Communication Emotional intelligence Leadership Personal growth

Executive presence: what it is and why it's important

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What is executive presence?

The term “executive presence” entered the mainstream business lexicon in 2014 following the release of Executive Presence by author Sylvia Ann Hewlett. In the book, Hewlett explains that executive presence is a leader's “it” factor. Colleagues in the presence of a leader possessing executive presence feel compelled to follow. It’s the “secret sauce” that makes one leader stand out from the rest. As stated by Fortune Magazine, executive presence is “the ability of the leader to engage, align, inspire, and move people to act.”

Hewlett argues that leaders who don’t have executive presence will not progress in their careers, despite having the necessary experience and qualifications. She calls executive presence the “missing link between merit and success.”

Research from the Centre for Talent Innovation concluded that executive presence consists of three main pillars:

  • Gravitas: Of 268 senior executives surveyed, 67 per cent stated that gravitas is the most important factor when promoting an employee to a leadership position. It’s the projection of credibility, assertiveness, and the confidence to convey a clear message. Gravitas is a signal to others that you're leadership material.
  • Communication: Through the masterful use of body language and concise speaking skills, you’re able to communicate the authority of a leader. This is the ability to command a room. It’s what you say, when you say it, how you say it, and to whom you say it. Communication also includes the ability to read an audience or complex situation and act accordingly.
  • Appearance: While this was rated the least important of the three pillars, it shouldn’t be overlooked. Appearance is commonly referred to as “looking the part.” By taking the time to look and feel your best, it shows consideration and respect toward the people you interact with. Appearance also includes dressing appropriately for the environment and occasion.

At its foundation, executive presence is the way you affect the people around you. A leader with executive presence is someone whose employer is confident having them represent the organization in front of senior executives or important clients.

Why is executive presence important?

At the beginning of your career, it’s likely that you will be hired primarily for your “hard skills” – the specific, measurable abilities relevant to the job. As you progress in your career, the hard skills that originally landed you the job won’t be the ones that get you promoted. Whether you're a new leader or a seasoned one, it’s essential to have a refined set of soft skills in order to establish executive presence and influence people.

A study by Namrata Kala, an assistant professor of economics at MIT Sloan, found that soft skills training garnered a 250 per cent return on investment less than a year after the training’s conclusion. In addition, employees that did not participate in the soft skills training program showed improvements in workplace productivity by being in the same vicinity as those that did participate.

Research by the Center for Talent Innovation revealed that being perceived as leadership material is an essential requirement for promotion. The 268 survey respondents stated “executive presence” accounts for 26 per cent of what it takes to get promoted into leadership positions.

If you don't take the time to address your soft skills gap and achieve executive presence, you could be stalling your career.

Can executive presence be learned?

While executive presence may appear to come naturally to charismatic leaders such as Jeff Bezos, Sheryl Sandberg, Barack Obama, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk, it’s a quality that they very likely worked very hard to attain. The gap between merit and success can be closed through the learning of soft skills — ones you may not be able to attain on your own.

Mid- to senior-level leaders who seek to master powerful influencing and persuasion skills which guarantee new levels of leadership, presence, and high-impact communication have found success with The Ivey Academy's Communications and Executive Presence Program. This three-day program focuses on the two main pillars of executive presence – gravitas and communication. Through team exercises and interactive presentations, you will identify your personal behavioural profile and improve your ability to influence and persuade diverse audiences – whether one-on-one or in front of a large group of people.

The Communications and Executive Presence Program is transformative in nature, with a deeply personal process designed for managers who are strong conceptually but want to be much more effective in communicating their ideas, proposals, and vision. By aquiring key executive presence attributes, you'll be able to close the gap between merit and success. For more information, download the Communications and Executive Presence brochure.


About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School
The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment. 

Rooted in Ivey Business School’s real-world leadership approach, The Ivey Academy is a place where professionals come to get better, to break old habits and establish new ones, to practice, to change, to obtain coaching and support, and to join a powerful peer network. Follow The Ivey Academy on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.