize that depending on the context and the audience, Lizzo may in fact has as much Executive Presence as Warren Buffet.
Today’s female identifying leaders don’t need to look or feel like the typical “old white guy in a suit.” We need to feel and communicate like people who can fulfill a mission and empower our communities.
The term “Executive Presence” can and should be used as an imperfect description of the ability to signal to others your competence, respect, and ability to follow through on the actions that will serve shared goals.
Recent research from social scientists such as Olivia Fox Cabane, Nalina Ambady, and others have given us specific insight into the behaviors that lead people to see others as leaders.
And the findings boil down to more than looks and matching the dominant culture. While unconscious bias does still have an impact, other qualities matter more.
It turns out that the elusive “it factor” is, in fact, a well-mixed combination of strength, warmth, and focused attention you bring to your behavior and communications.
It means having the emotional intelligence and the practical skills to bring forward your best self. So instead of worrying about being too much or not enough, we simply focus on bringing all of our attention and talent to the moment we are in.
A new definition also allows us to strategically strengthen our Executive Presence by exploring specific skill development.
It is essential to remember, however, that Executive Presence is not one skill, it is many skills. And it takes time and conscious effort to develop.
When we try to define Executive Presence in terms of concrete skills rather than subjective qualities, we can initially feel overwhelmed. We often end up with a laundry list of appearance rules, body language suggestions, and vocal and vocabulary tricks. These are important, but the leadership “it factor” we are seeking to build comes only when we can integrate many small behaviors and skills deeply enough that they turn into personal core competencies.
Those competencies include:
- The ability to manage our own nerves and emotions so they do not distract ourselves or others.
- A capacity for narrowing our focus to the most important task(s) at hand.
- The aptitude to include and encourage others without diminishing our own authority.
- A talent for distilling our experience and knowledge into concise, concrete messages.
- The willingness and capacity to grow and adapt when things get challenging.
When these talents are combined, it leads to a way of engaging that gives others confidence in our ability to execute on your plans, stay mentally and emotionally present and leave others empowered. It creates an overall impression of Executive Presence that may be bolstered by specific habits or skills but has an effect much larger than the sum of its parts.
A commitment to redefining what it is we are seeking to build, and having patience with ourselves as we master new skills and build deeper competencies gives us leverage. We can maintain genuineness and authenticity even as we work on polishing specific elements of our behavior and communications. We can trust the journey and not find a need to judge ourselves during the process.
Real Executive Presence should not be about endless code-switching or the soul-squashing need to pass as something we are not. It should also not be confused with blithely showing up exactly how we feel on any given day with an attitude of “damn the consequences, this is just how I am.”
Instead, effective Executive Presence is a commitment to learning about ourselves and others and
continually seeking to communicate in authentic, inclusive, and effective ways for the situation at hand.
There are many practical ways to begin developing your Executive Presence. And often the best place to start is by asking yourself what it is you can stop doing.
Instead of adding another mental “should” to your list, ask yourself what physical, verbal, and mental habits crop up when you are nervous or overwhelmed. Do you fidget? Do you apologize to often? Do you mentally compare yourself negatively to others? Are you taking your focus away from the moment at hand and trying overly hard to prove to yourself or someone else that you and your ideas are worthwhile.
What could be true for you if you stopped doing those things?
Sometimes the best thing you can do to build Executive Presence is simply to pause, breathe and let your body and brain act as if you are absolutely enough and perfectly aligned to the opportunities at hand. Even if you don’t fully believe it yet.
Then, you can begin to explore the many tiny techniques that can add even more polish to your presence.
I look forward to discussing those with you our upcoming workshop on Executive Presence at Tarra, or simply over coffee in our workspace.
Until then, I encourage you to think about what you can do this week to:
- Bring more mental focus and be more fully “present in the moment” during your professional interactions.
- personally define or redefine the term Executive Presence for yourself so that when you think about it you are inspired to reach for more ease-filled
Enjoy your explorations, and I look forward to connecting with you soon.
About Mari Geasair
Mari Geasair of Prism Impact helps women leaders access and sustain peak performance in high-stakes communication situations.
She is an executive presence facilitator, virtual presentation instructor, public speaking coach with over 20 years of experience helping visionary women shine. Mari specializes in helping motivated professionals increase their impact by eliminating the internal and external habits that keep them from effectively connecting to audiences and sharing their unique vision.
(Photo from Adobe Stock FILE #: 530613539, licensed to Mari Geasair)