Michael Sterling

Psst: You Need Executive Presence – Here’s Why

What Defines Executive Presence?


Has this ever happened in your firm?


Someone is promoted to a leadership position. This person successfully competed against other qualified candidates, some of whom you know are just as experienced and smart. You ask yourself, “Why him?” … or, “Why her?”


Soon you hear that it was a question of “executive  presence.” As often happens in judging one candidate over another, the decision came down to degrees of “executive presence.” You start doing a little research on this. Karl Albrecht names executive presence as one of the five pillars of social intelligence:


Often referred to as “bearing,” presence incorporates a range of verbal and nonverbal patterns (one’s appearance, posture, vocal quality, subtle movements)—a whole collection of signals that others process into an evaluative impression of a person. —Karl Albrecht, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success (Pfeiffer, 2009)


Searching for Executive Presence


An Internet search on executive presence reveals definitions and advice on everything from dressing for success and patterns of speech to more fundamental issues of emotional and social intelligence.


The concept of presence raises serious questions for anyone with ambitions of career advancement. If, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Blink, decisions are made intuitively, what do we need to know about “executive presence”?


As it turns out, everyone’s definition of the term seems to differ. But planning your career and determining your leadership development needs shouldn’t be left to guesswork.


I don’t know about you, but if executive presence makes a difference in getting a promotion or job vs. being passed over, I want to be sure I do everything I can to get more of it. So what is “it?”


Some conclude that executive presence has little to do with polish, poise, sophistication or even use of body language and gestures. In many cases, executives with presence are just as likely to lack these qualities.


Bill Gates vs. Mark Zuckerberg


In this day and age, executive presence comes in all shapes and sizes, including some you wouldn’t normally recognize. Who would have thought, 30-plus years ago, that Bill Gates would command it?


Would Mark Zuckerberg, the 32-year-old founder of Facebook, have stood out as a high-potential CEO? But as one of the youngest men ever to be named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, he certainly has presence—albeit a “Gen Y” version of it.


If you want to hold leadership positions, you must learn how to acquire or improve your level of executive presence. And if you’re already in senior management, you must recognize your current potential and help nurture executive presence in the people you want to groom for succession.


But presence may be as elusive as charisma. Everyone knows when someone has charisma, but it’s not exactly something you can pick up in business school.


You can improve your executive presence by working on your strengths. I see this all the time in the work I do coaching accounting professionals. In highly competitive firms, where the high-potential candidates are all smart and savvy, there are ways to manage others’ perceptions to your advantage.


It may be hard to improve your presence, but that’s certainly one area in which a career coach can assist.


In the work I do with accounting professionals, I coach several aspects of executive presence. Speech and mannerisms are only the tip of the iceberg. The rest is developing social intelligence.


What do you think about this concept of executive presence? Can it be faked or manufactured or coached? Please leave a comment. I plan on delving deeper into executive presence in my next blog.


Career Wellness


As a career coach and recruiter, exclusive to public accounting, I help professionals find career success. Connect with me on LinkedIn.


Interested in more career nutrition? Check out the Career Wellness section of the SterlingFreeman website.


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