What is Executive Presence?

According to Suzanne Bates, author of the book, All the Leader You Can Be, “Executive presence is the ability of the leader to engage, align, inspire, and move people to act.”  Sylvia Ann Hewlitt, the author of Executive Presence, defines it as:

“A measure of image: whether you signal to others that you are star material. If you are able to crack the EP code, you’ll be first in line for that next plum assignment and be given the chance to do something extraordinary with your life.”

The average person may think EP is the way you dress or the ability to give a speech or presentation to a large group. It is a lot more than that though, if all you do is dress the way you believe an executive should dress at your workplace, and do not consider any other aspects, you may come off as not authentic, or even a bit awkward, like the image of the adorable little girl dressed up in her mommy’s church dress, pearls, and high heels. This makes a cute and fun photo to show of your kids later, but it is NOT an image that any of us are going for when we try to improve our Executive Presence. EP is A LOT more than outward appearances. This is why this topic is so important.


In Sylvia Ann Hewlitt’s book, Executive Presence, she believes that EP can be divided into three main headings, Gravitas, Communication, and Appearance. Suzanne Bates breaks down her EP concept into 15 facets of presence and influence, that are also divided into three broad categories, Character, Substance, and Style. Let’s talk about some of these so you get the idea about what Executive Presence really is, with some concrete action steps you can take to begin improving your own EP!

Let’s start with Sylvia Ann Hewlitt’s idea of Gravitas:

1. Exuding confidence and “grace under fire”
2. Acting decisively and “showing teeth”
3. Showing integrity and “speaking truth to power”
4. Demonstrating emotional intelligence
5. Right-sizing your reputation
6. Projecting vision

Here are a few ideas on how to improve your “Gravitas”:

  • Surround yourself with people who are better than you.
  • Stick to what you know (don’t claim to know something you don’t know, if you are wrong it will cost you in the gravitas area.)
  • Show humility
  • Empower other’s presence to build your own
  • Drive change, rather than be changed

Communication includes three key verbal and non-verbal abilities (Sylvia Ann Hewlitt):

1. Superior speaking skills
2. Ability to command a room
3. Ability to read an audience
4. Forcefulness and assertiveness
5. Sense of humor and the ability to banter
6. Body language

Here are a few ideas on how to improve your Communication Skills:

  • Ditch verbal crutches (um, like, you know, etc.) Allow yourself to pause instead
  • Broaden your small talk
  • Get control of your voice
  • Over prepare
  • Learn to present without props (notes, etc.)
  • Do not allow challenges to your authority to go unanswered

Appearance counts, largely as a filter through which your communication skills and gravitas become more apparent (Sylvia Ann Hewlitt):

1. Being polished and well groomed
2. Physical attractiveness, slim, fit
3. Simple stylish clothes that position you for your next promotion

Here are a few tips for improving your appearance:

  • It’s not how good your look, it is how appropriate you look for your audience.
  • If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t
  • Stay in costume to stay in character. (Don’t leave you suit jacked on the back of your door “in case” someone important comes by.) You never know when that will happen.
  • Don’t let bangles and bling steal your show (anything that draws attention away from your message is NOT giving the best you a chance to shine.)
  • When you are the CEO – you can make (and change) the rules. Until then, while you are still on your path, you should understand the expectations of your workplace.

It can be difficult to manage executive presence as a woman, as there is truly a tightrope that women have to walk when they are on this path. Sylvia gives the examples of how they can look too old or too young, too sexy or too frumpy, too self-aggrandizing or too self-depreciating, too blunt or too nice, and so on. Because so many of you are driven to succeed in this way, we have decided to share tips for improving Executive Presence on our Facebook page every Friday as a reminder to keep all of us focused on the attributes that we can control. Also, I do urge you to read both the books recommended in this article for more details on the concept the theory, and many, many tips on what you can do to increase your Executive Presence!

You can buy both of these book by clicking on the image of the book below!

Suzanne Bates, author of the book, All the Leader You Can Be

Sylvia Ann Hewlitt, the author of Executive Presence,

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