10 Aspects of Executive Presence

Last Updated Nov 9, 2009 6:01 PM EST

The first time I was considered for a CEO position I actually got the job, which surprised the heck out of me. When I asked the executive recruiter why I was chosen over what I thought were more experienced candidates, one of the things he said was that I had "CEO presence."

Admittedly, I'm not 100 percent sure what that means. But I have worked with hundreds of CEOs and other executives, so I thought I'd take a stab at what constitutes "executive presence." Whenever I attempt this sort of thing, the results are often counterintuitive, if not downright surprising. This is no exception.

One conclusion is that executive presence has nothing to do with polish, poise, sophistication, or even use of body language and gestures. In my opinion, executives with presence are just as likely to not posses those qualities. In this day and age, executive presence comes in lots of shapes and sizes, including some you wouldn't intuitively recognize. 30 years ago, who would have thought a nerd like Bill Gates could have executive presence? But he does.

Another conclusion some may have a tough time swallowing: I don't think any of these qualities are easy to learn or practice. I'm sure you can cognitively develop and improve some of them, but not by much. Not that anyone's born with them; they develop over time with experience and maturity.
One caveat: don't confuse this with speaking or presentation skills. Sure, they're part of the total package, but this is entirely about presence you project wherever you are and whatever you're doing.

10 Aspects of Executive Presence
  1. Genuine. Open, straightforward, comfortable in your skin; no BS or sugarcoating.
  2. Passion. You love and feel strongly about what you do and how you do it.
  3. Clarity. Communicate thoughts, feelings, and insights in crystal clarity and simplicity.
  4. Intelligence. No way around this one, and yes, it shows through.
  5. Insight. Ability to boil complex factors and mounds of data down to rare conclusions.
  6. Determination. Driven and full of purpose, determined to achieve and succeed.
  7. Confidence. Not overconfident, but with enough self-doubt to be objective.
  8. Humility. Willingness to admit mistakes, misjudgment, fear, and uncertainty is endearing.
  9. Courage. Willingness to take risks and take a position against considerable odds.
  10. Humor. Not over-the-top, but in the right measure, brings down other's defenses.
Keep in mind; nobody possesses all of these qualities in abundance. For example, lots of successful CEOs with strong presence lack one or more of the likeability factors like humor and humility. Larry Ellison and a few others you wouldn't know come to mind. But if you've got 7 or 8 of them, you're probably in pretty good shape.

How do you know if you've got executive presence? You don't. Few people possess that level of self-awareness and objectivity. But if you've got it, you'll eventually figure it out, albeit after the fact. That's just the way it is.

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