Executive presence: Are you born with it, or do you cultivate it?

There’s a popular saying about executive presence: That it’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. There’s also a widely held belief that someone innately possesses it or doesn’t.

While I’ve met many people who innately possess executive presence in spades, I’ve known many who have also worked to cultivate it and grow into leadership roles. I’ve also learned that executive presence isn’t just for someone aspiring to become an executive leader; it’s a set of attributes and skills one can build to make an impact in any aspect of personal and professional life.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, is a leading expert and author on this topic. She describes executive presence as “the elegant packaging that attracts impressed attention, allowing your skills, accumulated knowledge, depth of experience, and raw talent to stand out and draw others to you.”

I’ve found her definition to be the most complete, because it acknowledges the substance, style and skill that organizations truly need in our leaders today. It is this combination that signals your readiness for the next step in your leadership journey.

Below are tips for your leadership toolkit when it comes to developing your next level of executive presence:

  • Credibility: Your credibility comes from your skills, knowledge and experience. What skills, knowledge and experience do you want to continue to hone, and then highlight? What do you want to become known for in your industry? Decide on one or two areas, and then create a plan for bringing your current accomplishments to light, as well as continuing to develop your depth in those areas.
  • Communication: Taking an improvisation class will help you develop an ability to connect and communicate, especially in person and in front of groups, large and small. It’s the art of gracefully speaking “off the cuff,” and articulating yourself with confidence and substance.
  • Create Questions: Another way to connect and communicate is to ask impactful questions. It’s amazing how turning the focus to others by asking a thoughtful, open-ended question helps them to experience your presence.
  • Contribute: Be prepared and contribute in a meaningful way to every meeting and interaction. For example, as a board member for Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland, I prepare for every meeting by reading all of the materials and knowing the key objectives. I’m ready to contribute with ideas or questions to help guide the strategy of the board and provide value.
  • Care: Does your outward appearance send the message that you have the vitality and stamina for the next level of leadership? It starts within, with self-care through wellness, fitness and nutrition. Your organization wants to know you are not only ready from a skills and knowledge perspective, but that you are caring for the entire person in order to meet the demands of that next role.

We each ultimately own our executive presence — it’s how we choose to show up in the world each day. By developing the skills of presence in addition to our already innate attributes, we can make the greatest personal and professional impact.


Amy Franko is founder and president of Impact Instruction Group. Impact Instruction Group helps companies develop their key talent and leaders through learning strategy and curriculum design, plus development programs for emerging and first-level leaders.