Executive Presence in 3 Words

By Tom Henschel

Racquel, a coaching colleague of mine, called asking if she could pick my brain. She knew I’d spent decades coaching senior leaders on executive presence and wanted my thoughts about a current client named Shanequa.

“She seems plenty confident,” Racquel told me. “I saw her in a meeting where the executive team peppered her with questions and she was cool as a cucumber. It was an impressive performance!”

“So why is executive presence even an issue for her?” I asked.

“I’m not sure. But she keeps getting feedback that she needs more of it. Where would you start if you were coaching her?” she asked.

“Two things, I suppose,” I said. “First, I’d ask her to turn on her powers of observation. What does she think executive presence looks like at her workplace? Who at her work has it? Who doesn’t hit the mark there?”

“Like her workplace might be special somehow? Doesn’t executive presence pretty much look the same everywhere?”

“Not to me,” I said. “When I’m coaching at a lifestyle company, executive presence looks different than it does at a defense contractor.”

“I suppose!” she said. “So okay, she should turn on her power of observation. What was the second thing?”

“Have her ask people to clarify the feedback. She’s looking for specific behavioral feedback as it relates to executive presence. Tell her not to settle for vague.”

She gave a delighted laugh. “That’ll be a great challenge for her. It’ll make her speak up.”

“Is she naturally quiet?” I asked.

“She can be,” answered Racquel.

“Well, that might be part of what’s missing in her executive presence right there. You can’t have executive presence if you don’t take up some space.”

“Oh, I like that!” she said. I could tell she was writing it down. Then she said, “What are the typical kinds of behaviors that make up executive presence?”

“Well, like I say, it depends on a company’s culture, but I often frame executive presence using these two words: humility and confidence.”

“I talk about that word pair, too! It’s from Crucial Conversations.

“Exactly!” I said. “It’s such a powerful pairing. It’s always stuck with me.”

“Me, too!”

“The book talks about humility and confidence as it relates to talking tentatively. Being persuasive, not abrasive. But think about those words in relation to executive presence. To have executive presence you need enough confidence to speak up, take up space, express an opinion, guide the conversation when needed. But you also need enough humility to allow challenges, be non-defensive, be curious, believe others have as much value as you do.”

“If not more!” Racquel said.

“If not more,” I echoed.

“This is great, Tom. Thanks. Anything else I should talk about with her?”

“One more word, yes. Altitude.”

“Altitude?” I’d surprised her. “What sort of altitude? Like strategic thinking?”

“No, this is different. This is about thinking of your work with altitude.”

“Okay. Cool. Explain.”

“So this altitude is like being on Google Earth. When Shanequa is doing her work, it’s like she’s all the way clicked in, close up. She can see individual buildings with parking lots and driveways and courtyards.”

I went on, saying, “But her boss isn’t clicked in like that. Her boss is looking at a higher ‘altitude.’ Her boss is seeing whole neighborhoods. Those individual buildings are invisible.”

“Oh, I get it! So if Shanequa wants executive presence, she needs to be able to ‘click out,’ to think about her work at her boss’s altitude.”

“Exactly. And that’s not easy. But it’s a great thought exercise. I’d encourage to see how far out she can click out. Can she imagine what the landscape looks like from a senior vice president level?”

“Or the CEO!” said Racquel.

“Even better!” I said. “Gaining altitude like that will boost her executive presence.”

“Along with humility and confidence!” said Racquel. And I agreed.


To discuss your executive presence, contact Tom for a consultation.