Leadership Lessons: For Career Success Think Beyond Fashion-Forward

3 min read | Susan Colantuono

Smiling businesswoman using smartphone over gray background. Wearing in blue shirt and glasses.-1

Fashionistas would have women believe that what we wear, the accessories we use and how we look are keys to executive presence. Why? Because that’s how they sell products - and most of us know by now that women make or influence 85% of all consumer purchases. But in the context of executive presence, this emphasis on personal appearance can lead women astray. Appearance isn’t the same as executive presence. Presentation skills aren’t the sole factor in executive presence. And, further, executive presence is different from personal presence. So what aren't women being told about executive presence.

Before revealing the secret, it helps to understand Personal Presence as distinct from Executive Presence. Many people have personal presence; TV and movie stars, politicians, social movement leaders, speakers, preachers and others. They need personal presence because they must be comfortable being in the limelight. For this reason, personal presence can be defined as the ability to comfortably draw and hold attention while delivering a message.

But, do movie stars, speakers, preachers, social movement leaders have executive presence. Most senior managers, executives and directors would say no. So, there must be a difference between personal presence and executive presence. Here it is…

Executive presence is the ability to comfortably draw and hold attention while delivering a business-savvy message.

A business- savvy message is what differentiates the movie star with personal presence from the CEO or senior manager (or for that matter manager, supervisor or individual contributor) with executive presence.

Here’s why this distinction is important. Cultivating personal presence is necessary, but insufficient when it comes to being seen as having executive presence. At every level, you need executive presence (which can also be called leadership presence) in order to engage and align others and to deliver on your organization’s goals. Executive presence helps you be seen as credible and competent by your employees, colleagues and bosses. Especially those up the management chain. When filling positions, the person with executive presence will win out over the person with personal presence…or no presence at all. Why? Because they demonstrate that they understand the business of the business!

Recently at a client site a manager described this in action. She described the dynamics of a meeting where managers were reporting to executives. The managers whose reports were long on adjectives and short on metrics got a “ho hum” response from the executives – no matter how eloquent their reports. The managers whose reports focused on numbers critical to the bottom line caught the executives’ attention who picked up their pens and took notes.

This is one example of why executive presence matters! And why mistaking appearance for executive presence is a mis-direction for women. Even former eBay CEO, Meg Whitman, says about herself “No one would say that I’m fashion forward.”

So while fashion and women’s media misdirects us with its emphasis on appearance, where else can we turn to learn about executive presence? Google. I analyzed the first 100 pieces of advice from the first 20 Google returns for “executive presence” and broke it down by category. Here’s what I found.

78% of the advice was about how to enhance personal presence, in other words, how to comfortably draw and hold attention while delivering a message. This is important, but incomplete advice that covered 4 categories:

  1. How to Be: candid, sincere, self-confident, calm, passionate charismatic, thoughtful, courageous, warm etc.
  2. How to Speak: deep voice, succinct, avoid qualifiers
  3. Non-Verbal Communication: posture, eye contact, gestures, facial expressions
  4. Appearance: pay for a total makeover, look polished. And the men whose advice was among the first 20 returns, NEVER mentioned appearance!

A meager 12% of the advice focused on speaking the language of business - the single most important element that differentiates personal from executive presence. 

This list is in inverse proportion to what women need to be told about executive presence! To the people for whom executive presence matters most - people UP your reporting chain - the most important aspect of executive presence is the one that’s least discussed - what you say, your business-savvy messages. 


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