10 reasons why you may be lacking executive presence

Filed under “Mystifying career feedback”

He just found out that he lacks executive presence

A number of people who have hit a promotion ceiling in their careers tell me that they’ve received feedback that they are “lacking executive presence.” Understandably, they are frustrated by this criticism because it is such a cop-out.

It is a catch-all phrase that is meant to capture a myriad issues when managers can’t be pinned down. But, I’ve been in innumerable employee review meetings from the leadership side of the table. I also work with managers who are trying to coach their direct reports through this “executive presence problem.” What I’ve learned is that they are often dissatisfied with one or more of the following issues:

  1. You don’t seem very confident
  2. Your behavior and/or appearance aren’t professional
  3. The team doesn’t see you as a senior leader
  4. Your public speaking skills are lacking
  5. You don’t handle conflict very well
  6. You’re lacking political savvy
  7. You aren’t ready to “swim with the sharks”
  8. You can’t think on your feet
  9. You lack strategic vision

Or, it really comes down to reason #10:

“I don’t want to promote you into senior leadership, but I can’t figure out how to defend that decision”

First, get a straight answer

If you are receiving fuzzy feedback from your boss or manager, then it’s time to find a trusted friend, colleague, or mentor who will give you honest feedback. When someone is told that they are lacking executive presence, there is obviously some issue underlying that assessment.

I had a client who received this feedback, so we spent some time digging deeper into what could be holding her back. After a few video sessions and in-person meetings, I noticed behaviors that wouldn’t be viewed as “executive.”

  • She spoke very quietly and seemed shy
  • She would hesitate a bit when she started talking
  • She didn’t maintain eye contact
  • She made herself “small” when seated at the table
  • She let others dominate the conversation

When I work with someone, I’m 100% on their team. I’m friendly, but I’m not their friend. I have no reason to pull punches or sugarcoat my feedback. I shared my assessment with her and we put together a plan to strategically address each issue.

Second, create a plan

Once you understand the issues that are negatively affecting how people perceive you, you can create a plan to attack each issue one by one. Some people are self-aware and more than willing to make the necessary changes. However, other people get upset and defensive when they are asked to change their behavior.

Let me be very clear. If you don’t want to play the game by their rules, stop complaining when you lose. You certainly don’t have to change yourself to fit their image of an executive and get promoted. But, stop whining when you get passed over.

I say this from a position of having walked in your shoes. There were times that I did make changes in my behavior to get promoted. I changed how I dressed. I took public speaking courses. I was trained in conflict management. I adjusted my body language and behavior to swim with the sharks in meetings. My corporate background should be proof that I know how to play that game.

But, there were also times that I didn’t want to become who they wanted me to be, in order to get promoted. So, I moved on. I didn’t like their rules, so I created my own company where I could write my own rules.

You can do the same. If you don’t like the game you’re being asked to play, move on to a different role. Or, get a job at a different company. Or, start your own damn company and do things your way.

But, if you do want to stay in your current company and you do want to get promoted, then strategically map out what needs to happen. You may need to make some personal changes and improvements. Or, you may just need to do a better job of demonstrating that you actually do have the “executive presence” they desire.

1. If you don’t seem confident

Are you actually lacking confidence, or are you just doing a poor job of displaying it? If you are truly lacking confidence, dig deep to understand why and start addressing that.

Be great at your job. Get healthy and fit (that boosted my confidence considerably). Improve your speaking ability. I could go on and on, but there are entire books dedicated to improving one’s confidence.

2. If you don’t act professional

If your language, appearance, and behavior don’t align with your company’s definition of “professional,” then it’s time to closely observe the successful leaders around you. How do they dress? How do they behave in meetings? Watch them present, listen to them speak, observe how they handle themselves in tough situations.

For example, it seems all the rage lately to curse a lot, even in a supposedly professional setting. Note, very senior execs can kind of get away with that at some companies where the culture allows it (Yahoo did, but eBay most definitely did not). But, be aware that your cursing may cost you a job.

I remember one interview candidate who lost his chance to be hired because he decided to drop a few F-bombs during his presentation. One of the senior execs pulled me aside afterwards and said, “He’s a no hire. If he can’t control his language when he’s trying to make a good impression, then he won’t be able to control it in front of customers and partners.”

3. If you’re not seen as a leader

They say that you need to demonstrate that you can do the job before you get the job. That’s even more true of leadership. No one wants to promote someone into a senior leadership role hoping that you might be able to handle it. They want to see evidence that you’re already behaving like a leader.

Build relationships across the company so that more people can see how you think and interact. Step up in chaotic meetings to take control and bring them back on track. Defend those who aren’t strong enough to defend themselves. Stand up for yourself, for others, and for what you believe in. Say “yes” to challenging opportunities even when you aren’t sure how you will succeed yet.

“If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later!”
― Richard Branson

4. If your public speaking skills are lacking

If you’ve been following me for a while, then you know how important I think public speaking skills are for advancing your career. I’ve written a couple of articles about it.

5. If you don’t handle conflict well

Read my article on this topic. I spent quite a bit of time putting this together, so I won’t duplicate it here.

6. If you’re lacking political savvy

Find a more senior mentor who understands “healthy politics” and learn from the best. The unfortunate truth is that politics become more common the higher you climb the ladder. But, it doesn’t have to be negative politics. Politics can be used for good.

Building relationships is a positive way to grow your network and expand your sphere of influence at the company. Collaborate with others to find mutual opportunities that benefit everyone. Support colleagues in meetings when it is appropriate.

Understand that healthy politics are really about understanding people, their motivations, and their goals. Truly seek to understand what they want and why they are behaving the way that they do.

On the flip side, be honest and share your own goals and motivations with others when you are trying to build support. Know that a successful outcome in an important meeting starts with the conversations you have with the key players long before that meeting actually happens.

7. If you aren’t ready to “swim with the sharks”

This is related to the previous issue. Sharks love politics. I’ve found that this issue really kicks in at the VP level and above. I experienced some of this as a Director and Sr. Director, but it was nothing like what I ran into as a VP. Again, your best bet is to find a mentor you admire who has successfully navigated these waters.

I don’t think you should become a “shark” yourself. But, you do need to learn how to recognize the behavior, avoid the common traps, and handle yourself well when you interact with them. Your mentor can coach you through what this means for your specific situation at your company.

8. If you can’t think on your feet

Improv is your new best friend. You may not think that it is relevant in a business setting, but it a very useful skill to develop. Training in improv and lots of practice will make you more comfortable in a fast-paced business meeting. This is especially helpful for introverts who don’t like being put on the spot.

“Improvisation isn’t about comedy, it’s about reacting — being focused and present in the moment at a very high level”
- Robert Kulhan, adjunct assistant professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business

Advanced preparation is also critical if you’ve been struggling to think quickly enough on your feet in the office. Each night, review what is on your calendar for the next day. Prepare for the meetings, research the issues, plan your desired outcomes, think about what you want to say, and create a list of anticipated objections and how you will respond to each one.

Finally, you can refuse to let yourself be backed into a corner. If you need more time to evaluate an issue and make a decision, say so. Tell folks that you want to gather more data, review the information, and think longer about the decision.

9. If you lack strategic vision

The very skills that helped you succeed as an independent contributor (IC) can hold you back from a promotion into senior leadership, if you continue to fixate on them.

  • Execution-oriented
  • Focused on a singular goal
  • Operational excellence
  • Deep expertise in your vertical domain
  • Mastery of your specific role

Obviously, these are all great things when you’re an IC. But, continuing to focus on that level means that you aren’t operating at the next level, which requires a broader scope. Being deep in the details is necessary as an IC, but seeing the bigger picture and creating a strategic vision requires that you pull up out of the weeds.

To develop your strategic vision you need to research the competitive landscape for your industry, be aware of the larger trends, understand what the goals are for your broader organization, align your specific goals with those broader goals, map out where your product/service needs to be to get ahead of the competition, describe a compelling vision for what that end state will be, and create a strategic plan to get there.

“Strategic vision” is almost as fuzzy as “executive presence,” so perception is key. Keep your manager in the loop with the work you are doing to create this vision. Communicate it often, present to your team and the broader organization, and this will help position you as a creative, visionary, and strategic leader.


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A final reminder

Again, if this all seems like bullsh*t to you, then don’t change yourself. If you want to remain true to your authentic being, then by all means do that. You will just need to accept that who you are does not map to your manager’s image of a senior leader, and you may never get promoted.

If you still want to keep advancing your career, you will need to find a different path. That may mean finding a manager who doesn’t care if you curse a little, wear concert t-shirts, and avoid conflict. It may mean quitting your job to find a company that loves who you really are. It may even mean that you need to break free and start your own thing, hire your own team, and build your own culture.

But, the one thing you can’t do is keep complaining about things if you decide to stay. I’ve experienced my fair share of folks who refused to change and just kept whining about how unfair the system was. Not only did they never get promoted, they eventually got fired. No one wants a toxic employee on their team.


If you’d like to work with me to improve your mysterious executive presence, let’s talk.