What Exactly is Executive Presence and Can You Develop It?

Photo by Emilio Molina

Photo by Emilio Molina

“Executive presence” is for many people I talk to in law firms a “know-it-when-you-see-it” kind of thing. While they may be confident that they can tell you who has it, or more often in the context of lawyer coaching, who doesn’t, they may struggle to define it clearly. None of this is a surprise since it is often thought of as the X factor. In practice, executive presence (EP) is fuzzy concept– it can be elusive. It’s that quality that is shown by “someone who, by virtue of the effect he or she has on an audience, exerts influence beyond that conferred by formal authority” (per Dagley). EP is often what sets a high potential associate apart from peers and what underpins strong partnership promotion prospects. Executive presence alone will not get you promoted but its absence will most likely impede your career progress.

All this said, executive presence is clearly not a single attribute – it is an amalgam of different and interrelated elements – and it is nuanced and multi-faceted. As such, it needs to be deconstructed in order to be defined more concretely and specifically. Consultant and author of ‘Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success’ Sylvia Ann Hewlett did just that (through her organization the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI). So, if you want to know what EP is, Hewlett’s popular book is a good starting point. (Fair disclosure: despite its popularity, some readers are not fans. Take for example the FT review when it was published in 2014 – itself worth reading if you can get beyond the FT’s paywall). 

In summary, Hewlett identified three pillars of executive presence namely gravitas, communication and appearance. She did this based on CTI’s national survey of nearly 4,000 professionals who were college graduates, including 268 senior executives, followed by focus groups and interviews. 


Of the three pillars, gravitas is the core characteristic (according to 67% of the senior executives surveyed by CTI).

If gravitas is so essential, how do you demonstrate it? Hewlett identified six behaviors associated with executive presence. In order of priority, these are:

  • Exuding confidence and “grace under fire” (i.e., confidence in a crisis) (79/76)

  • Acting decisively and “showing teeth” (70/70).

  • Showing integrity and “speaking truth to power” (64/63)

  • Demonstrating emotional intelligence (61/58)

  • Burnishing reputation (56/57)

  • Projecting vision (50/54)

(Note on interpretation: The numbers in parentheses indicate the percentage of respondents who identified the specific behavior as being key to women and men respectively.)


According to 28% of senior executives in the CTI survey, this is the second of the three pillars. The key verbal and non-verbal abilities identified as essential in this context are easier to intuit, namely:

  • Great speaking skills (60/63)

  • Ability to command a room (49/54)

  • Ability to read an audience (39/33)


Third, by a long way, comes appearance. However, don’t be fooled. It may rank lower than gravitas and communication in terms of executive presence but it is effectively the price of entry when it comes to EP. Hewlett explains that appearance “counts, largely as a filter through which your communication skills and gravitas become more apparent.” The key characteristics of appearance in this context are not surprisingly:

  • Good grooming (35/38) – because the lack of it suggests lack of thought or lack of discipline; and

  • Physical attractiveness (16/14) – although Hewlett explains that this not about what you are born with but about what you do with what you have.

Simplifying the model further, Hewlett invites you to think of the three pillars as:

  • How you act

  • How you speak

  • How you look

This is an easy-to-remember framework. But Hewlett and CTI are not the only ones to have focused on executive presence in recent years. For example, Dr. Gavin Dagley (in association with the Australian Human Resources Institute) also identified three pillars of executive presence which he labeled character, substance and style:

  1. Character – this includes authenticity, emotional intelligence, curiosity, courage, and perseverance.

  2. Substance – this includes credibility, vision, responsiveness, respectfulness, ability to get others on board with their ideas and actions, and seeing the big picture.

  3. Style – this includes the way one shows up, energy, assertiveness, the way one connects and interacts with others, confidence while speaking clearly and concisely.

Dagley warns that “Executive presence is not mechanical.” He argues that it results from an emotional reaction in the mind of the audience. While it is identifiable by deconstructing its various elements, it is not easily measurable. Dagley’s conclusion was that there are ten characteristics. Half of these are categorized as impression-based and the other half as evaluation-based:


So can you develop EP? In short, yes. Dagley shows us that executive presence combines  (1) skills which can be learned and developed through training and (2) attitudes and behaviors which can also be developed but the development of which is more complex than the application of training.

To develop your EP requires you to own and manage your personal brand. However good your subject matter expertise, your career can be limited or disrupted by lack of attention to your personal brand. Within your organization, your reputation really does precede you so you need to pay attention to what you do as you build and develop your reputation. That said, you may be required to conform to your firm’s culture in order to do so. Therefore, if you don’t want to check yourself at times, you may not get the whole way there. But, whatever you do, Hewlett says, never try to be someone you are not. Wise advice.

If you are committed to developing your executive presence, it’s essential first to give up the idea that leaders are born (rather than made).  Then look around you. Observe carefully what those with executive presence both in – and outside – your organization do – how do they act, how do they speak and how do they look? And then think about how you act, how you speak and how you look. Ask those you trust for feedback. Where can you make adjustments? Where can you develop new skills and approaches, whether through professional development programs or executive coaching?


Executive Presence: Influence Beyond Authority, Dr. Gavin R Dagley, in association with the Australian Human Resources Institute, March 2013 accessed on August 5, 2018 at https://workingwithourselves.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/executive-presence-report-g-dagley-2013.pdf

Executive Presence Key Findings, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Lauren Leader-Chivée, Laura Sherbin, and Joanne Gordon with Fabiola Dieudonné accessed on August 4, 2018 at http://www.talentinnovation.org/assets/ExecutivePresence-KeyFindings-CTI.pdf

Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Harper Collins, 2014