Is Executive Presence Holding You Back Professionally?

By Caroline Ceniza-Levine '93BC of the Columbia Career Coaches Network 

Most professionals intuitively understand the value of executive presence, but how do you fix it? A good first step is to review the list of 10 factors that employers and recruiters assess when gauging executive presence. Just translating an amorphous concept like "executive presence" into specific components can give you a checklist to assess yourself. But, you might not be the best grader—maybe you're too hard on yourself or not honest enough. 

Only when you're aware of your gaps and shortfalls around the issue of executive presence can you do something to fix it. Here are four ways you can identify where you lack executive presence:

Record yourself to identify verbal gaps

A number of executive presence factors center on your verbal communication skills—pace, tone, volume—so you need to check for these items specifically, not just the content of what you're saying. An easy way to do this is to leave a voicemail for yourself or use the recording feature on your phone, and answer a question that is likely to come up in your day-to-day.

If you're in job search mode, answer "Tell me about yourself." If you have an upcoming presentation, elaborate on how you got to one of your presentation findings. If you're gainfully employed and not making any moves right now, answer, "What are you working on?" (You might get that question as you run into a senior person in the hall!)

When you play back the recording, you are not listening for content (that's important but for a different exercise). For now:

  • Focus on your pace—are you talking too slowly or too quickly?
  • Listen for tone—do you have inflections that engage the listener or are you a boring monotone?
  • Listen for volume—are you shouting to get your point across or do you sound meek and soft? If you tend to use lots of filler words (e.g., um, like) or if you tend to make statements with an uptick at the end so they sound like a question instead of a declaration, recording yourself is a great way to break bad speaking habits. Once you hear yourself objectively, often that awareness is enough to stop the offending behaviors. 


Role play your networking to check for a weak first impression

Another key element of executive presence is to establish a strong first impression. Do you greet people with a firm handshake, solid eye contact, and strong energy?

Get a group of friends together and practice that initial greeting. Set a timer for five minutes and keep shaking hands and introducing yourself to others. Notice when others have a strong greeting—what makes it effective? Notice when others appear uncomfortable—what do they do specifically to undermine themselves in that first interaction? Share that feedback with others, and ask that they share candid feedback with you.

This is why you want to plan this with friends, as opposed to practicing by going to networking events. You'll never get feedback at networking events. If you ask for feedback, you may make the other person uncomfortable. If you don't ask for feedback, you may just be practicing and reinforcing weak greetings. You need real-time, candid feedback in order to see if your first impression exudes executive presence or diminishes it.

Run a mock interview or presentation run-through

You might have strong executive presence at the start, but then it wanes. You slouch. Your communication gets sloppy. As the content part of the discussion gets more complex, your good habits fall by the wayside—you can't think of executive presence when you're defending your data or getting push back on a response.

Unfortunately, executive presence must be sustainable if you truly want to convince people you have it. If you can give yourself an honest self-assessment, you can record your interview responses and your presentation. But capturing a lifelike video is not easy, and assessing yourself on video to look at executive presence and not all the other noise (how bad the lighting is, how different you look on-screen) is also difficult.

Better to enlist a friend from HR or a mentor or coach to role play with you and give you feedback in real-time.

Tap an observant peer to catch gaps in the moment

Perhaps you can be on your best behavior for a high stakes event like an interview or presentation, but how about that weekly meeting? Or the impromptu conversations when a colleague drops by? Ideally, you get some feedback on how you come across in these everyday situations.

If you have a peer that you trust—s/he gives constructive feedback and s/he truly supports you—ask them to observe your daily interactions for a set period of time, and report back what they see. Are you making eye contact? Do you move and converse with ease? If you have a weekly team meeting, ask your peer to comment on how you come across at these meetings.

If there are specific habits you are trying to break—e.g., you slouch—ask your peer to tap you at the very moment you fall into your bad habit. As soon as you slouch, your observant peer taps your foot or gives you a signal. The easiest way to identify and correct something you want to change is in the moment. All of these actions to identify gaps in executive presence take preparation and follow-through. However, once you identify the gaps, they are much easier to fix, and improvements don't require that much change or too much time.

Executive presence is not something you're just born with. It is a specific set of behaviors, and you can adopt these into your everyday life so that you carry your good habits and qualities into the higher stakes events like presentations, interviews, or networking occasions.

Caroline is a career columnist for Forbes.com, Money.com and Time.com and formerly wrote for CNBC, and Portfolio. She is the author of 3 books: “Jump Ship: 10 Steps To Starting A New Career” (2015, Forbes); “Six Steps To Job Search Success” (2011, Flat World Knowledge); and “How the Fierce Handle Fear: Secrets to Succeeding in Challenging Times” (2010, Two Harbors Press). She teaches Professional Development and Negotiation courses at Columbia University and received a grant from the Jones New York Empowerment Fund for her work with the mid-career professional. A classically trained pianist at Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music, Caroline stays active in the arts, performing stand-up comedy.

Learn more about the Columbia Career Coaches Network.


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