Senior executive leaders, even those with experience, often overlook a key factor that determines whether they succeed or fail. You do need knowledge, skill, and strategies. However, it is your executive presence that makes or breaks your performance every day.

The challenge: the game of executive presence changes significantly when you move from Director to VP or C level.

At earlier levels in our careers, presence is not “make or break” critical. Expertise, ability, and general leadership competencies can get you far. But at the senior executive levels, you have to enroll people in taking on a major change in the midst of increasing uncertainty. You have to inspire people to come together to deal with the unknown and handle very challenging situations in new ways. Above all, you have to influence people.

Senior leadership is about being more than doing.

This is a blind spot for many. As a senior executive, your presence is now the most strategic tool you have. Fortunately, executive presence is not something you either have or don’t have. Executive presence is your choice.


We normally talk about leadership presence as if it’s some vague quality. We argue about whether people are born with it or can develop it. What I have seen is that we can definitely strengthen our presence and we actually choose our presence.

Take a moment to evaluate your executive presence as it is now. What you are looking at is the presence you created up until this moment. Who you are being-whether that’s powerful, mediocre, or insufficient-is the result of the choices you made along the way about how to develop yourself. That’s good news. It means you have the power to change.

You actively choose the level and kind of presence you have. And you are choosing it in every moment.

Organizations have struggled for years with how to help leaders create a stronger, more powerful executive presence. They focus on leadership skills and competencies. However, this overlooks the fact that, as a leader, you create your presence in every conference call you are in, every email you write, every meeting you attend, every presentation you make.

This opportunity to consciously design our presence is what we often miss.

With an intentional presence, being a senior leader can be an exciting, even fun experience-not a source of anxiety and pressure. Consider that we all experience stress on a daily basis. When we rely on our “default” presence, we end up reacting to what’s happening in habitual ways. But when we consciously design our presence, we give ourselves the opportunity to choose a joyful, less stressed way of being.


An executive I worked with, Tom (not his real name), works in a matrix organization. None of the key people he needs to influence report directly to him. Recently promoted to VP, he was upset that his last 360 performance review revealed that people thought he was “overly harsh”, “too critical”, and “too tough”. Worse, the way he carried himself made others feel like he thought they were stupid.

Tom knew that he was a challenging leader, but he felt like he had no choice but to be that way. The company’s PLs were showing that they needed to become more profitable-fast. He believed the seriousness and urgency of the situation warranted and justified a “tough” approach. Tom had a strong desire for the company and himself to be successful. He pushed people hard—and pushed himself even harder. Yet he couldn’t get things done. Even though he was a VP on a key initiative, people weren’t willing to cooperate with him.

We began to look at what was motivating him to be this harsh and discovered his behavior masked a combination of lack of experience as a VP and insecurity. Tom realized he needed to more effectively utilize his power and his presence.

He had to influence-not control-the people he worked with.

Rather than choosing a stiff, rigid presence in conversations, he began to relax, to build confidence in his own abilities, to pay attention to the impact he was having on others. Tom designed a different presence that became a key variable in turning around his performance.


Donna (not her real name) had been in the C suite for several months. The company had told her when she came on board as the COO that their new focus was on innovation. After observing their operations, she came up with several innovative ideas about how the business could do things differently. She was confident because she had accomplished similar goals in another company. So she was pretty relaxed. A perfect set-up for success, you would think.

However, people interpreted her laid back presence as being “somewhat aloof”—and told her so. She ignored their feedback, saying, “Let my good work speak for itself.” She argued the merit of her ideas at every opportunity. However, she made little effort to connect with people, to help them see how her ideas would also benefit them. She didn’t focus on generating excitement for what might be possible for the company. Not surprisingly, very few of her ideas got the support, socialization, or traction they needed. Meanwhile, other leaders (sometimes less talented than Donna) had their ideas picked up and implemented. Even leaders at lower levels seemed to be able to sell initiatives that were less innovative and impactful on the bottom line. Deeply frustrated, Donna asked for coaching, and we worked on something she had not yet considered. Donna had to realize that:

A leader’s presence is what advertises the ideas they are trying to sell.

She had to let go of the expectation anyone would read her 49-page white paper before a meeting. Business moves too fast for that. Instead, Donna started to learn that people would quickly vote for her ideas when they picked up the passion and excitement that she had for them. Donna realized that being overly laid back was fine at earlier levels in her career, but insufficient to getting things done in the C suite. She had to make an effort to really connect with her peers, direct reports, and superiors. So she began to develop a presence that inspired people to, in her words, “get on the love train”.

Her innovations no longer sit on the shelf.


Stepping up as a senior executive leader is often a call to become “bigger”. The challenges at the senior level are significant. One opportunity to become bigger is to choose a winning presence.

This kind of change is entirely possible. Our personalities and behaviors are not “fixed”. We are not “stuck” with who we have been and how we have habitually responded in the past. Each and every day gives us opportunities to intentionally re-create our executive presence.

As my own coach once said to me, “You think that you have great self-awareness. So you think that you are observing yourself. What you don’t realize is that, in every moment, you are not observing yourself; you are creating yourself.”

So how about you? Have you taken the time you need to deliberately design your presence?