Executive Presence: The Inner Game

(Photo c/o #WOCinTech Chat)

Executive presence is an elusive and sometimes frustrating concept. The mere idea that it needs to be learned invites plenty of skepticism. Some common refrains include, “My performance speaks for itself,” “This is finishing school stuff,” or “Bill Gates looks like a dweeb, and things worked out pretty well for him.” So why bother?

Presence is not everything, but that doesn’t mean it’s nothing. It exists in tension with an individual’s job performance and positional authority within an organization. Sometimes the balance is imperfect: a high performer fails to attract attention because of an absence of presence. Or the high performer gets promoted to a position of formal authority but lacks the presence to exert informal influence. And occasionally someone with an abundance of presence gets the big job but fails to deliver.

The golden mean is a balance among these three elements: top performers get the top jobs and exude the sense that being an executive is an authentic expression of their character.

Executive presence is a modern concept. While the military has long understood the importance of grooming its officers to have command presence, the idea that executives should project an analogous quality when leading an army of professionals is relatively new. There are plenty of full-length books that purport to provide answers about how this works, and most fall somewhere between Dress for Success and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

What you’ll find here is much shorter: a common-sense framework for understanding executive presence. It is more descriptive than prescriptive, though it will include some practical tips for adopting new, unfamiliar behaviors and coaching yourself. Rather than providing a one-size-fits-all model, it will give you a new lens for understanding how others perceive your presence in a professional context as well as strategies for developing new skills.

Defining Executive Presence

Executive presence is the manner of conduct expected of a leader in an organization.

That’s it. No big mystery.

Figuring out what that means in a specific context is where things get interesting. As the people who make it to the top of the totem pole, executives reflect their organizations’ choices. And since organizations vary in terms of size, sector, goals, brand, and culture, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to what executive presence looks like. Kenneth Chenault (American Express), Christine Lagarde (International Monetary Fund), Eileen Fisher (Eileen Fisher), and Tony Hsieh (Zappos) each express their presence in unique ways. They all come across as authentic because their presence seems like an extension of their character.

The underlying social science behind presence concerns how we make character judgments about each other.[1]

Character Judgments: Strength and Warmth

Other people judge your presence based on how they read your emotions. They get the full picture of how you feel about what you’re saying based on information from three distinct channels:

Visual — What emotion signals do you send through your body language, eye contact, and facial expressions?

Vocal — What emotions can someone hear in the sound of your voice?

Four decades ago, psychologist Albert Mehrabian found that when a speaker sends conflicting signals among the visual, vocal, and verbal channels, the audience gets much more information about how a speaker feels about what he or she is saying from the visual and vocal channels — what they see and what they hear — than from the actual words the speaker uses.[2] The pie chart below shows the relative weight of these three channels when the channels are in conflict. Keep in mind that this only explains how an audience interprets a speaker’s emotions about what she or he is saying.

We learn more about how a person feels about what he or she is saying from the visual and vocal channels — the body language, facial expressions, and music of the voice — than from the actual words. [2]

If you have ever seen a child tell a thoroughly unconvincing lie, you have probably witnessed this disconnect between the actual words (“I didn’t do it!”) and the emotions conveyed through the visual and vocal channels. This is critical for understanding the workings of presence: most of it is nonverbal. When all three channels communicate the same emotion, the people around you get a clear sense of how you’re feeling about what you’re saying, which is critical to presence.

It’s important to understand that people use the visual, vocal, and verbal channels to figure out your emotional state. But that doesn’t tell you what they want to see from you. It turns out there are two fundamental qualities that shape our social judgments of other people: strength and warmth.

Strength gets things done. It consists of two basic elements: competence and assertiveness, or skill + will. People who project strength seem capable and credible, and they command respect because they can shape the world around them. In organizations, people with strength wind up in charge because they can provide direction and protect the group from threats. Strength is essential to effective leadership.

If strength is about capability, warmth is about intentions. It’s about shared interests, values, or emotions. If you feel like you are on the same team or see the world the same way others do, that’s warmth. People express this differently in various professional contexts, for reasons ranging from organizational culture to the balance between collaboration and competition among peers. Regardless of what it looks and sounds like, warmth is the glue that binds people together. It earns you affinity and trust. It makes teamwork possible. And on the most basic level, it makes you relatable, approachable, and likable.

It’s very hard to project strength and warmth at once because these qualities exist in tension with each other. The things we might do to project strength — standing tall, barking orders, or spouting reams of data to make a point — tend to make us seem less warm. Likewise, an abundance of warmth — engaging in people-pleasing behaviors or bending over backwards to help others all the time — can leave us seeming like lovable losers.

(Adapted from Fiske, Cuddy and Glick [3])

This leaves each of us with a dilemma. Do we choose to project warmth, so people like us? Or do we instead show strength in order to command respect?

Even in a bottom-line context, this turns out to be a false choice. Strength and warmth are complements, not mutually exclusive opposites. Both are essential to executive presence.

When we see people who project a combination of high strength and high warmth, we look to them as leaders because they have the capability to make things happen and they share our intentions. Each of us has our own mental list of public figures as well as friends, family members, and colleagues who manage to strike this balance. These judgments are always subjective, since we perceive others through the lens of our own experience.

Indra Nooyi and the Dalai Lama

Even among leaders we admire, some possess more strength than warmth, or vice-versa. This is partly a matter of context, and partly an individual’s makeup. Think of Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi and the Dalai Lama. Nooyi runs a publicly traded corporation with tens of billions of dollars in revenue, hundreds of thousands of employees, and operations around the globe, yet her warmth is unmistakable in her public appearances. The Dalai Lama is a global icon for kindness and compassion, but his dedication to the Tibetan people is unyielding. Both of these leaders project strength and warmth, but each balances these qualities differently.

One way to explain this is as a difference between executive and inspirational leaders. As the head of Pepsico, Nooyi can mobilize the full resources of a multinational corporation. The Dalai Lama leads by personal example. While he has positional authority that accords him respect from Tibetan Buddhists, his strength as a global presence stems from his inner resolve rather than his command of an organization.

A Framework for Executive Presence

Executives are paid to get things done — to execute. Good intentions are necessary but not sufficient. Regardless of the context, executive presence conveys the sense that an individual is up to the task of bearing responsibility for the well-being of the organization and its people.

An executive’s presence demonstrates this by answering three fundamental questions:

Confidence — Are you up to the job?

Attention — Are you aware of yourself and the people around you?

Control — Can you manage yourself?

Taken together, the answers to these questions add up to a very specific kind of character judgment. Confidence and control are displays of strength, while attention is an expression of shared concern and interest, or warmth.

If you want to learn more about the behaviors and cues that project confidence, attention, and control, click here.

Inside-Out and Outside-In

Knowing that confidence, attention, and control are fundamental to executive presence is not the same knowing how to project these traits as an authentic expression of yourself. Different behaviors require different strategies.

There are two basic methods for learning to display strength-related cues that project confidence or self-control, and warmth cues that demonstrate awareness of yourself and others. These can be thought of as “outside-in” and “inside-out.”[4]

Examples of projecting strength from the “outside-in” can include standing up straight and puffing out your chest, or dressing in formal clothes to make yourself feel more powerful. This is one of the ways the military teaches fresh recruits to project strength in basic training. First you look the part on the outside, and before long you start to feel it on the inside.

But warmth does not work that way. Fake smiles do not make you seem warm. The best way to project warmth genuinely is from the inside out. If you feel warmly about something, others will see it on your eyes and hear it in your voice. Inside-out cues that help unlock warmth are often rooted in memories or personal experience. A technique for projecting warmth from the inside that works for one person will not necessarily work for another.

Coaching Yourself

The good news is that it is possible to be your own coach and figure out how to make adjustments to some key elements of your presence. A healthy and productive self-coaching conversation will probably address one or more of these concerns:

Fixing old habits. Are there behaviors that are undermining your presence (e.g., talking too fast)? Feedback about these areas for improvement often surfaces in performance reviews before you hit the executive level. The best way to fix an old habit is to replace it with a new one — consistently, over a period of time.[5] Is there a replacement behavior that you can substitute for the old one? Is there a reminder that can trigger the change you’re trying to effect? If you are fast talker, for instance, this might be a matter of consciously taking a breath before responding to a question as a way of taking control of your rate of speech.

Adopting new skills. Are there positive behaviors you are seeking to adopt (e.g., active listening)? What does it look and sound like when you observe more senior executives doing this well? This is not about mimicking others — it’s a matter of identifying role models in certain skill areas, reflecting on what’s working for them, and trying out different approaches until you find the ones that resonate most authentically with you.

Here’s the paradox: new behaviors almost always feel somewhat uncomfortable, and it is tempting to dismiss them as inauthentic. Allow yourself permission to think of this is like learning to draw. You may have held a pencil in your hand since kindergarten, but you can still learn a lot from an accomplished artist about the many ways to use it. This is very much a trial-and-error process.

Mastering the inner game. Are you wrestling with doubt, anxiety, or the feeling that you are a fraud who will be uncovered by others (also known as impostor syndrome)? How do you demonstrate a sense of ease about bearing responsibility for the organization and its people when you’re quaking on this inside? You are not the first person to feel this way, nor is it likely that you fooled anyone into giving you the job. Simply realizing that this is a common feeling can help overcome it.

The second thing to know is that you can and must conquer this feeling. Lingering insecurities will inevitably come out, whether through self-defeating language or nonverbal cues that tell others how you’re feeling on this inside.

Again, different strategies work for different personalities. Some people turn the authenticity question on its head, embrace the idea that they are playing a part, and approach it like an actor learning a character. Others find it helpful to use role models as a source of strength (“If she made it under much tougher circumstances, I can do it too”).

One of the most helpful approaches to the inner game is developing a brief individualized warm-up routine before high-stakes events. This can include a physical practice such as power posing [6] or stretching, which can boost confidence, and a mental practice such as visualization or meditation that can help clear the mind. If possible, draw on focusing or relaxation techniques from others aspects of your life, such as martial arts, yoga, ballet, or a spiritual practice. Warm-up routines can help reduce anxiety and increase feelings of self-assurance. When used consistently, they can lead to lasting change.

In addition to a warm-up routine, do a quick post-game review. When you have a success such as a meeting where you experienced a new sense of your presence, spend two minutes writing down what worked, and what it felt like on the inside. Capturing the feeling immediately is important, because recalling it later in a warm-up routine visualization can help put you in the right frame of mind to reproduce it again.

Truly outstanding performers, regardless of their field, focus relentlessly on continuous learning. They read, seek feedback from others, and watch game tape whenever possible. Surgeon Atul Gawande came to realize that in his profession, “Your performance is not determined by where you stand or where your elbow goes. It’s determined by where you decide to stand, where you decide to put your elbow.”

They are also infinitely curious and find insight in unlikely places. Basketball great Kobe Bryant learned to improve his game while watching a nature program on television:

“When you watch me shoot my fadeaway jumper, you’ll notice my leg is always extended. I had problems making that shot in the past. It’s tough. So one day I’m watching the Discovery Channel and see a cheetah hunting. When the cheetah runs, its tail always gives it balance, even if it’s cutting a sharp angle. And that’s when I was like: My leg could be the tail, right? Inspiration surrounds us.”[7]

Reflection on executive presence is not typically a lifelong practice, but adopting a mindset of continuous improvement is a must for successful self-coaching. At some point, through a combination of determination and patience, your new role will feel real, and the uncertainty will fade into the distance.

Summary of Top Tips for Coaching Yourself

1. Create a warm-up routine for high-stakes meetings and events. Build in a physical practice, such as power posing, and a mental practice, such as visualization, meditation, or a simple breathing exercise. Experiment with the routine until you find something that works for you. Use it consistently.

2. Rehearse, record, and review. You don’t need fancy gear — a smartphone or webcam will do. Tape yourself practicing a pitch, presentation, or remarks, and watch (or listen) back. Notice when you look or sound comfortable and when you seem awkward or anxious. Even just recording your own end of conference calls can be instructive.

3. Capture quick post-meeting reflections. At the conclusion of big meetings or events, take 2–3 minutes to jot down quick notes: When did your presence enable you to lead effectively? Did you seem comfortable in your role? Any issues of self-control? How well did you share your attention with others? Were there missed opportunities or challenges? It’s critical to get these thoughts and feelings down right away because they tend to dissipate quickly.


There is a great deal more to say about the social science behind the concepts articulated here. The references at the end are a starting point for further reading, but they are in no way intended to be comprehensive.

[1] Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential, which I co-wrote with John Neffinger (New York: Hudson Street Books, 2013), tells the full-length story of how strength and warm shape perceptions of your character. The endnotes include extensive social science references, particularly in the sections about how cultural stereotypes related to gender, ethnicity, and sexual identity affect judgments of strength and warmth.

[2] Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages, Oxford, England: Wadsworth, 1971.

[3] Susan T. Fiske, Amy J. C. Cuddy, and Peter Glick, “Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence,” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11:2 (2007).

[4] John Neffinger, Seth Pendleton and I discussed inside-out and outside-in as a coaching strategy in a Harvard Business School case study: Cuddy, Amy J. C. and Sharma, Nithyasri, Congressional Candidate Dan Silver and KNP Communications (August 19, 2010). HBS Case No. 910–013; Harvard Business School NOM Unit.

[5] Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing offers a great explanation of how you can use your body language to change your confidence level. Chances are someone you know has seen this video, which has 28 million views and counting.

[6] Philip Galanessept, “For Arianna Huffington and Kobe Bryant, First Success, Then Sleep,” New York Times, September 26, 2014 p. ST-14.