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Executive Presence – Three Pillars


January 2019

An executive coach asks a fellow coach for help thinking about a client who needs to exude more executive presence. Together they examine three pillars of executive presence.

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January 2019

Executive Presence – Three Pillars

Tom Henschel

Is executive presence just confidence?

Melinda, a fellow coach, called asking if I could help with a client of hers. The topic, she said, was executive presence.

Knowing I’ve been talking with my own clients about executive presence for years, she said, “I went to your podcast but couldn’t find anything specifically on executive presence.”

“You couldn’t?” I was surprised. “That seems like an oversight, doesn’t it?”

“Doesn’t it?” she laughed. “Any way, it made a good excuse to call you.”

She launched into her story. “This client is named Asma. She’s a rising star at a company where I’ve been coaching for years. I remember when she showed up there. She made an impression. Smart, articulate, unflappable. But she keeps hearing that she needs more executive presence. She and I have talked about confidence, but I don’t know if confidence is really the issue. She seems fairly confident.”

“About how old is she?” I asked.

“I don’t think she’s thirty yet.”

“You said she’s unflappable. What does that mean?”

“She’s cool. I sat in on a meeting where she made a presentation. At one point, there was a flurry of questions from senior people. Probably ten in a row. It wasn’t hostile. People were engaged, calling out one question after another. And she was cool as a cucumber. I don’t think I could have done that at her age.”

“She sounds great,” I said. “So if it’s not about confidence, what do you think would give her more executive presence?”

She paused, then said slowly, “She’s not terribly expressive. Not monotone exactly, but there’s not a lot of variety in her voice. Or her face, for that matter. Could that be an executive presence issue?”

“Sure! When people are hard to listen to, for whatever reason – maybe they have a screechy voice, or they’re just horribly dull – they’re probably not going to display a lot of executive presence.”

“How are you defining executive presence?” she asked.

The first two pillars

“I’m happy to tell you my definition, but it’s much more important that you and Asma know what the definition is there, with the people who are giving the feedback. How do they define executive presence?”

“Is the definition really going to change that much from place to place?”

“I think so. I think executive presence at a defense contractor looks different from executive presence at a lifestyle company.”

“Really? Aren’t the people we recognize as having executive presence going to share a lot of qualities no matter what?”

“Oh. Yes. Of course. I talk about three specific qualities that make executive presence. I call them the three pillars.”

“There are three pillars? Great!”

“There are!” I knew Melinda loved models.

“What are they?” she asked.

“Let me give you the first two. They go together. They’re paired up.”

“Okay,” she said, settling in. “What are they?”

“Confidence and humility.”

“I love that,” she said soto voce as she wrote. “I love the tension of those words together.”

“Tension how?” I asked.

“Well, on the one hand we want our leaders to be confident, right? But not too confident. We don’t want pigheads who never listen to anyone. We don’t want arrogance. So add in some humility. Show a willingness to listen, to learn, to be wrong, But not too much humility, right? We don’t want someone who can’t take a stand. We don’t want timidity. Which brings us back to confident, but not too confident.”

Crucial Conversations bookl“It is a balancing act,” I agreed. “I first saw those words paired up in Crucial Conversations. They struck me so strongly that I made them balancing pillars in my definition of executive presence.”

“And the challenge is to not be too heavily weighted on one side or the other, right? I don’t think Asma is over-balanced with humility. Not like some of my young female clients.”

“Are you seeing a lot of young women who are overly humble?” I asked.

“A lot? No. But I’m never surprised when I meet a young woman who has more humility than confidence.”

“What about the opposite?” I asked. “Are your male clients over-balanced with confidence?”

“Maybe. I’d have to think about that. What about you? Does it break down along gender lines for you?”

“I probably talk about confidence with more women than men.”

“Sounds like we’re in the same boat. So what’s the third pillar?” she asked.

The third pillar

“Altitude,” I answered.

“Altitude like strategic thinking?”

“Maybe, yes. But I actually think of it more holistically than that. I think altitude affects everything a person does. It affects how you think about the business. It affects how you prioritize your work. It affects how you communicate. It affects what information you pay attention to.”

“This is interesting,” she said. “Altitude has never been on my radar. I have no idea if this is something Asma needs or not. What should I be listening for?”

“I listen for altitude when people talk about their work. What is their default altitude? Micro focused, which is low altitude? Or thinking broadly, which is high altitude?”

“I’m not certain about her altitude,” said Melinda reflectively. “I’m going to have to listen for that. But I do know she is not great at managing up. Could that be an altitude issue?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “If she’s not managing up well, it might be that she can’t think at her boss’s altitude. Giving her the idea of altitude might be helpful for her.”

“But aren’t you asking for the impossible?” Melinda asked. “She’s never worked at her boss’s altitude. How could she think at that altitude?”

“Can I give you an analogy?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said.

“Imagine using Google Earth. When you’re doing your work, managing a million details, it’s like Google Earth is clicked all the way in so you can see property lines and streets and fences and patios. To do your work well, you have to be clicked in so you can see the details. You’re at a low altitude. And that’s appropriate. You with me?”

“Yep,” she said.

“Now think about your boss. If your boss is clicked in as far as you are, if she’s seeing property lines and patios, she’s never going to get her own work done. She has to be clicked out at a higher altitude to be effective. She has to be seeing whole neighborhoods. Maybe whole cities.”

“Right,” Melinda said, “But how would Asma be able to click out like that?”

Gaining altitude

“There are four building blocks you might give her,” I said. “First, help her be aware that higher altitudes exist. And not just her boss’s altitude, but her boss’s boss, and the boss above that. She needs to remember, all the time, every day, that there is a bigger picture one click away. There is no ceiling above her.”

“That could be depressing!”

“Depressing why?” I asked.

“It might make her feel like she’s a really small, meaningless dot on a giant map.”

“I suppose,” I said. “But consider the second piece of this.”

“What’s that?”

“Curiosity. Interest. A desire to be at a higher altitude. No one is condemned to stay clicked in. If you look up with curiosity, altitude can be empowering, not diminishing.”

“OK. So what’s idea three?”

“Ask her why her details would matter to her boss. Bosses don’t want to know the details of your work, but they need to know why those details are important to their own work. Asma should be asking herself all the time, how does what I do help what my boss is doing?”

She made a thoughtful sound. “I remember a client of mine who was way too detail-oriented. Clicked in way too far, to use your analogy. I used to ask him to think like the CEO. That helped him. That’s sort of what you’re talking about, right?”

“Think like a CEO. That’s a great thought exercise,” I said.

“Oh, good,” she said. “What’s the fourth one?”

“Relentless pursuit,” I answered. “Be active. Find mentors. Listen closely. Ask good questions. It’s all fine and dandy to know a higher altitude exists, but what meaning are you making about what you see? Find people who will be your guides.”

“The interesting thing about asking for help – it really challenges people to show up with humility. You have to be willing to admit there are things you don’t know.”

“And do it with confidence!” I chimed in.

“A lot of my clients struggle when it comes to asking for help,” she went on. “They’ve made a false equivalency that says needing help is the same thing as being weak. Which of course is not true.”

I gave a chuckle. “I make that equivalency sometimes.”

“Me, too, if I’m honest.”

There was a pause as we both thought about what had been said.

Different group, different presence

After a moment, Melinda said, “This whole altitude idea is still new to me. Anything else I should know?”

I gave it a thought, then said, “Altitude isn’t fixed. It’s not only up. It might be clicking down. Altitude needs flexibility in thinking and in communicating.”

She said, “Don’t talk to the Board the way you talk with a summer intern.”

“Or vice versa!” I said. Then more seriously, I said, “You need to scan for altitude all the time and adjust accordingly.”

“Will you go back to that whole thing about different presence at different companies?”

I said, “I think the three pillars are constant. But the behaviors that exemplify the pillars may change from company to company. Or even from one group to another. One community might value conciseness and speed of thought. Another might value assertion. Those are behaviors. Even if the pillars are constant, the behaviors can change from place to place.”

“I think Asma might need some behaviors to make her more expressive.”

Months later, Melinda reported back that, yes, expressive behaviors, along with discussions about the pillars, confidence, humility and altitude, helped Asma develop her executive presence, which, of course, is The Look & Sound of Leadership.



Core Concepts:
  • Executive presence requires both humility and confidence
  • Most people need to develop one or the other
  • Executive presence requires an ability to think at different “altitudes”
  • Most people need to develop their ability to “click out” to higher altitudes

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