When I first stepped into the corporate world, I often found myself feeling overshadowed. I’m innately more of a quiet observer, naturally soft-spoken, and very much an introvert at heart. Early in my career, this made me worry that I didn’t have what it took to project that elusive “executive presence”. I remember nervously trying to mimic what I thought a leader should look and sound like – right down to the perfectly tailored Carla Zampatti suit and a meeting voice that felt much louder than my comfort zone.

Executive presence can be difficult to define, but we certainly know it when we see it. When someone with that ‘IT’ factor walks into a room, heads turn, conversations pause, and everyone leans in to listen. They command attention effortlessly, leading with a blend of confidence, clarity, and authenticity that is both inspiring and motivating.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett first coined the term “executive presence” in her book, The Sponsor Effect. It’s more than just exuding confidence; it’s a mix of essential leadership qualities, such as effective communication, decisive action under pressure, and maintaining composure in any situation.

When I walk into a room, I can’t help but scan the crowd, and those with executive presence stand out like beacons. These people are like magnets – they command the room with a captivating mix of charisma, confidence, and vision. They’re not lingering on the sidelines; they’re in the thick of it, listening and leading with genuine interest. Whether you’re a CEO, a manager, or a team leader, mastering this skill can elevate your leadership to the next level.

So, how do you cultivate this elusive quality? According to Sally Williamson & Associates, 98% of leaders must develop executive presence – they weren’t born with it. I want to share some practical tips that can help you elevate your executive presence in meetings and beyond. These strategies have helped me and countless women in our RISE Accelerate Program not only find their voice but also ensure that voice is impactful and respected.


Command Gravitas

Picture this: It’s my first major presentation to the board. My palms are sweaty, my mind is racing, but I knew I had to channel my inner calm. Gravitas, as Sylvia Ann Hewlett defines it, is about exuding calm and confidence, especially when the stakes are high. It’s that sense of weight and authority that makes people sit up and listen. So, how can you cultivate gravitas? 

  • Stay composed. Practice mindfulness or deep-breathing exercises to keep calm during stressful situations. This not only helps you stay focused but also projects a composed demeanor.
  • Prepare, prepare, prepare! Arm yourself with well-researched data. The more knowledgeable you are, the more confidently you can speak. This ensures that you’re backing up your points with solid evidence, making you appear unflappable and well-informed.
  • Build your confidence by making tough decisions in smaller, less critical scenarios. This prepares you for bigger moments when the stakes are higher.
  • Ask trusted colleagues for feedback on how you handle high-pressure situations. Use their insights to improve your presence and approach.

As leadership author Peter Bregman emphasises, “Great leaders are confident, connected, committed, and courageous.” Embrace these traits to boost your executive presence and make a lasting impression.

Talk The Talk: Master Your Communication Skills

Effective communication isn’t just about the words you use; it’s also about how you deliver them. Research from The Organizational Voice Journal found that people are more likely to trust and follow individuals who speak with a lower pitch and varied intonation. In other words, the sound of your voice can matter as much, if not more, than the content of your message. Work on modulating your voice to exude confidence. Lower frequencies tend to be perceived as more authoritative. Practice public speaking and learn to project your voice clearly. Engaging stories and compelling narratives can make your message more memorable and impactful. So, next time you’re in a meeting, channel your inner storyteller.

Dress For The Role, Not Just The Job

I’ve always believed in the power of a sharp blazer or a killer pair of shoes. Like it or not, appearance plays a significant role in how others perceive you. According to Hewlett, looking polished and put-together signals to others that you’re in control and take your role seriously. This doesn’t mean you need to wear designer clothes, but choose well-fitted, professional attire that aligns with your company’s culture. A well-groomed appearance can minimise distractions from your skills and performance. Personally, I find that dressing the part helps me feel the part – and that confidence is contagious.

Show Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is like your secret weapon in the world of executive presence. It’s about being aware of your own emotions and those of others. Hewlett points out that EQ is crucial for both men and women in leadership roles. Develop your empathy and active listening skills. This helps you connect better with colleagues and fosters a collaborative environment. Being emotionally intelligent can help you navigate office politics and build stronger relationships. When you understand and manage your emotions, you’re better equipped to handle stressful situations calmly and effectively.

Speak Volumes Without Saying A Word

Body language is a powerful tool in conveying executive presence. Walk into a room with confidence, maintain good posture, and make eye contact. These nonverbal cues can significantly influence how others perceive you. As Hewlett notes, your body language and poise are often judged before you even speak. Practice a firm handshake and avoid nervous habits that might undermine your authority. Here are some practical tips: 

  • Practice power poses: Before important meetings, try standing in a power pose to boost your confidence. It’s backed by science!
  • Maintain good posture: When sitting in front of your stakeholders, be sure to sit tall with your eyes forward, keeping your shoulders back yet relaxed – and don’t be afraid to take up space! Those who demonstrate nonverbal confidence are seen as more reliable and believable, giving their words impactful meaning, so feel free to use controlled hand gestures when appropriate.
  • Make eye contact: Engage colleagues and stakeholders through confident eye contact. It shows attentiveness and builds trust.
  • Control nervous habits: Be mindful of fidgeting, tapping, or other nervous habits that can distract from your message. 

Understanding and enhancing your executive presence begins with self-awareness. Take the time to reflect on your own behaviour and how others perceive you in leadership roles. Ask yourself if you project the gravitas, communication skills, and poise that define true executive presence. 

By weaving these elements into your professional toolkit, you’ll not only elevate your executive presence but also position yourself as a leader who naturally commands respect and attention. Start with one of the five areas above, master it, and then move on to the next. The journey to executive presence is a marathon, not a sprint – and every step you take brings you closer to your goal.

And finally, if you’re wondering why you’re getting passed up for promotions, consider getting a coach or joining a program like the RISE Accelerate Program – sometimes a little guidance can be the ultimate game-changer when it comes to progressing your career.