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Development Action Planning Series: How to Build Your Executive Presence

When discussing that one thing a given employee should work on during talent reviews and succession planning, one of the things most commonly comes up is Executive Presence. It is the latest corporate 'it factor' in development and yet when we think about how to develop it and what the action plan should be, we often fall short.

Executive Presence: What is it?

“It’s a combination of confidence, poise and authenticity that convinces us that we’re in the presence of someone who’s the real deal.” Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Things that contribute to it include gravitas, clear and compelling communication, an appearance that conveys confidence, and a demeanor that is calm and reassuring. One of the things that makes it so elusive for us is it is a true meta-skill, like ‘leadership’ and ‘communication’. In other words, it encompasses many sub-skills and there can be a lot to focus on, which can lead to it seeming insurmountable.

How Do I Know if I Have an Executive Presence Gap?

You may have a presence problem if you receive feedback that you:

  • Do not come across as ‘leadership material’

  • Do not know how to motivate to others

  • Are not yet seasoned

  • Struggle to carry a room

  • Do not foster followership

  • Are behind-the-scenes operator

  • Lack effective communication skills

  • Seem nervous in the presence of more senior players

  • Lack vision and purpose

Executive Presence - poise and confidence

I’m Afraid that I Just Don’t Have It

Someone in my network said to me the other day, “Isn’t it true that if you don’t have executive presence, you just don’t have it and you’re done?” That may seem true on the surface, again because it is the combination of so many sub-skills which leads to a murky vision of what is missing and how to get it. As a development professional, I do not buy into not being able to move the needle on presence. Don’t believe for a minute that Sheryl Sandberg or Hillary Clinton or Steve Jobs had executive presence in their first job out of school. You just need some good analytics, a way to get feedback and a disciplined approach.

How to Build It

1. Get Clear on the Feedback

Understand what it is that makes people say you don’t have presence. Is it unkempt hair and unpolished shoes? It is a damp handshake that signals nervousness? Is it your reticence to speak up in meetings? Or is it your inability to motivate your team? It could be any one of those things or all of them. Write it all down and decide what you want to work on first.

2. Pick Your Ongoing Feedback Mechanism

Without feedback, progress is inevitably slower and if you’re on a path to greatness, slow is the enemy. Enlist your boss, a friend at work who can observe you in leadership situations, your partner, or your HR business partner to give you ongoing feedback. If you’re a high flyer, ask for an executive coach. Get a mentor or a sponsor. Consider asking for feedback from more senior people in your organization on a formal or informal basis. Pick one or multiple methods, but make sure you have a feedback mechanism to track your progress.

3. Build Your Plan

Your company is highly likely to have a Development Action Planning (DAP) tool as part of its performance management software; also known as the Individual Development Plan (IDP) in many companies. If you have it, use it. If you really want to be focused, choose just one sub-skill and once you’ve made significant progress, go to the next sub-skill. If you’re really ambitious, choose up to 3 sub-skills to work on. Beyond 3, you’ll be too diluted to make any real progress on anything.

A good plan will identify the skill you’re looking to build, the actions you’re going to take, a timeframe you’ll do it in, and a support mechanism (see point 2, above). It should also paint a picture of what progress will look like and how you’ll measure it.

4. Practice, Practice, Practice

Now step up and go get those opportunities to develop the sub-skills you’ve identified. If it’s staying calm and focused during presentations, you need to go land some presentations to deliver. Your manager should be able to support diverting some of these your way. Then if it’s 10 minutes of meditation and deep breathing beforehand that you’ve picked as a practice, do that and monitor the results.

5. Now Pick Another Sub-skill

Once you’ve made progress and your feedback mechanism confirms that, move on to the next skill and develop another plan. In no time, you’ll be shining and changing minds about your executive presence.


Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Executive Presence: The Art of Commanding Respect Like a CEO by Harrison Monarth

The Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others by Kristi Hedges

Sherry Pedersen-Ajmani is an Executive Coach and Organizational Development consultant in Toronto and Principal at Contact her at if you’d like help with your Development Action Plan or follow her on Twitter @SP_talentcraft.

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