Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success

Executive PresenceA few years ago, a colleague and I were discussing (and were envious of) one particular executive who has a commanding presence when he enters a room when he was in a meeting.  After our conversation, I read Developing Executive Presence Joshua Ehrilch who identified general principles to improve executive presence: focus; use body language; reflect on your habits; practice with support; connect, don’t transact; and be still.  I thought his identifying being still as a key component was great.  He said “Calm is the foundation of presence.”

Later, I read Deconstructing Executive Presence by John Beeson who wrote that executive presence “boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations; make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team.”

And so I was excited to see Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success and I was thoroughly impressed with her book.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested in improving their executive presence.  Hewlett’s book contains great stories and practical advice — there is much to learn in her book and these are a few of my takeaways:

Hewlett identifies three core elements of executive presence:

  • How you act (gravitas)
  • How you speak (communication)
  • How you look (appearance)

Hewlett determined that these were the core elements based on the results of a survey of more than 4,000 professionals.  She discusses each element and explains what is and is not a part of each element.  She also provides guidance on how to improve in each are and, what I thought was particularly helpful, provides examples of blunders in each area.

How you act – Gravitas

Gravitas is the core characteristic of executive presence. It signals you have a depth of knowledge, confidence and credibility. Hewitt says “projecting confidence and “grace under fire” was the top factor chosen by senior executives who were asked to identify what constitutes [executive presence].”

Hewitt identifies eye contact as a critical component of gravitas:  “Being able to look your coworkers in the eye when making a presentation, or being them to make eye contact with the audience when making a speech, has a transformative effect—on your ability to connect, to inspire, to create buy-in.”

Hewitt identifies the top aspects of gravitas:

  • confidence and “grace under fire”
  • decisiveness
  • integrity
  • emotional intelligence
  • reputation
  • vision and charisma

She does a terrific job of describing each in detail.  She also identifies gravitas blunders:

  • Lack of integrity (this is a potential career killer)
  • sexual impropriety (this is also a potential career killer)
  • flip-flopping
  • inflated ego
  • off-color or racially insensitive jokes
  • bullying

Hewlett describes and explains ways in which you can deepen your gravitas:

  • Surround yourself with people who are better than you.
  • Be generous with credit.
  • Stick to what you know.
  • Show humility.
  • Smile more.
  • Empower others’ presence to build your own.
  • Drive change it rather than be changed


Communication is another essential component of executive presence.  Hewlitt identifies key communication traits:

  • superiors speaking skills
  • ability to command a room
  • forcefulness and assertiveness
  • ability to read a client or the room
  • sense of humor and ability to banter
  • body language/posture

She provides examples and more details on each:  for example, speaking skills include accent, grammar, timber and pitch.  She shares terrific stories from her past and stories

about well-known leaders such as Margaret Thatcher. Hewlitt identifies a number of communication blunders

  • constantly checking your phone or handheld device
  • breathlessness or trembling
  • crying
  • rambling
  • failing to establish eye contact
  • overreliance on notes/props

Again, she provides insights into the best traits and examples of the blunders.  And she offers a number of ways to improve your communication skills

  • Ditch the verbal crutches (“like”, “you know”, “um”).
  • Broaden your small talk.  Participate in conversations
  • Get control of your voice
  • Over prepare [this is one of my personal favorites:  there are 3 keys to most things in life:  preparation, preparation and preparation]
  • Less can be more
  • Lose the props


Perhaps the best part of the discussion on appearance is that being well groomed is more important than intrinsic good looks.  Being well groomed communicates preparation and attention to detail.  Hewlett reports that the top aspects of appearance are:

  • Being polished and groomed
  • Physically attractive fit, slim
  • Simple, stylish close that position you for your next job
  • Being tall
  • Being youthful and vigorous

Hewitt reports a study which shows that the evaluation of a woman’s competence, likability, and trustworthiness were significantly affected by how much makeup she wore. “When you make an effort to look polished, you signal to others that you see them as worth your time and investment…”  Although, she notes, being too glamourous may diminish the judgment of one’s trustworthiness.

Being well groomed minimizes any “distractions from your skill sets and performance.

Hewlett says  “There’s a plethora of research proving the point that intrinsically attractive people get a pass over life’s bumpier transitions: there hired more often, earn more, and even fare better in court than unattractive people. But thankfully your executive presence doesn’t depend on looking like a movie star.”  She adds “grooming and polish count way more than conventional good looks (classic features, a well-proportioned body, abundant hair).”

Your appearance should communicate fitness and ability.  Hewlett writes:  “The most important thing you can do, our qualitative data shows, is to signal fitness and wellness. It’s not how much you weigh, but how recently is seen that enhances and or detracts from your executive presence-because leadership is demanding. We tend not to entrust our toughest jobs to people who look like they might keel over from a heart attack.”

In his book Presentation Secrets, Alexeia Kapternev notes that “one can not not communicate.”  In presentations, meeting and any interaction, you communicate something by your appearance.  Be conscious of what you are communicating.

Hewlett reports a number of appearance blunders and notes that appearance blunders differ for men and women.  I have combined some of the items in the following list:  can you tell which are blunders by men and women?

  • Obese
  • unkempt attire
  • visible piercings/tattoos
  • discolored/crooked teeth
  • obvious hairpiece
  • dandruff on shoulders
  • plunging neckline into short skirts
  • flashy jewelry
  • too much makeup

Hewlett also writes about feedback and provides some great examples of what great feedback looks and sounds like.  She also recommends frequent discreet pointers instead of an annual or biannual download.

She includes chapters on the special factors facing women (walking the tightrope) and challenges facing minority (of any kind) leaders (authenticity vs. conformity) and provides guidance on how to navigate the path to executive presence.

Hewlett’s book is a terrific resource for anyone interested in improving their executive presence.


  • Nathan S. Gibson

    Nathan S. Gibson is an independent worker compliance business partner who provides expertise and creative solutions to enhance workforce flexibility and maintain compliance. He helps mitigate the risks associated with the misclassification of self-employed consultants, freelancers and independent contractors.

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