A fresh look at executive presence, for technology leaders

There comes a point on your leadership journey when you have largely mastered the technical aspects of your craft. You’re now a senior executive, or well on your way to becoming one. It’s not just what you think, say and do, it’s how you think, say and do it. At this stage, transitional startup founders, experienced CEOs and other senior technology executives come to me to help them work on their executive presence to support their next leadership leap.

Let’s deep dive into:

Executive presence

What is executive presence?

Defining executive presence is difficult. Like US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, you just know it when you see it. That said, let’s attempt a definition so we have something to hang our thinking off:

Executive presence is a set of traits and behaviours which enable you to influence others and inspire the confidence in them that you are the right person for the job.

That’s not very specific and every executive is different, which is why I take a coach-approach to helping clients define what executive presence means for them.

Co-curated with senior executive clients during coaching conversations, below is a selection of traits and behaviours to inspire your own thinking about what executive presence means, with a focus on:

  • Managing upwards to your own CEO (if that isn’t yourself), your Chairperson or other Board members, investors, and external stakeholders (like the media).
  • Managing downwards, to your senior leadership and management team, and employees.

Why we need a fresh perspective on executive presence

Before we get going, why do we need to update our approach towards thinking about what executive presence is?

Changing approaches to leadership

Traditionally leadership has taken a more top-down, command-and-control approach. Authoritative leaders were expected to have all the answers. We now know this to be folly. In a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous world, leaders simply can’t have all the answers. We must ask how we can show up in a way that empowers people, rather than just giving orders and making judgments?

A better understanding of behavioural biases and prejudices

When the tall, white, handsome, male speaker bounds onto the stage and presents with complete confidence, the audience will judge his comments more favourably than he deserves. Does that person display executive presence? Yes, but there are other factors in play that mean the table is already stacked heavily in their favour. How do we adjust for and integrate biases like this into our own executive presence and when we are evaluating others?

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

More broadly, how do we show up in a world that we want to be more diverse, equitable and inclusive? As leaders, what role can and should we play? How do we recognise our own privileges, while at the same time seek to understand and incorporate the rich life experiences and perspectives of others? If we haven’t come into the world with those privileges, how do we lean into our own executive presence?

It’s why simple anecdotes like “exude more confidence” quickly fall down when we consider the nuance behind such statements. A leader can exude confidence because of the race, sex and privilege they’re born into. They can have the confidence to believe they have all the right answers, all the time, whilst at the same time steering the ship in entirely the wrong direction!

All these questions, and many more, are in play when exploring and refining your own executive presence. I don’t have all the answers, but I do encourage you to think deeply about them when considering your own approach. With all this in mind, let’s get to it.

How can you improve your executive presence?

Define your leadership style

Leadership is an improvisational art. You must react and change constantly to different situations, but it’s important to have the self-awareness to know what sort of leader you are. If you don’t have clarity on what your own leadership style is, it’s very hard to articulate it to others.

  • What do you value? What are your principles? How do you want others to see you? What sets you apart?
  • What is your personal brand? Your elevator pitch?
  • As you move into a more senior leadership position, it’s an hour well spent to sit down and ponder the answer to questions like this. You can do this alone, or with a coach.
  • To prompt both introspection and action ask “what sort of leader am I now, and what sort of leader do I want to be in the future?”

Showing up

As you interface with those around you, how do you behave? 

Tell your own story. Humans are wired for stories and compelling narratives. As well as articulating the vision and strategy for the business, how do you articulate your own story? What do you reveal to others, on a larger stage? 

Lean towards over-communicating. Leaders are 9 X more likely to be criticised for under communicating than over communicating. Those who say too little come across as unclear and uncaring. When you’re tired of your message, it’s probably just starting to land.

Be direct, clear and concise. Don’t ramble. It’s no good having great ideas if you can’t articulate and communicate them in a way that is clear and compelling to others. Leaders take people on a journey. They need to be able to easily understand in what direction they are going and what the plan is to get there.

Don’t panic, or lose your temper. Leaders don’t get flustered easily. They don’t fly off the handle. They maintain a cool, calm composure even if they’re vexing or deeply concerned inside. Great leaders are thoughtful and deliberate, not impulsive and reactive.

Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know”. In a complex world, it’s impossible for leaders to have all the answers. Calibrate your confidence. If you don’t know the answer to something, don’t be afraid to admit it and empower your team to help you discover the answer.

Dress accordingly. This is a loaded topic. Steve Jobs opted for a black roll neck. Mark Zuckerberg wears the same style T-shirt every day to avoid decision fatigue and boost productivity. Brian Armstrong, the CEO of cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase, now regularly dons a suit and tie, presumably in an effort to enhance the reputation of the industry. 

But these aren’t representative samples, for obvious reasons. The topic of what women should wear, for example, is far more contentious. 

For decades [we] have been asked what women can do to convey a more powerful leadership presence. Questions tend to focus on the cosmetics: the right clothes, a firm handshake, a confident tone of voice, whether a woman should carry a purse, even whether plastic surgery can be helpful! Yet decades of exposure to a wide range of extraordinary leaders have shown both of us that the key component of leadership presence is the opposite of cosmetic: it lies in the capacity to be fully present for a task for a conversation, for the moment, for an opportunity. Present for your larger purpose in the world.

What makes you feel confidence in your own skin, and present for your larger purpose in the world? That’s probably a good guide to your work wardrobe.

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How Vertical Development helps new leaders transform explores the distinction between horizontal development, which focuses on what you know, and Vertical Development, which concerns how you think.

Demonstrate strategic and systemic awareness

Moving beyond technical expertise. At a senior level there’s an implicit assumption that you know the detail. You’re not paid to focus on it. So, whilst you might have a great answer to a hard question levelled by a senior stakeholder, let others speak to technical challenges. Shift focus instead to issues of strategy, people and culture, governance and risk.

Organisation-first direction of travel. If you’re the CEO, it goes without saying that you need to frame communications and direction of travel in terms of the overall business strategy. But so do other senior leaders. When communicating upwards to senior stakeholders, frame activities in the context of the whole organisation, not just the part of it that you are responsible for:

  • How will the business as a whole benefit from the project or initiative you are leading?
  • How do your activities align with the broader business and people strategy?
  • Particularly at Board-level, what help and support do you need to execute? How can they use their high-leverage to best help you?

Demonstrate systemic awareness. Senior leaders are able to see the system, both internally within the business and externally in terms of what the market, your competitors and macro-environment is doing. You need to be able to understand and articulate how your team’s activities will solve overarching business challenges, and contribute to the overall vision and mission in an ever-changing environment.

Executive presence, a mindset shift

Great leaders recognise that when it comes to defining executive presence there are no easy answers, or simple frameworks off which to hang how they show up. There is no one way to lead, rather there are many paradoxes to be navigated. For example, how do you balance:

  • Confidence and humility – with a few notable exceptions, great leaders know when to exude complete confidence and when to acknowledge that they don’t know and stop, ask questions, listen, trust those around them and seek broad perspectives.
  • Authenticity and vulnerablity – being authentic does not mean sharing everything all the time. What balance are you comfortable with?
  • Vision and reality – setting stretch goals with a vision for a better future, with constraining realities.

Great leaders embody executive presence in a way that is unique and difficult to define. They have the inner-confidence to make their style and presence their own. But rest assured, it doesn’t come easy.

I’m Richard Hughes-Jones, an Executive Coach to CEOs and senior technology leaders.

My clients are transitional founders, CEOs and executives in high-growth technology businesses, the investment industry and progressive corporates.

Having often already mastered the technical aspects of their craft, I help my clients navigate the complex adaptive challenges associated with executive-level leadership and growth.

Find out more about my Executive Coaching services and get in touch if you’d like to explore working together. You can also read my Complete Guide to Finding the Right Executive Coach for You.

Executive Coach - Richard Hughes-Jones