October 15, 2014
Executive Presence: Are You Born With It?

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our “Leadership Presence” series, a weeklong effort co-hosted by and Switch and Shift. Follow the discussion here and stay up-to-date with our daily and weekly newsletters. Not a subscriber? Sign up here.

We’ve been having this debate back at the office about executive presence. Some argue that one is born with it and that’s that. Some contend that one can cultivate it through hard work and dedication. I fall in the latter group. I believe that executive presence can be developed by leveraging one’s inherent strengths.

Now, one may ask, “Why should I care?” We should all care because executive presence dictates how quickly one rises within an organization and (if you’re already at, or near, the top) it can determine how well your direction are followed.

So, what is it, anyway?

When someone is said to have executive presence, they tend to be described as possessing a certain charisma and magnetism that commands attention. But, when you peel that onion back a bit, you’ll find that those that exude executive presence have developed other key proficiencies beyond a captivating personality. You can develop those competencies, too.

The key executive presence proficiencies worth developing include:

1. Knowing your stuff

Putting in the work to become an expert in your chosen field is where executive presence all begins. Sure, a well dressed, good looking person may be an attention grabber. But if they turn into an empty suit whenever they open their mouths, their presence diminishes almost immediately. Advice: Do your homework. Put in the extra effort. Be willing to work harder than others. Really come to know your stuff!

2. Keeping it simple

Work at being clear and concise in all of your communication. People can’t follow what they don’t understand. The better you know your stuff, the easier this is to do. Advice: Develop a conversational tone in both your written and verbal communication. Practice developing and delivering your ideas in easy, jargon-free ways to help you engage with your audience.

3. Seeking to connect

There are many way to connect. However, few work better than radiating enthusiasm for whatever you’re doing or talking about and listening to people with whom you interact. Advice: Deliberately project enthusiasm in your speech and actions. No one wants to interact with a “Debby Downer.” If you’re one that is often too busy thinking about the next thing you’re going to say instead of listening to what is being said, stop it immediately! You may even want to explore taking an active listening class to hone your listening skills. They’re an important part of connecting with others and can influence one’s executive presence.

4. Setting an example

Demonstrating grace under pressure, having the aptitude to think on your feet and never asking someone to do something that you’re unwilling do yourself are great ways to set an example that you are someone worth following. Advice: These attributes can be developed by using your “empathy” muscle. Once you know your stuff, developing an ability to anticipate the questions and objections that you are likely to receive when discussing or floating new ideas and solutions comes with putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Being willing to personally do whatever it takes enables a leader to ask others to do the same.

5. Exuding confidence

Confidence is where executive presence all comes together. Developing the other proficiencies will inform your ability to exude confidence. You may not always have the answer, but you have the confidence and experience to know that the answer can be found. Advice: Confidence can be fortified by developing a vision that clearly defines exactly what the future looks like and by taking the time to articulate it in such a way that others are compelled to help you achieve it. If you don’t have a clear vision, it’s difficult to know when you’ve arrived. So develop a vision for you and your organization and share it.

There is no magical formula that can be applied to gaining executive presence. However, steps can be taken to develop the proficiencies needed to establish it. It begins with making an investment in developing your expertise in your chosen field and honing the skills required to engage, influence and inspire others to follow you.

James M. Kerr
James M. Kerr is a partner and strategy thought leader at BlumShapiro Consulting in West Hartford, CT. He has worked with clients from a variety of industry and sectors. His latest book, The Executive Checklist is in stores now. You can contact him at

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