Executive Presence – A 2-Sided Definition

Guest post By Karen Hough

I ask people to define executive presence, they pause, and usually hold out
their arms as they search for words. Eventually, after throwing out a few words
like “strong,” “smart” or “gravitas,” they give me an example.

know, like President Kennedy.”


my dad.”

Sheryl Sandberg.”

Rocky Balboa.” – believe it or not, I’m not kidding about that one.

becomes this indefinable, yet critically important thing. HR leaders lay awake
at night wondering how they can get that wonderfully smart, high-potential
associate to come across a bit differently so that they can promote her. But
her reviews keep coming back that she’s missing….something.

is finding executive presence so stressful right now? Succession! Long-time
leaders are looking over their shoulders and wondering, “Who is going to fill
my shoes if I move up or on?” The U.S. is also one of the last nations to turn
to diverse populations for leadership, such as women and minorities, and
organizations and individuals need to deal with their discomfort around a
“different” kind of leader. Great leaders don’t have to look or act like the
leaders of the last century to be highly effective. If we’re going to fill the
gaps, improve profitability and become global, we need to see executive
presence in a very large way.

working with highly capable executives over 14 years, I believe real executive
presence can be defined. And it should also be entirely unique and authentic
based on the individual, not based on a standard set by someone else. Here’s
the definition:

Presence is the ability to engender trust in people, through confidence,
consistency and calm in chaos.

turn, that presence will inspire people so that they are loyal, engaged and
willing to give discretionary effort.

key to executive presence is trust. Can people trust you? Whether the situation
is bad or good, are you fair, effective and worth following? The answer to that
question all depends on behavior. You may have heard that actions speak louder
than words – well, trust is built on every small action you do or don’t take
for your whole life. Your team watches and works based on the level of trust
they have in you.

do leaders create trust? The first section of the definition describes the
attributes that are consistently present in leaders who are considered to have
executive presence, no matter what their style or personality:

    Confident – People want to see confidence in
their leaders. It doesn’t have to come across as braggadocio or arrogance, it
can be quiet confidence, but we want to know that our leaders believe in and
are aware of their strengths and capabilities. One who is aware of him/herself
can also be aware of others – praising, developing and lending strength to a
team. We want to know there is someone who will stand in the front and help us
see the vision. For
showing confidence: consider these three tips


    Consistency – We need to know what to expect!
Clear guidelines, consistent behavior, and trustworthy action and reaction are
critical to keeping a team on-track. Even when things go wrong, we want to know
we can count on someone who is predictable and fair. Consistency in emotional
behavior is also important. It’s not that we have to have boring leaders –
executive presence can also encompass passion, anger and exuberance. But your team
needs to have a pretty good idea of when those emotions will show up, and that
there are good reasons why they do.

    Calm in Chaos – Almost anybody can lead when times
are good, but it is those who are calm, thoughtful and action-oriented during
crises who embody executive presence. Whether they are losing a big client or
facing a natural disaster, those who keep their wits and take action are the
exemplary leaders we turn to when everything calms down. Have you monitored how
you react to the unexpected? If you freak out and have to end up apologizing
afterwards, you may want to consider ways to manage your nerves so that you can
be in control of yourself, even when everything else is going haywire.

second part of the definition “In turn, that
presence will inspire people so that they are loyal, engaged and willing to
give discretionary effort”
describes the effect you create as a leader. Do
people turn to you, trust that you will be fair, and feel calm and secure when
you lead? If so, they will give back: creative ideas, energy, engagement, and
discretionary effort.

engagement is the holy grail of organizations. Keeping that talent, whether it
be a workforce of 20 or 200,000, engaged and energized. That’s why your
executive presence is a key part of your career. Don’t give HR an indefinable
reason to hold you back. Show up confident, act consistently, and figure out if
you can be calm in chaos. If you can do that – authentically and with your own
style – you will have executive presence.

Karen Hough is the Founder
and CEO of ImprovEdge, an Amazon #1 bestselling author and contributor to the
Huffington Post. Her second book published by Berrett-Koehler, “
Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the
Rules, Make Mistakes and Win Them Over
” is now available. She is the recipient of the Stevie International
Silver Award for Most Innovative Company of the Year and the Athena PowerLink Award
for outstanding woman-owned business. She is a Yale graduate and international