Three Ways To Develop Executive Presence So You Feel More Confident At Work 

by Brent Roy

"Great leaders are not defined by the absence of weakness, but rather by the presence of clear strengths." - John Peter Zenger

Photo by Illumination Marketing on UnsplashIf you’ve been passed over for a promotion lately and you don’t know why, you might lack executive presence. Even though you’re successful and considered an expert in your field, getting to the next level seems elusive. Your executives struggle to see you as one.

What is executive presence?

Executive presence is the ability to maturely project self-confidence in a way that others can easily envision you as someone ready for the next level, or even higher. It is a combination of personal traits and outward behaviors that create an image of leadership, competence, and trustworthiness to those around you. 

Whether we like it or not, we are constantly displaying our traits to those around us, both positive and negative. Like a car in the showroom, you may possess the reliability to always start and get from Point A to Point B comfortably, but another car edges you out. Is it because the other car's paint has more lustre and sheen than yours? It’s all about recognizing those finishing touches that give you the edge over your competition.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success, defines executive presence as how one acts (gravitas), speaks (communication) and looks (appearance). It’s likely that subconsciously, you’ve picked up some quirks in your actions, words and outward style.

How do you know if you have executive presence? 

When you possess executive presence, you’re more than a go-to person in your area of expertise and able to provide advice you can stand behind. You’re able to interact professionally with executives without being overly deferential. When you sense they begin to see you as a peer, you may already possess executive presence.   

Can executive presence be learned?

It is possible to unlearn bad habits and replace them with new ways to show up and interact at work. You can decide whether buffing out the rough spots in your actions, speech, and the way you carry yourself is worth the bit of focused effort and determination it takes. Even if it feels you have lots to work on, you can reinvent yourself. With focused effort, you can overcome feelings of being passed over as you work towards a more confident and refined future. People are more likely to remember how you finished.

Start by gaining some clarity and precision on both the lacklustre areas in need of a shine and even areas where some deeper bodywork is required.

Behavior and Track Record:  

  • Temperament: Do your colleagues, direct reports and bosses cringe when the stress increases, not knowing whether you’ll lose your cool?
  • Show up late: Do you blow off meetings or show up late, offering a weak excuse?
  • Trustworthiness: Do you follow through with the things you said you’d do? 

Conversation and Situational Awareness

  • Uptalk: Does every sentence you speak sound like it needs a question mark at the end?
  • Not enough or too much: Do you like to talk? A lot? Or, are you known for being quiet in general and offering little in meetings?
  • Inappropriate conversations: Do you talk a lot about your personal life at work?
  • Reading the Room: Do you possess the self-awareness to read the room? Can you accurately sense how you are perceived? 

Attire and Décor

  • Clothes and office culture clash: Do you adhere to corporate dress codes or do you often dress casually while the higher-ups are more buttoned down? Do you dress like your peers, or a level or two higher or do you dress like you have an iron deficiency (the kind that removes wrinkles)?
  • Environment: Does your office décor send the message that you’d rather be somewhere else? For example, is it plastered with vacation photos or purely personal pursuits? What books, framed photos and certificates and other peripheries are visible in your workspace? If you work from home and participate in video meetings, what story does the space behind you tell others on the call? If you use a digital background with Zoom, is it professional looking? 

How well you act, speak and look in the workplace can be difficult to measure. If you possess the self-awareness to recognize the need for fine-tuning your executive presence, you’re ready to get started. Once you have a handle on where you are, you can take steps to move toward the executive presence you desire.

Three Ways to Work on Developing Executive Presence

Find a Leader You Admire

One of the best ways to begin your pursuit towards a more senior role is to consider leaders who you admire. This may be someone you know personally, a composite of many leaders, or even a celebrity or historical figure. Ask yourself what it is you like about them. What is it about the way they carry themselves that exudes leadership? What are their ways of speaking and interacting that make you feel this is a person you would follow? What is it about their appearance and dress that projects the confidence of a leader? Which of these qualities could you authentically emulate?  

Seek a Mentor

A mentor is a few steps ahead of you on the career path. Perhaps this is the person you admire most as a leader. They have more years of both practice and experiences and are at or near the top of their game. When they veered slightly from the path, they made corrections before heading for the bushes. If they did spend time in the bushes, they learned from it, picked themselves up and got back on the path. You can learn from their success and their slip-ups. It’s also likely they would honour the opportunity to support a protégé seeking executive presence.

Work with a Coach  

Working with a coach can provide you with the feedback and accountability you need to help you stand out in the competitive career showroom. Through active listening, observation and in-session exercises like role-playing, your coach can help you discover the clarity to focus on the areas that need a little extra buffing. The weekly action steps you co-design with your coach will provide you small successes as your confidence builds.

Experience, degrees, certificates and credentials all count, but those are often not what open the door to the next-level leadership opportunity. People judge us on how we act, speak and look. Having executive presence means you recognize the impact gravitas, communication and appearance can have on whether the people at the top see you as a confident executive ready for the next big role. 

As you begin to experience success by identifying and emulating leadership qualities, meeting with a mentor and working with a coach, you can expect your confidence to gradually build until you’re the shiny car in the showroom that people are automatically drawn toward. 

Brent Roy, ACC, CPLC, a certified executive, career and personal development coach, works with men and women who want to increase their confidence and boost their executive presence to prepare them for promotion or a new career. Visit his website, and schedule a free discovery session.

Brent Roy
Brent Roy Coaching and Consulting



Brent Roy
Brent Roy Coaching and Consulting