Sunday 10 March 2013

Is executive presence all about charisma?

Around nine years ago I had the privilege of attending a talk on African Wild Dog behaviour (in Johannesburg, South Africa) and how a pack maintains discipline and alignment in day to day activities through the alpha male and female. The alphas in the pack are extremely critical in enforcing discipline and ensuring the longevity of the pack. One critical aspect of their control mechanism is that they are always visible and always sending signals to the pack that establishes their authority. One interesting word that I recall from that discussion was that the alpha had charisma (ability to inspire devotion in others).

Last week I had the opportunity to listen to two Senior Vice Presidents present and interact with me and peers/colleagues. Post the interaction I was having a chat with an attendee and he outlined that these executives were great executives as they had charisma. 

I was intrigued by charisma but firmly believe that there was more to these executives as it is human nature to focus on style that we forget that the first criteria for executive selection is not charisma but the executive’s ability to deliver on a certain set of expectations that had then positioned them strongly to become an executive. The inverse is that those with great charisma would always make great executives! 

I then realised that it would be interesting to transition from the term charisma to the term 'executive presence' to give it meaning and context when discussing this from a corporate point of view. However, defining executive presence was not easy but I found an agreeable one by Scott Eblin that identified two key attributes to understanding executive presence:
  1. It is about an executive’s ability to obtain results even when the expectations around results are dynamic
  2. It is about the behaviours that an executive adopts at a very personal team and organisational level that makes the difference.

My purpose in writing this article was not to confuse the issue but to give solace to those mere mortals reading this article and who always find themselves lacking as the world defines style or charisma as a critical component of being an executive when it is actually a series of specific actions/activities that corporate denizens at all levels can start incorporating into their day to day mannerisms and how they navigate our careers through their respective corporate landscapes to create a solid foundation for executive presence.
If you think that you will develop executive presence only when you are an executive then you are mistaken. My own observation is that we all need to start acting the part that we want. If you want to get to executive level then you need to start acting like one before you get there. "The decisions that you make each day can actually catapult you to that next level of achievement" - Robert G. Allen. 

To give you clear context on what this means I will share one of the most important piece of advice I got from one of my early managers. “Always punch above your weight class.” [Weight class is a term from the sporting world to classify competitors to compete against those with equal weight to ensure standardisation when matching up competitors.]

My manager’s advice forced me to focus on a few things to ensure that I was always reaching above what I thought were my limits and signalling to the world that I had something extra in me even though I was not an executive. Your goal is to be heard beyond the defined or undefined boundaries of your position in the hierarchy or job grade!

Below is a list of specific activities/actions that everyone should take to commence the journey toward developing executive presence:
  • When deciding on how to tackle a task, always try to figure out how your work fits into the bigger picture. Give your work context and create a mental frame of reference. Remember the story about the brick layers building a cathedral!
  • Tackle every undertaking with a sense of urgency. Work as if you are solving world-hunger. If you respect the work you do others will respect it as well. I am always inspired by people who have a sense of urgency. It conveys ownership and passion
  • Always plan ahead. Manage deadlines and learn to provide for contingencies. Have the foresight to plan all your actions and activities as nothing sends a better signal than someone who delivers on his deadlines. When you deliver on your commitment/deadline you are telling the world that you are reliable. For some reason many senior executives link reliability with loyalty and we all know that loyalty is likely to be rewarded
  • Seek guidance and consult openly when framing solutions for problems. As human beings we do not have the wherewithal to conquer all complex issues. Seeking guidance and consulting openly leads to ongoing communication and team-work. These are critical attributes for achieving executive presence
  • Be able to break through complexity and provide workable solutions and conclusions. The insights (know your data or work quantitatively and qualitatively) you provide will show your maturity and your ability to break an issue into bite sized resolvable chunks. Work through issues with clarity and simplicity. Where you fail then show humility and admit your mistake
  • Ignore negativity and plan to surmount the same. Executives are always fighting negativity and are expected to overcome the same. Are you showing that behaviour or not? Are you stopping at the first sign of danger or hardship? That is the first indication that you are not capable of reaching the top! Courage is a necessary ingredient at the top. And by the way do not shirk away from a crisis. A crisis actually exposes those who have the foundations of executive presence! "The winners in life think constantly in terms of I can, I will, and I am. Losers, on the other hand, concentrate their waking thoughts on what they should have or would have done, or what they can’t do." - Denis Waitley
  • Ability to work with people. This is a critical point and a good executive is one who manages to navigate the mine-field of relations and the corporate cob-web
  • Communication skills are critical to work with others. Do you use the right vocabulary? Do your emails inspire or make people perspire? My personal weapon is the ability to disarm people with humour. However, I offer this point in good faith. There is more evidence that over-the-top humour can be problematic and detract from your goal of maintaining executive presence. In fact, I personally feel that my sense of humour is at times deemed as a negative at this particular point of my career, even though it has helped get me so far
  • Learn from the mannerisms of other executives that you admire and consider role models. I spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the body language, vocabulary and dress sense of senior executives. It is true that physical characteristics (weight, height, physical attractiveness, voice etc.) can generate
  • gravitas in an individual. We all think that these are attributes that we cannot fix but do look at simple things that one can do to improve on these aspects. Surely in the executives you admire not all are 6 feet tall and have amazing oratory skills! Right?
In the end, executive presence is a function of a number of things but most importantly not an outcome of a role (though some titles do help) but the outcome of a journey. Your goal should be to undertake behavioural modification that positions you favourably for future success and moulding your ability to achieve executive presence. Doing it this way then takes away the entire focus on charisma but brings the focus back to how you became (or will become) an executive in the first place.

What do you think?


Please feel free to subscribe via email (on the right use 'follow by email' feature) and also consider sharing with others using the links/tools provided below. This is the best way for me to broaden my reach and increasing my blog's visibility. Thanks in advance for your support.


  1. deepak i agree to all that you have mentioned.

    The choice of words and expressions seem to converge towards the theme I think of i.e. contextual alignment with conceptual clarity. The aligning shifts that a person makes from his styles is all about the cutting edge of the executive's presence.

  2. Wise and insightful. It's also an excellent article for young professionals. Thanks Dr.