What You Really Need to Have Strong Executive Presence

November 23, 2016

Here's how to have executive presence, which is a key quality to advancing your career.

When organizations are looking for leaders within their organization, they look for more than just someone who is exceling in their current role.

They also look for executive presence, or someone who has the professional demeanor to handle what they haven’t handled yet. In other words, they are looking for a steady hand, who isn’t going to falter in a bigger role and is able to lead effectively.

The good news? Executive presence can be learned, according to John Ullmen, a LinkedIn Learning instructor and executive coach who has worked with leaders from Apple, Disney, NASA and Verizon, among many others.

The secret Ullmen said, in his LinkedIn Learning course on the subject, is understanding what’s really necessary to having strong executive presence. And it isn’t what many people think is required to have executive presence, and instead is something much deeper than that.

What isn’t needed to have strong executive presence

There’s a misnomer about what’s needed to have executive presence, Ullmen said. For example, to have executive presence, you don’t need to be overly charismatic or highly extroverted.

“Sometimes those qualities help, but sometimes they hinder, contributing to an impression of being slick or fake,” Ullmen said. “Strong presence is found in men and women across the full spectrum of personality types.”

Ullmen’s right – look at the great leaders throughout the world, and their personalities are very different. For example, Oprah Winfrey has a much different personality than Winston Churchill, who had a much different personality than Richard Branson, who has a much different personality than Michael Jordan.

What is needed to have strong executive presence

There is one trait necessary for having strong executive presence: a clearly defined passion for making a positive difference to others, Ullmen said. The more clearly this passion is defined, the more “executive presence” a person will have, and the more apt they’ll be at remaining calm and focused, regardless of what’s going on around them.

Ullmen said in his experience, the most successful executives he worked with had very clearly defined passions for helping others. A few examples include giving a voice to people who don't have one, driving innovation, spreading happiness or improving worldwide health and wellness.

“There is no right or wrong answer as evaluated by others,” Ullmen said. “The right answer is what’s right for you.”

How to define what your passion is

Ullmen gave instructions on helping you define this passion, if it isn’t clear to you already. He recommended taking a week to list out some possibilities and then going back to it and see which ones stand out.

A clearly defined purpose means it can be expressed in one sentence, Ullmen said. It can evolve over time, but that sentence should define what your purpose for helping others is at this moment in your life.

Tying it together

The point is that you can’t fake passion and you can’t fake resolve. And those are two traits necessary to having executive presence.

Instead, you need to be fully committed to an idea and then grow your career around that, as opposed to being committed to a role and hoping your talents will fit into it. Once you have that idea clearly defined, executive presence will come naturally to you, and your rise to leadership will have a sense of inevitability to it.

The best leaders have the clearest, prioritized picture of exactly what they want to change, which allows them to confidently move forward. The clearer the picture you can have for what you want to change, the more self-assured and determined you’ll appear to the rest of the world.

Clarifying one's own specific passion to make things better for others is the first of four key factors that drive stronger executive presence. Ullmen explains all four factors in detail in this course, based on his research and his real-world work with leaders across industries and cultures.