At a workshop I led on interviewing for executives, one participant asked about what “executive presence” actually means. Is there a checklist of factors that recruiters use to evaluate this? Do you need to be particularly clever, witty or humorous in your communication? What can a job seeker do to ensure they are seen as having executive presence?
The term, executive presence, is thrown about almost as liberally as the word “fit” in the hiring process, and like the amorphous “fit” executive presence can mean different things to different people. However, in general, a person with executive presence is someone that the employer would feel confident putting in front of senior executives (internally or at clients). Here are 10 factors that recruiters assess to approximate a candidate’s executive presence – ideally you score well on all of these:
Do you make solid eye contact? Is your handshake firm? Do you exude energy and confidence right from the start? The interview (and the assessment) begins before you’re even in the official meeting room. Even scheduling the interview gives an indication of how organized and responsive you are. When you appear put-together from the start, the recruiter takes you seriously from the start, and you set up the right first impression to score well on executive presence.
Executive presence is not just about good posture at the start…but consistently. Make sure you can walk and sit through the whole interview without slouching, sitting too casually, or leaning forward too aggressively. People with executive presence are poised. If you normally slouch, you probably will slouch at some point in the interview process. Fix your posture all the time – don’t count on the interviews being an exception to how you normally comport yourself.
Notice that I didn’t write business dress – executive presence is not about dressing in a suit, but dressing appropriately for the industry and the occasion. Executive presence means you are neat and well-groomed, but a suit might be too stiff (say for a creative role at a media company or in many technology companies). I had one candidate who dressed in a suit when he was meeting operations people at a factory. While the suite might have been overlooked for a meeting at headquarters, it made him stand out in a negative way at the factory – the operations people didn’t feel like he really understood their culture, and that was a key part of this role.
In an interview situation, there is no such thing as small talk – everything contributes to the overall impression you leave behind (and whether or not you exude executive presence). I once presented an otherwise very talented candidate for a marketing analytics role but, except for specific interview questions where she was thoroughly prepared, she didn’t make any small talk or conversational banter with the interviewer before or after the interview or while they were touring the office. The interviewer saw this as a personality deficit and worried it would translate into how well this person would get along with team members and clients. Small talk looms large when assessing for executive presence.
At the same time, you don’t want to be so animated that you gesture wildly. Executive presence means you don’t fidget, and gesticulations complement rather than detract from what you’re saying. Think of the senior people you know – they’re not jumping up and down to make a point!
I could have written confidence instead of ease, but sometimes people equate confidence with big energy or a big personality, and executive presence isn’t reserved only for people with big personalities. Instead, focus on being authentic to who you are – this could mean big energy if you’re more of an extrovert, but it could also mean a quiet energy. This could mean that you demonstrate a clever wit – humor is not necessarily good or bad. But most importantly executive presence means you demonstrate that you’re comfortable as who you are.
Other than small talk, I haven’t even started yet with verbal communication, but of course, how you speak does impact your executive presence. Your tone of voice should be clear and engaging. This means you have a pleasant cadence to your voice, not a monotone.
Your speaking volume also influences your executive presence. It can’t be so low that people can’t hear you, but you also don’t want to shout.
The speed at which you talk matters to executive presence – not too fast, not too slow.
Finally, executive presence is evaluated based on how you present yourself in the interview, but it can also be inferred by your past experience. If you have regularly worked with senior executives, then your past experience suggest that you are probably comfortable engaging at that level, and senior people don’t mind having you around (otherwise, you wouldn’t have those opportunities!). Therefore, don’t forget to talk about your executive-level experience. This could be internally with senior management, or it could be externally with clients or even vendors. You might also have executive interaction in your community service – perhaps you’re on a volunteer committee and interface with Board members who are current or retired executives. Share examples of your executive interactions as proof of a track record of executive presence.
Executive presence is not so subjective that you can’t prepare or practice to showcase it. Use the above checklist of items to see which areas you are confident about and where you might need some help. When in doubt, do a mock interview with a coach or mentor (someone who has hired and actually evaluated for executive presence!). This will identify strengths you might not realize you have (and can build on), as well as gaps where you’ll need to refine.
A version of this post originally appears in my Leadership column on Forbes.com.