Executive Presence: What It Is and How to Get It

Executive presence is demonstrating the judgment and character to be the leader who will get the job done with integrity and inspire others to fully commit to the task, mission, and vision. "When executives with presence walk into the room, people think, 'now something good is going to happen,'" says Mark Sickles, an advisor to corporate boards and executive teams. "These leaders are respected for the job they're doing, not just the job they're in."

Bart Nasta, director of information services for Perot Systems in Plano, TX, experienced executive presence up close and personal in founder Ross Perot. "People respect the leader not so much for their position, but for their personal effectiveness and credibility," Nasta says.

Executive presence, like character, combines the head and the heart of the leader. David Zumwalt, executive director of the University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park Corporation (RTPark), says, "Executive presence arises from a multifaceted set of skills. The leader must exude authenticity, which includes confidence, competence, and the ability to engage emotionally, as well."

Self-awareness, intellectual, and interpersonal competencies are the most important aspects of executive presence, but L. David Cardenas, a partner with Stamford, CT-based Olympus Partners, has learned that executive presence must include an integrated developmental approach.

In the first of this two-part series we'll take a look at the characteristics a professional needs to develop to acquire executive presence.

1. Build a Foundation

Experience and a successful track record are a good start, Cardenas says, but they're only prerequisites. They're a foundation to build on, and without a strong performance background an executive will never acquire executive presence. Developing executive presence, though, involves more than just putting in time and delivering the numbers; it develops organically over time, not with an instant epiphany. Like the sun coming out from behind the clouds, it emerges gradually throughout a career.

2. Establish Trust

Rick Turner, president of Lake Oswego, OR-based Greenbrier Rail Services-Wheel Division, believes trust is the cornerstone of the leader-follower relationship. Over time, leaders earn the trust of followers and other stakeholders. Turner says, "Trust is measured in degrees in the beginning of the relationship, then is eventually measured in black-and-white terms."

In the beginning of the relationship, most employees give the benefit of the doubt to the new leader. If the executive delivers, trust grows stronger; if failure is experienced, trust grows weaker. Both trust and distrust are developed by the rule of three—one instance is an aberration, two's a trend, and three's a law. After time and more evidence, trust is either firmly established or permanently lost based on whether the employee has seen consistent success or consistent failure.

3. Manage Yourself—Intellectually and Emotionally

Potential leaders initially develop the ability to manage and lead themselves before they're able to manage and lead others. If executives are unable to lead and manage themselves, they'll never be able to manage and lead others.

Self-management has two primary skill sets: one for the head—intellectual skills—and one for the heart—emotional skills. Most executives believe that any given person is predisposed to one or the other skills set and that a person cannot have both a high IQ and a high level of Emotional Intelligence, often referred to as EQ. Leaders with executive presence manage this paradox successfully by developing both their heads and hearts.

Tad McIntosh, president of HumCap, an HR outsourcing and executive search firm based in Dallas, recognizes the need for a pragmatic mindset in the executives that he's placed. "Leaders with executive presence see the reality of a situation," McIntosh says. "To get to Point B, they clearly see where Point A is; not just the problem, but also organizationally, individually, and personally." It's vital for the executive to understand how the organization ranks against competitors, what the employees need in order to contribute so the organization moves forward, and have a clear idea of their own strengths and weaknesses. Executives must accurately identify the problem so they're able to determine which resources are allocated to its solution.

Self-management also influences decision-making capabilities. According to John Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of Woodcraft Industries in State College, PA, leaders who lack self-management skills also lack intellectual skills in risk analysis. "They fail to consider the consequences of their decisions, positive and negative, and they're unable to predict what will happen next. They also lack decision-making discipline. Their decisions are reflexive rather than reflective," he says.

A leader's emotional skills are equally important. Decisions based on fear and frustration rarely translate into productive actions. "Insecure people are revealed under pressure. They fail to address their weaknesses because they fail to admit their weaknesses to themselves," says Fitzpatrick. And it affects their work. Fitzpatrick adds, "Insecure people fail to prepare, because they rely too heavily on their inherent talent rather than applying the fundamental need for hard work."

Next month:

How to implement executive presence.

Dr. Stephen Long is president of The Institute for Level Six Leadership—a management consulting firm specializing in leveraging human capital. Please visit www.levelsixleadership.com.

Originally published April 1, 2009

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