Let’s talk about an important and somewhat controversial topic: What it means to have executive presence, and how you can build it.
I define executive presence as a set of behaviors that will influence others to fully listen to what you say. You can be right all the time, and the hardest worker at the company, but to be maximally effective people need to judge your ideas on their own merits. This is extra important when you have a large team or need to work cross-functionally, since getting things done requires that people listen to your perpectives. Executive presence becomes much more important as you rise in an organization, and for senior leaders it’s vital.
One sign of the lack of executive presence is being defined by your vocation. They’re just an engineer, or they’re just a marketer – we’ll listen when they’re talking about their domain, but on other topics we’ll tune them out. Establishing a strong executive presence is about setting the stage for people to pay attention to your views because they think that you yourself are capable.
Note: There are definite differences in how one’s executive presence is perceived for different demographic groups – as a minor, neutral point, height is very important for how men are perceived in the workplace. This post is written in the most generally applicable terms possible, but your unique situation will almost certainly vary.
Execs Don’t Freak Out
If you take nothing else away from this post, it’s this first point: Don’t freak out.
Visibly losing control of yourself is one of the most damaging ways that leaders self-sabotage. Seeing the person who’s supposed to be in charge lose control under pressure is confidence-destroying and can take a very long time to recover from. In my experience a reputation for freaking out requires years of consistent self-control to fade from memory.
Freaking out is of course a personal experience – everybody will respond differently to a sudden scary situation. Some people get very reactive when they freak out, looking frantically for something that they can control. Others get angry or lash out. Others freeze. It’s worth diagnosing your own personal patterns so that you can catch yourself before losing control.
One way to know if you’re freaking out: If someone ever tells you not to freak out, you are probably already well beyond freaking out. Take some deep breaths, calm yourself down as close to baseline as you can get, and then memorize that feeling so that you can catch it earlier next time.
Additionally, it’s easy for any highly dramatic display to get interpreted incorrectly in the modern workplace – particularly over Zoom, as remote meetings generally dampen emotional contagion. What you intend as a fiery motivational speech might come across as an emotional implosion.
Execs Don’t Ramble
You only sound as smart as the dumbest thing that comes out of your mouth. The more you say, the more dumb stuff that you have the chance to say. Consciously try to have a timer going in your head that tells you to wrap it up after you’ve been talking for ~30 seconds, unless there’s a specific reason that you need to speak for longer (e.g. a presentation). In a broader group discussion it’s typically better to make a few concise good points rather than to ramble for a long time at once. People take high-signal communicators seriously.
Additionally, if you can’t express something concisely you probably don’t fully understand it. Not understanding something is fine and normal, but taking up a lot of space showing that you don’t understand something is a rookie move.
It’s extra important to keep this mind as an executive because once you’re senior enough people will let you ramble. Maintain high signal.
Execs Calibrate Their Confidence
Great leaders aren’t confident about everything; they’re confident when they have data or logic on their side, and they’re smart and experienced enough to have data / logic for a very wide range of situations.
I’ve found that the best executives occasionally have moments where you might expect them to have some confident response, where they’ll instead say something like “well I don’t actually know anything about X, so I don’t have an opinion.” The fact that someone is visibly willing to admit what they don’t know is a powerful signal that when they do speak, they should be listened to.
The opposite of this behavior is being confidently wrong, which is devastating to credibility. The extreme is the Modern Politician effect where you’re so confidently wrong so often that people essentially never listen to anything that you say.
Even worse than people discounting your opinion in the future, being confidently wrong is so egregious that it can cause people to talk behind your back about how you can’t be trusted. This can create a descending credibility spiral that is very hard to recover from.
Execs Aren’t Blindly Defensive
From time to time, your team will inevitably have bad outcomes that you will bear varying degrees of responsibility for. In some cases you will have missed something big; in others you might have mis-executed; in others you might have simply failed to catch a mistake made by others. No matter the situation, you don’t want to get a reputation for blind defensiveness – where you appear unwilling to consider your own role in a bad outcome.
The impression of blind defensiveness can come from several different sources. For example:
- Always using the same reason / excuse for why something went wrong: I need more resources, or my team isn’t strong enough. At a certain point, it’s on you to make that problem better.
- Refusing to take any responsibility for something where you were indirectly at fault. You run a product management team, and the latest launch was late – is it really 100% on the engineering team for not coding fast enough? The First Mate still needs to answer questions when the Carnival Cruise Liner slams into the dock.
- Using “whataboutism” to justify your team’s mistakes – “sure we were late on the launch, but marketing wasn’t even ready for it anyway.”
- Unwillingness to do a retro when something goes wrong.
At most well-functioning organizations, it’s understood that people or teams make mistakes. It’s a part of life. So if you come across as blindly defensive, you start to look like someone who views good or bad outcomes as moments that further or hinder your own career, as opposed to opportunities to just do better as a team.
Execs Look the Part
This is a broad and controversial topic, so I will just propose one minimal standard to follow in terms of outward work appearances: You should not appear to be in both the youngest and shabbiest looking 1/3 of people at your level. Aim to present an appearance that does not give anyone’s subconscious an excuse to write you off as immature.
You can’t easily control how old you look, but you can easily choose what you wear. This isn’t a fashion blog, but if you follow the rules below you’re almost certainly going to avoid the bottom ⅓ of shabbiness in the sartorial post-apocalypse of tech:
- Wear clothes that fit. This single rule alone can sometimes bump you into the top ⅔ of outfit quality for your company.
- Don’t wear clothes that you got for free, whether company swag or (worse) something that you got from a career fair in college.
- Certain clothing choices will make you appear much younger – and remember, you don’t want to be in both the bottom ⅓ of apparent age or shabbiness. Leaning into modern fashion trends as opposed to more timeless fashion choices (jeans with a blouse for women or shirt with a collar for men) will tend to make you look younger as well.
- Observe your company’s context. Dress shirts are practically black tie formal in San Jose, but median formality at best in London. Microsoft is a different vibe from your 5-person YC startup. Consider the circumstances.
There is nothing nice or fair about this – in a perfect world, people would look beyond outward appearances before judging how seriously they should take you. But in practice they don’t and they won’t. This is a practical guide, so this reflects my view on what I’ve seen in the workplace. If you are yourself a senior leader, taking people seriously no matter their appearance is the best way to reset some of these cultural stereotypes at your company.
While some of the tips here might seem like they’re to one’s own benefit, more executive presence is in everyone’s best interest as it lifts the smartest voices instead of just the stereotypical ones. Increasing executive presence can also unlock rising stars in your organization who are highly skilled but have less gravitas.
In a perfect world, everyone would command full attention at all times – but unfortunately that isn’t the case. This isn’t an exhaustive list of ways to build executive presence, but it’s a foundation if you or someone on your team aren’t sure where to start.