Dr. Shirley Davis

Executive Presence: Poise, Posture, and Professionalism

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A 5 minute read

This week I had the pleasure of participating in the National Sales Network’s Annual Conference in Dallas, TX. More than 500 sales professionals, sponsors, exhibitors, and speakers were in attendance bringing excitement, expertise, and energy with them. A special track was created specifically for women and I was asked to speak on Career Strategies for the Professional Women. My session was entitled, Executive Presence: Poise, Posture, Professionalism, and Perseverance under Pressure. Afterwards, I participated in a book signing of my newly released book: “Reinvent Yourself: Strategies for Achieving Success in Every Area of Your Life.”

Workshop poster

Here were some of highlights of my key points:
Research continues to reveal that it does play a role in hiring decisions, promotions, and perceptions and that executive presence is not just required for executives—rather it is a  sought after skill for high potential professionals. Moreover, executive presence is now the second highest reason why clients seek an executive coach. According to an October 2012 study by the Center for Talent Innovation, a non-profit research organization in New York, being perceived as leadership material is essential to being promoted into leadership positions. In fact, the 268 senior executives surveyed said “executive presence” counts for 26% of what it takes to get promoted.

What is more compelling is that 81% of women surveyed in the study found executive presence confusing and were unsure how to act upon it. Further interestingly findings just released by Brian Underhill and his research team in the US highlight that executive presence is now the second highest reason why clients seek an executive coach (behind the main driver which is leadership development).


So what is executive presence?

Executive presence remains an elusive term that leaves many professional women struggling with how to act upon it. Commonly included in its definition is poise, posture, and the ability to perform under pressure, among others. Most researchers concede that understanding exactly what defines executive presence is still difficult. It is also fraught with the gendered expectations of what traditional (typically male) leadership looks like, and this can be particularly challenging for women in managing these unwritten expectations.
The definition provided by the Hewlett study found that executive presence consists of a trilogy of the following qualities:


  1. Gravitas – Described as self-confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness, this was considered to be the core of executive presence by the 268 executives surveyed.
  2. Communication – Excellent speaking skills, assertiveness and the ability to read the audience comprised this quality, which was considered a secondary but important skill, particularly in being able to talk the language of business and to convey opinions with conviction.
  3. Physical appearance rated a much lower third and was described as “looking polished and pulled together”. However, the main takeaway was that if an individual’s appearance wasn’t managed well, it could detract from the two key qualities above, rather than being a central concern.

In my personal experience, executive presence has been referred to as the “wow” factor, an “aura” that exudes from you when you walk into a room, a magnetism that draws people to you that carries an ability to influence, and having “IT”—that thing that commands attention and respect. It’s not limited to an outward appearance, albeit a critical part of getting attention, but it also comes from a deep place of self-assurance and confidence from within. And when you speak, you use clear language, you speak with authority and intelligence, you display positive body language, give solid eye contact, a warm smile, and you exude passion and energy. On the outside, you are dressed professionally, appropriately, fashionably, and you are not overdone with too much jewelry, makeup, cologne/perfume, nor are you over-exposed with cleavage, tummy, and buttocks, distracting body piercings/tattoos, and tight clothing. It is not flattering and it brings the wrong kind of attention.

Additional research findings from the study quoted above by the Center for Talent Innovation, authors say the findings offer new insight into why fewer women make it to the C-suite. Women and racial minorities were found to struggle more with executive presence, likely because corporate culture has long been a bastion of white men. Some 56% of minority-race professionals feel they are held to a stricter code, compared to 31% of white professionals. Meanwhile, women said feedback on executive presence is often contradictory and confusing, which may be why a whopping 81% say they’re unclear about how to act on it.

People at a workshop

A few strategies that I offer if executive presence remains an area of development for you:

  • Seek out a trusted advisor/coach/mentor who will give you honest feedback on how you carry yourself, how you are perceived by others when you walk into a room or when you make a presentation, and who will tell you where you can enhance your presence.
  • Study others who have “IT.” You know it when you see it. Observe the way that they enter a room, their posture, their body language, their dress/appearance, their verbal communication style, how they work a room, etc.
  • Consider working with an image consultant. Learn how you can enhance your outward appearance.
  • Work with a speech coach on how you can speak with power and passion. Presentation skills are a part of leadership responsibilities and a critical skill in gaining credibility.
  • Seek out resources on line. There are lots of articles, webinars, eBooks, and videos on You Tube that identify ways that you can make powerful and lasting impressions.
  • Identify your greatest assets and strengths and know what makes your package (YOU) unique and special. When you know this it helps build your confidence and authenticity. An important part about having “IT” is knowing what IT is.

Executive presence may remain an elusive term but it can be developed. While it is a real standard that is used for promotions, hiring, and perceptions every day, if you have a baseline of self-confidence, have identified your talents and expertise, and you have a willingness to develop all of these, executive presence can go from being elusive to being conveyed.

To book Dr. Davis to speak at your next conference click here 

For more tips on how to enhance your communication, presence, and impact in the workplace order my new book, “Reinvent Yourself: Strategies for Achieving Success in Every Area of Your Life,” ($19.99) at drshirleydavis.com/store

Dr. Shirley Davis at a book signing