2 Questions for More Clarity About Executive Presence - 2

#executivepresence Feb 28, 2024

TLDR: Here are 2 questions with answers to help you get clearer about executive presence and another video to analyze. Pro-Tip there are settings where you MUST demo executive presence, but not all of them require people above you to be present.

In Part 1, I explained the importance of differentiating between personal, professional and executive presence.

In Part 2, I offer further analysis of what lies behind the distinctions I draw and how it is that there's such confusion about whether executive presence is a valid concept and, if so, what it is. If you're keen on the answers and to willing to peer beyond conventional wisdom, Read ON!

The Historic Perspective

Let's say that the early 1970s was the start of the common era of corporate focus on women's advancement. (I was around so I can attest). As this Ngram analysis shows, executive presence has been a topic in the English language ever since then and with recently increased acceleration. (I'm keen to know what's been happening since 2019, but no data is available.)


This matters because the timing coincides with companies trying to figure out why, with all our outstanding leadership skills, so few women make it to the top. Lack of executive presence has been proposed as one of these factors.

Let's Cut to the Chase

Before examining what 50+ years of verbiage tells us, I ask you to think about a question that I've not seen addressed in the sources I've examined for this or prior research on executive presence.

In what settings is executive presence required and/or an asset?

I ask this because context matters. It helps define the primary differentiator between the presence of a politician, teacher or preacher and that of a business executive.

Here are some of my answers (what others would you add?):

  • When being interviewed by the business media?

  • When speaking at an industry conference?

  • Addressing analyst questions during a quarterly earnings call.

  • When presenting progress updates at an operations review? 

  • When making a business case for your idea, project or proposal.

  • And of course all presentations within an organization that are intended to inspire performance and motivate transformation.

These answers then raise this question:

Is an audience of followers (those with some degree of reporting relationship) required?

My answer is "no." Think about the settings above. Analysts aren't followers, reporters aren't followers, audiences at industry conferences aren't followers nor is a group of peers. So there's something about executive presence that's requires more than inspiring, motivating, coaching or otherwise engaging followers.

Consider this video of Corie Barry, CEO of Best Buy. Is she displaying executive presence? Absolutely! In the room are only Corie and the reporter. No direct or indirect reports are present. And while elements of the message might be for them, her message is primarily for investors and analysts, not employees.

Here is another example. In this instance it's a Bloomberg interview with Ellen Kullman when she was CEO of DuPont. She speaks with executive presence about DuPont's external business environment, business challenges, strategic direction. Definitely delivering business savvy messages. As with Corrie Barry above, she's speaking to analysts and investors, not to an audience of followers.

50+ Years Trying to Define Executive Presence - YIKES!

Granted, I did not survey 50 years of publications (though I've read many and been around for most of them and have a good sense of what they say). Instead for this article, I studied the top 15 articles returned for the search "executive presence." Here's what I found:

  1. Most define what we hope to find in great executives and managers. They aspirationally describe people with integrity who can motivate followers, who are authentic, dynamic, poised and charismatic. NOTE: these all work for preachers, teachers, politicians, too.

  2. Of the 12 articles that offered unique definitions, only 3 applied specifically to business settings. NOTE: the other 9 would apply to preachers, teachers and politicians. One of these 9 equated leadership presence with executive presence. It's safe to say that they are not the same. All who are in a leadership positions are expected to have leadership presence, but not all of them are required to have executive presence. Imagine a preacher, teacher or cult leader being interviewed by a business reporter from CNBC or Bloomberg Business.

  3. All of the unique definitions spoke about engaging the greatness in others, e.g. being inspiring, earning trust and bringing people together. These relate to the audience facing comfort quadrant that I illustrate in Part 1. Also to 1/3rd of my leadership definition.

  4. Eight of the definitions also include elements of personal greatness, e.g. self-confidence, authenticity, integrity (another 1/3rd of my leadership definition). Certain factors (e.g. how you carry yourself, poise) also relate to the non-content verbals and non-verbals in the quadrants illustrated in Part 1.

  5. None of the definitions in any way address the fact that when feedback about executive presence is given in relation to advancement in organizations, it requires the development and demonstration of business, strategic and financial acumen - the ability to deliver a business-savvy message.

  6. Beyond the offered definitions, none of the articles mention the context of business, the settings in which executive presence is required nor the types of messaging that correlate with executive presence.

No Wonder We're Confused

This confusion leads itself to frequent threads on Linkedin where people admit to being confused when they're told, "You don't have executive presence." One popped up just last week. It was popular - receiving nearly 500 "likes" and 137 comments.

Among the 137 comments, I found 26 different definitions which I analyzed by asking 3 questions:

  1. Does this definition directly speak to the role of an executive?

  2. Does this definition equate Executive Presence with Personal Presence?

  3. Does this definition define any good leader?

Two of the definitions were just plain "out there." Of the remaining 24, here's what I found.

Lay Definitions of Executive Presence

None of the definitions make a connection between executive presence and the role of a business executive. This is not to say that only executives can have executive presence. As several of the contributors rightly state, executive presence can appear at any level. Nor is it to say that all executives have executive presence by virtue of their role (heaven knows they don't!).

It is to point out that there is a difference between an executive and a preacher, teacher or cult leader. That difference (and forgive me for hammering on the point) has to do with her/his ability to deliver business savvy messages by drawing on her/his business, strategic and financial acumen.

NOTE: Many of the comments that did not include definitions took issue with the very idea of "executive presence." The writers described the concept as a tool for hiding bias against women and people of color or as a demand that people act like white men. Sadly, these ideas can keep the very people who most need it from examining the concept of executive presence with clarity and realizing the importance of being able to deliver business savvy messages.

What's a Woman to Do?

Many women feel that business, strategic and financial acumen are not their areas of strength. I'd say that the same is true of the authors of books, articles and Linkedin posts on Executive Presence. They have unquestioningly built upon books and articles that have come before.

This article is my attempt to offer you a way out of this trap and to offer a perspective and actionable advice that your women clients will not get elsewhere. You can do this by:

  1. Inviting yourself to examine your mindset about what executive presence is and take on some version of my definition for its clarity about the importance of business savvy messaging.

  2. Asking yourself 2 thought-provoking questions:

    • In what settings is it mandatory for you to display executive presence. In other words, in what settings will you be considered a failure if you don't exhibit executive presence (as differentiated from settings where if you do it adds positively to your brand)?

    • Do followers/direct reports or others in your reporting chain have to be in the room in order for you to be expected to demonstrate executive presence?

3. Think further about your business, strategic and financial acumen and the frequency with which you demonstrates mastery of these key leadership elements.

Thanks for reading. I'd love to hear your thoughts about this article.

If you haven't already, please be sure to digest my analyses from Part 1.

Catch you next time,


PS Was this of value to you? Share the content with a colleague or friend so she can benefit as well.


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