Instantly, folks chimed in with responses like, " those of us who work with how people show up would like to ban the term from the lexicon,” and “it’s a concept that needs a SERIOUS shakeup.”
Thaler Pekar, advisor to leaders worldwide on speaking, listening, and narrative, chimed in with an explanation to helps explain why those passionate takes inspire controversy: “the term predates our more modern and profound appreciation for people of different races and different places, and our understanding of neurodiversity. It can sound cookie-cutter and inauthentic.”
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It turns out there’s a lack of alignment around the meaning of executive presence, which likely contributes to both the over-arching negative response to the term and the frustration with the phrase is used colloquially. Scour the internet for definitions and you’ll find very little fact mixed with a whole lot of personal essays, paid editorials, and points of view extrapolating on “the four pillars,” “the five (or seven) C’s” depending on which LinkedIn author you trust, and plenty more.
“Whenever I hear the term executive presence, I find myself picturing the cast of Mad Men – and not the women," said Pam Sherman, President of TheShermanEDGE. “ It feels old fashioned because it assumes that in order to have presence you have to be…someone’s idea of what an executive should sound, look, and move like. It feels like an ill-fitting suit of someone else’s making that you have to wear in order to be respected, or gain followership.”
“Executive Presence doesn’t mean anything to me because I can’t see myself in that term,” shared Lee Bonvissuto, Communication Coach at PresentVoices. “Most of the people I support who have received that feedback find it destructive, distracting, and damaging. It’s intangible and impersonal and makes the person receiving the feedback less present, not more.” They continued, “Every day in this work, I also hear from organizations that want to hear more voices. They want leaders and teams to have more ‘executive presence’ and confidence but without training and support, that critique only makes people less confident and less present.”
The lack of clarity only underscores the impression that executive presence is often a term used to veil feedback that is based in sexism, misogyny, or racism.
“Julie and I founded Vital Voice Training in 2014, at the height of what we call ‘The Great Moral Panic Over Vocal Fry’ [when there was] article after article telling women how annoying and unserious their voices were, and how if they just did X – got rid of vocal fry and upspeak, stopped saying just and sorry, eliminated ‘softening language,’ et cetera, then people might finally see them as leaders," explained Casey Erin Clark, cofounder of Vital Voice Training. “That's what I will always think about when I hear the term executive presence. For so long, anyone who wanted to be seen as someone with executive presence and leadership potential had to put on the costume of a middle-aged cis, straight, white man in order to be taken seriously.”
Casey expanded further with research she and the Vital Voice team did in 2021, in which they divvied “executive presence” into three main categories of what they believe people mean with the term:
“There are bright sides and dark sides to all these categories and how we 'hit the marks’ for other people and for ourselves.” Casey explained. “But, because we live in a biased world, the further you are from that straight white man model that we still have for this, the harder it will be for you to be seen by other people as having ‘executive presence.’”
Pam Sherman prefers the term, “leadership presence.” She expounds, “I believe that leadership is not hierarchical, but behavioral. It is not confined to ‘executives,’ but to any one at any level who has to impact, influence, and serves others… Therefore, presence is not about the role you play at work and shouldn’t be qualified as ‘executive’ as it assumes no one else gets to have it. Instead, I prefer the term ‘leadership presence’ because it’s all about the ability to be who you are wherever you are in order to ignite your audience.”
Nearly every person we spoke with had a personal negative experience with the term; many had multiple stories of clients, colleagues, and friends who also shared overwhelmingly adverse experiences.
As Thaler articulated earlier, “The term predates our more modern and profound appreciation for people of different races and different places, and our understanding of neurodiversity. It can sound cookie-cutter and inauthentic.”
“I think I have a strong reaction from my past experience," shared Sherman. “When I was a young lawyer, I felt I had to dress and act like my idea of a lawyer. I found myself actually wearing ill-fitting suits with bad shoulder pads and behaving in a way that didn’t feel truthful to who I am at the core, or even my values. It was soul crushing and took its toll on me personally and professionally. It took a lot of work to find that my power and presence lies within me and when I did that, it actually made me more confident, effective, and impactful – and grew my presence. That’s why I’d like to see us ban the term ‘executive presence’ and instead encourage people to grow and develop their leadership presence in whatever role they play at work, so they can inspire and impact their audiences with who they are.”
She continued clarifying that while the term was never meant to be negative, that is where we’ve landed. “Of course it wasn’t meant to be a negative term. An (woman) economist was actually using the term to help solve why we don’t have more diverse leaders in companies. She wanted to encourage diverse leaders to gain confidence and crack the ceiling that wasn’t allowing for greater diversity at the top. But in my experience, the term is often used to the opposite effect. When I’ve been engaged to work on women’s executive presence I’ve often been told things like, ‘she’s very edgy,’ ‘she’s too much,’ or ‘we need to smooth her out.’” None of this feedback makes people comfortable, or sets the stage for them to grow. “When I first met the woman they told me was too much, I told her I was going to help her be the best version of herself, balanced by understanding the needs of her audience. She was promoted shortly thereafter.”
Bonvissuto echoed Sherman’s point that the intention might not be harmful, but the impact almost always is. “Organizations are doing harm by telling people they need more executive presence instead of creating environments where everyone feels safe, seen, and supported speaking up. Instead of critiquing voices, organizations need to focus on why teammates feel unable to speak with presence and confidence.”
“It seems that the phrase often comes up as a blanket excuse to not promote or champion someone because there's just ‘something about her’ that makes her not ‘quite right,'" summarized Clark. “This often wildly unspecific and impression-based feedback that women (and particularly women of color) are given to fix their perceived lack of executive presence tends to be reductive, sexist, racist, and impossible to implement.”
Clark also clarifies that feedback can be given with good intent, but that adjustments must be made. “I think specificity is the key to all good feedback. Instead of a boss saying to a junior employee ‘you need to work on your executive presence to get that promotion,’ how about something like, ‘I know that you are percolating so many great ideas right now, and I'd like to see you sharing them at meetings more. What can we do to make that happen?’ Notice that this takes this from a ‘you need to fix yourself’ problem to a collaboration.”
The shift from “executive presence” to more specificity enables more collaborative action toward productive development and progress - more on that next!
“There are issues that require community solutions, not just [the person being told they need more executive presence] being more confident.” Stated Clark.
While the term seems to be gaining many more votes to be tossed out than simply finessed, these experts still agree there is a type of presence and intentionality that can and should be developed.
“Everyone can be more intentional in their communication. Everyone can be more invitational, too, in communication. Being invitational means focusing on what you are offering your listener and what you are asking them to do.” Pekar stated.
Sherman puts it another way, saying “I believe it is important to understand that the messenger matters as much as the message you are conveying. When you realize that, you’ll start to understand that developing your own presence is critical to building trust, connection, and influence.”
“I believe presence is important,” agreed Bonvissuto. “But the biggest disruption to presence is the pressure to be perfect.” They offer a meaningful alternative. “Focus on presence and comfort instead, so that person is able to fully utilize the power of strategic thinking and present communication… This is often what organizations are seeking when they give that feedback in the first place, but the way the feedback is being delivered is distracting and destructive.”
Bonvissuto offers these tips. “Lean back in your chair and take up expansive space with your body language. Refuse to be rushed by inserting conscious micro-pauses in your impromptu speaking. Prioritize breath and being in your body instead of finding the right words to fit in. When we prioritize our own comfort instead of confidence, we unlock our voices and allow flow and focus instead of perfection and pressure.”
Pekar further defines what presence really means, intertwining tips that align well with Lee’s. “Having presence means being present for others and for yourself. Having presence means slowing down, pausing often, listening always, and reflecting. When we are more fully present, we are more intentional in our communication and our actions. Of course, managers must create the conditions that nurture such intentionality. People must be given space and time to listen, and they must be rewarded for listening as well as speaking.”
Clark invites people to consider what leadership means and how they can embody it. “Everyone has the potential to define what leadership means to them and how they want to use it and embody it in the world. Think about what skills and attitudes [you need] to develop to meet that vision. We all have the power to say ‘this may be an old marker of leadership, but that's not how I want to be and I'm going to find an alternative.’” She expands, “to me, the mark of true leadership is modeling how to be a healthy, collaborative, embodied human within challenging situations.”
Thaler agrees, “I want all people to feel confident and comfortable in leadership!”
Clark emphasizes, “When we let general terms like executive presence rule the day, we wind up with cultural rules that other people have to intuit and match in order to be seen as someone with potential, and we only wind up with more sameness at the top.”
When the term is thrown out - whether as part of feedback or explanation for professional choices you may not be thrilled about - it can be difficult to know what to take away.
Clark encourages all to remember, “No one actually knows what it means!”
She continues, “We have vague ideas, and some people may have actually done the work to define it for themselves, but there is no factual, widely accepted definition that you are somehow not meeting. Define it for yourself, and if you're leading an organization, have an in-depth discussion about what you mean by executive presence here and now, and make sure that you articulate that clearly and specifically to everyone.”
Thaler offers advice to those interested in growing, but conflicted as to how. “Be appreciative of yourself; amplify what you’re excellent at. Let your best attributes shine. Be your best self and invite others to do the same. If you exhibit confidence, you will inspire confidence. Confidence, curiosity, humility, engagement, and energy - these are all attributes of presence.”L2crtv.com.
While the term may be problematic, or less than ideal, at this point, it’s still often used in feedback for women – which leaves many feeling at a loss for how to progress.
“Even when this feedback is given with a positive intention, the impact can be distracting and destructive. When people say others need more executive presence, they usually want that person to be more comfortable and confident. [But] we can’t access [confidence] when we’re trying to prove we’re the right person or finding the right words to sound ‘professional.’ We have to allow people the space to be themselves, which is not available when they feel watched or judged, especially in high-stakes situations.” Lee explains. They go a step further, emphasizing that sometimes there is value in rejecting feedback. “Every time someone comes to me having received this feedback, it is in rejecting that feedback that the person is able to actually become more present and confident. We do this by helping the person focus on comfort, not confidence.”
Pam offers another way to contend with difficult “executive presence” feedback, especially when you believe the intention behind the critique is good. “I believe if they are being asked to develop it – reframe it not as a slam but as an opportunity. When people use this overused term, what they [may] really mean is they want you to build your confidence, your ability to perform on larger stages and with important audiences for your organization – they want you to have a greater impact with who you are in your role – and that is always a good thing.”
“Women don't have to accept vagueness in communication, especially in the form of feedback or critique.” Thaler stresses. “Ask, ‘Please help me better understand. Can you give me an example of what you are critiquing, or of what you mean by 'executive presence?’ Ask, too, for specifics on what the person feels you are doing correctly in terms of 'executive presence.’” She continues with another question to help glean greater understanding. “‘Can you tell me about a time you were pleased with my - or someone else's - approach?’ Then ask for support and resources to further develop those skills! Ask for a coach, a supportive mentor, capacity-building [experiences], or even an improv class.”
Lee agrees there is no need to accept vague feedback. “You can and should ask for clarification if the feedback is vague, to find out exact steps you can put into practice to make an impact. If the person giving feedback can’t give you specifics and an action-oriented plan, then I suggest rejecting the feedback. Invest in what will help to build your confidence instead of ingesting what can end up distracting you in the present moment.”
Clark agrees and continues, offering more guidance for asking helpful questions. “If they can't give you specific examples (plural, from more than one person), that should immediately ring some alarm bells for you. If you're getting feedback on attributes, like ‘we want you to be more confident expressing your ideas,’ ask them for more information. ‘What would that look like? Where would you like to see this happening?’ Then you can do some soul-searching about how to tackle the feedback. With our clients, this often comes down to some in depth strategy on what parts of this issue you have control over and what you don't. High-achieving women very often feel like they can and should ‘fix’ everything about themselves that other people seem to not like, but communication is not something that any individual has full control over. There are other people in the situation, after all, with their own communication styles, bias, goals, and problems. Is this a you problem or a them problem? The answer isn't often clear-cut, but thinking about that can put us into creative problem-solving mode.”
Lauren Lyddon has helped people and organizations to tell their stories for more than a decade. Having tested her love of the creative through the pursuit of an MBA and undergraduate business degrees, she is a writer, editor, and lover of fiction in all its forms (especially theatre, well-written television, and novels). A West coast resident often operating on an East coast schedule, Lauren uses her business background and love of story to serve clients in writing, editing, PR, and more. You can visit her online at L2crtv.com.