What Executive Presence Really Means and How to Pull it Off

Guest Contributed by Denise Green

When I interview my coaching clients’ bosses and ask what skill they believe would make the most difference if improved, I nearly always hear, “She needs to develop more executive presence.” When I ask what that looks like to them, I get a variety of responses, many of them vague.

We all know when someone with a persuasive presence enters a room. Yet, it can be hard to describe. My favorite characterization of executive presence comes courtesy of John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut. In their book, Compelling People, they describe presence as the ability to project authentic strength and warmth, and to adjust each up or down, according to the situation. People who do this well are more likely to gain our trust and loyalty. The authors argue that here is no inherent contradiction in simultaneously projecting warmth and strength.

Individuals such as Oprah Winfrey, Tony Robbins, Michelle Obama and Pope Francis project an air of knowing what they are doing and having other peoples’ best interests at heart. Here are steps you can take starting today to turn up your presence and persuasion.

  1. Create an intentional identity. How do you want people to perceive you in this next interaction? What do you want people to say about you after you leave the room? (Or, when you leave this earth). Have this intention in mind before you enter a room.
  2. Be responsive instead of reactive. Our modern lives are in conflict with our ancient brains. As such, we don’t have the capacity to deal with our back-to-back, always-on schedules and devices. According to author and Neuroleadership founder David Rock, our prefrontal cortex (the newest part of the brain, responsible for our planning, personality expression and decision making), works efficiently for only 90 minutes per day on average. When we’re stressed, hungry or tired, our prefrontal cortex loses precious capacity. If you’ve ever blurted something you regretted, or sent an email that you wished you could pull back, you know how much effort it can take to respond mindfully instead of reacting impulsively.

My unscientific opinion about reactivity is that women have a higher bar than men. When a woman blurts out a criticism, she’s potentially labeled harsh, overbearing aggressive or worse. When a man does it, he’s more likely to be labeled assertive. And if a woman reacts without the proper dosage of emotion, she is easily labeled cold, or at the other extreme, hysterical. We only have to look at Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign to see how challenging it is for women to strike the right balance.

The specific part of the brain involved in managing impulse control is called the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (RVLPFC). Like any part of the brain, it grows stronger with practice.

  1. Power your brain. Most of the people you work with are likely sleep-deprived, hungry and dehydrated. Taking care of your body and brain will not only help you feel better and live longer, it will help you maximize your brain’s capacity.
  • Pack your desk and refrigerator with healthy, low-glycemic snacks. Move throughout the day, whether that means taking the stairs or conducting standing and walking meetings.
  • Consume caffeine 30 minutes before you need to be your most brilliant self.
  • Fill a large bottle with lemon water (lemon is alkaline and facilitates water absorption). Drink throughout the day.
  • Bring dark chocolate to meetings to share with others (the sugar content is low, and the small amount of caffeine and antioxidents make it an ideal treat for tired brains).
  • Make sure to get at least seven hours of sleep.
  1. Project authentic confidence. Give yourself a confidence boost by putting your best self forward — from your clothing choices to your posture to how you state your ideas.
  • Dress: Wear clothing that presents you as confident and polished. If you’re fashion challenged, hire a personal shopper. Nordstrom provides this low-pressure service at no cost.
  • Posture: If you haven’t seen the TED video by Amy Cuddy, it’s worth the 18 minutes. She describes how taking a power posture actually changes your blood chemistry to make you more confident.
  • Voice: Record yourself in a meeting and listen for tone and filler language. End your statements on a down note, not up. Remove unnecessary ‘uhs’ and ‘ums.’ If you want to project strength, leave out the fillers and just begin with “I believe we should…”
  1. Show appropriate vulnerability. Vulnerability is a critical ingredient in presence. We don’t trust people who show too much or too little of it. Authentically confident people readily own their strengths and weaknesses, willingly apologize for mistakes and share personal information that puts others at ease. Let them know that your furrowed brow is due to painful sciatica, not their Powerpoint report.

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Denise R. Green is a speaker, writer, and executive coach committed to helping people go from burned-out (or blah) to brilliant. After a successful career with Oracle Corporation and Charles Schwab, Denise founded Brilliance Inc., a coaching corporation whose purpose is to unleash human potential. For more than a decade, she and her team have helped thousands of people feel less stressed, and have more ease and fulfillment in all areas of their lives. Her new book, Work-Life Brilliance: Tools to Break Stress and Create the Life & Health You Crave (Brilliance Publishing, April 2017) is about reigniting one’s internal spark. Learn more and access the free e-guide, “Break Stress Now,” at

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