In the C-Suite: Achieving the 'It' Factor

November 1, 2016

Here’s a common scenario: Two essentially equal internal candidates are vying for a higher job. Both are bright, hardworking and talented, with excellent track records of service to the company. But what’s the difference between the winner and loser? The winner is considered to have executive presence, while the loser does not.

A recent study of 268 senior executives concluded that executive presence counts for 26 percent of what it takes to get promoted. The figure would probably be even higher for someone seeking a leadership position in a different company.

The perception of executive presence is so important that noted economist and author Dr. Sylvia Ann Hewlett dubbed it “the missing link between merit and success.”

But what constitutes executive presence? I’ve heard it called the ability to command a room or to have a certain indefinable aura. Dr. Hewlett, a Columbia University professor and head of The Center for Talent Innovation think tank, says it’s a combination of “how you act, how you speak and how you look.” I see the key elements as demeanor, communication, appearance, as well as that something extra.


Many experts cite gravitas as one of the three key components of executive presence. But I think the word “gravitas” is too limiting. I believe “demeanor” is a broader and more useful term to characterize how one acts.

Gravitas is often defined as serious, intelligent and thoughtful. Those are unquestionably essential qualities, but only part of one’s demeanor. I can think of a number of people who have those characteristics but lack other leadership necessities including the following:

  •  Decisiveness: A serious, intelligent, thoughtful person may nevertheless be indecisive. A leader doesn’t have that luxury.
  •  Approachability: A warm, friendly, welcoming personality breeds respect, confidence and loyalty. A pleasing smile, a firm handshake and looking the other person right in the eye when talking or listening are critical.
  •  Posture: Sitting up straight and walking fully upright are essential to projecting executive presence. Slouching sends out all kinds of bad vibes.
  •  Leadership mentality: People who are quick to volunteer when their leaders lay out a tough or unpleasant project or assignment have a leg up on those who sit back and let someone else do it.
  •  Positive attitude: A good leader projects optimism and confidence. A bad one focuses on negatives.
  •  Humility: The best approach is to share credit for success and admit error when you’ve made one. Humility breeds likability and respect, important contributors to successful leadership.
  •  Respect for others: If you want respect, start by giving it. Treat your colleagues and their views as fully worthy of respect even if you think they are not.
  •  Neatness: An orderly desk or workplace says things are under control.


It’s been estimated that 90 percent of a CEO’s job involves some form of communication. I’ve often thought that at least a 75-percent figure would be realistic for most management or professional positions, and perhaps even the 90-percent figure would be accurate for most PR professionals.

Here are some of the most important elements to being a successful communicator:

  •  Presentation skills: Every presentation is a performance and a test: a test of a person’s knowledge, command of a subject and ability to clearly articulate positions and policies. Any aspiring executive needs to be a skilled and polished presenter.
   • Vocal qualities: It’s not essential to have a great voice to rise to the top. What is important, however, is how the voice is used. Speaking too fast, for example, sends a lot of wrong messages including insecurity, insincerity or lack of self-control. Being too soft-spoken or too loud also detract from executive presence.
  •  Listening: Real leaders listen carefully to others and ask questions that challenge their thinking and lead to greater creativity and more productive collaboration. Dr. Bernard Ferrari, dean of the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University, says “listening can well be the difference between profit and loss, between success and failure and between a long career and a short one.”
   • Eye contact: Just as it’s important to look people directly in the eye when talking or listening to them, it’s equally important in presentations. Don’t bury your head in the lectern or in your slides; look at your audience.
  •  Plain, simple language: The ability to condense and clarify a complicated topic is an essential leadership skill. Albert Einstein put it this way: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”


Grooming and clothing are other key measures on which potential leaders are judged. Here are some tips:

   • Grooming: Since your head is the first thing people generally see, neatly trimmed and well-styled hair is essential. For grooming as well as dressing, if something calls attention to itself, it’s probably wrong.
   • Fit: It’s important to fit into the culture of your organization. Read the dress code. A tailored black business suit with an expensive necktie is generally as unwelcome in a tech firm as casual wear would be in a law firm. What the boss is wearing is often a good guide to what kind of attire you should be wearing.
   • Quality: Select quality over quantity and insist on a proper fit before you walk out of the store. It’s better to have two or three good, well-fitting outfits than a closet full of cheaper garments. A Michigan State University website on business states, “A well-made jacket in a good fabric may cost a lot more but it will look better, fit better and last longer.”
   • Style: Whether the organization’s style is business casual or more formal, what you wear should be clean, pressed and in good condition with no missing buttons, dangling threads or signs of wear and tear. Check carefully for these things before you head to work.

Something extra

Most executives would probably agree that the points listed above provide a pretty good formula for projecting executive presence. Some, however, suggest some additional qualities.

Christine Barney, CEO of rbb Communications in Miami, told me she factors these qualities into her decision-making:

  •  Curiosity: “I want someone who questions why and how — who doesn’t just accept the status quo.”
   • Lifelong learner: “Evidence that someone is constantly learning shows open-mindedness and commitment to improvement.”
   • Spark: “This doesn’t mean the best-dressed or made-up gets the job; it means there is an indefinable something — perhaps charisma — that makes others want to be around this person. If you have a spark, you foster great teams, great ideas and great results.”
   • Accountability: “From being punctual to having clear goals, someone who is accountable instills confidence because he or she is clearly outlining where we need to end up.”

Can anyone develop executive presence? Yes, provided the person is intelligent, well-informed and willing to work at it. Remember to:

    • Be warm, friendly and approachable.
   • Hone your communication skills, especially your presentation style.
   •  Do more listening than talking.
   • Volunteer for tough assignments.


Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email:


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