Adapted from an article at

The phrase “executive presence” is frequently tossed around like the key to unlocking professional success. But ask what it means, and you’re often met with a vague and nebulous definition.

This elusive quality often leaves professionals in the dark, grappling with its nuances and questioning its impact on their career trajectory. It can become a barrier to actionable advice and, in some cases, to well-deserved promotions to leadership positions.

The confusion is understandable, given that executive presence can have varying meanings across different organizations. To help cut through the fog, we asked the community – including companies hiring on Elpha – what the term means to them, what they look for in a leader, and how they think about promoting from within.

We cover:

  • What is executive presence?
  • What executive presence isn’t…
  • How to talk about executive presence
  • How to build executive presence

What is executive presence? 

Bre Vergess , Director of Product at Grow Therapy , echoes what many have shared about the term,

“‘Executive presence’ is a pretty loaded term. It’s a vague blanket concept that has historically been used to avoid offering concrete feedback on why someone isn’t being put into a leadership position, and it can often disproportionately impact women.”

Having said that, as Business and Career Coach Raina Sun points out, if this is the game we have to play, then we might as well discuss it. 🤝

“The women I’ve seen who demonstrate “executive presence” walk a tightrope between being liked and slightly feared – and within that fear lies respect. They don’t smile easily. They monitor how they write and speak. They are careful with how they deliver feedback, praise, and criticism. In our sexist world, you might be being too friendly, which is feminizing and therefore seen as a weakness,” says Raina.

At Grow Therapy , when they think about “executive presence” in a literal sense, it means how you show up in a room with your executive team. Bre explains,

“Your executive team is thinking about so many different things, from the future of the company to the biggest problems to solve, and their time is highly valuable. To have “executive presence” involves communicating complex topics in a concise and digestible way, being conscious of their time but giving enough information to inform critical decision making, and instilling confidence that you’re contributing to moving the company forward.”

Another way to think about executive presence is the ability to hold others accountable as one Elpha member says ,

“While I like to think I “empower and inspire” others to execute, I recognize many leaders around and above me ultimately see this as helping others to clearly understand what they are accountable for and, in whatever leadership style you choose, that they get it done.”

What executive presence isn’t…

As we break down the concept of executive presence, it’s important to clarify what it is not.

One Elpha member shares a few misconceptions about the term.

Showing up early and staying late: Working long hours is good when you are an entry-level employee, but it actually creates resentment if you keep long hours as you get promoted. Not only does it seem like you aren’t working efficiently and delegating, but it also creates pressure on people who work for you that they will also have to work long hours (obviously this is slightly different if you are in a company culture where 100% of the leaders are working long hours).

Getting along with everyone: You want people to respect you, not necessarily “get along” with you. At higher levels, you need to be good at saying no and pushing back on people. Inevitably, this is going to cause some people not to get along with you.

Volunteering your time to help others with things that aren’t your job: You need to be the person who inspires other people on your team to volunteer to help with YOUR projects. And you also need to be a bit more selfish with your time.

How to talk about executive presence

The term “executive presence” often comes up during performance reviews, particularly when discussing promotions. Without specific definitions, the term can be ambiguous and serve as a catch-all. If you’re unsure about what exactly executive presence means at your company and how to improve it, don’t hesitate to ask for guidance from your employer.

“It can mean anything from confidence to emotional intelligence to your mastery of the content and more, so getting to the root of the feedback is critical to harnessing it, and ensuring that you not only inspire trust in a room of executives but can also rise to the executive level in your career one day,” says Bre.

Tiffany Chang , Senior Technical Program Manager, suggests asking your manager about a previous instance where they felt you didn’t meet the expectations for the next level and what steps they recommend you take going forward. She explains that in doing so, the benefits can be two-fold:

1) You increase your chances of getting specific feedback that you can act on, or

2) If the manager struggles to articulate specific examples, you can explore this with them to understand what’s going on in their head – is there bias at play? Double standards? Something else?

If approaching your manager is not an option, Chaula Gupta , Vice President and Chief Program Officer, recommends asking peers or someone outside your direct management chain for feedback about your performance and skills to shed light on where you may be falling short as an executive. 💡

“In my opinion, we all have blinders when it comes to self-awareness and it helps to get an objective perspective,” says Chaula.

Samantha Bedford , COO, also recommends seeking out a colleague to mentor you and possibly shadowing them if it’s appropriate.

“Having someone who understands the inner workings of the ‘machine’ could be really helpful,” adds Samantha.

How to build executive presence to be positioned for leadership opportunities

We gathered insights from companies hiring on Elpha about their views on executive presence, how to enhance it, the qualities they seek in leaders, and their approach to promoting from within.

Kim Wilkes ,  Head of Talent Attraction at Zapier , shares their approach to executive presence,

“When it comes to executive presence in particular, we look for ways in which the leader has communicated effectively with various audiences and has influenced without authority to achieve positive results. This is also coupled with a strong track record of embodying our company values,” she says.

Iynna Halilou , Community Lead at Elpha, suggests a few ways to develop executive presence, including improving communication and public speaking skills.

“Things like improv might help you build some confidence that you didn’t know you had, another thing is posture (it’s minor but I’ve found that standing tall – and I’m not particularly tall – helps clear my voice when I speak and immediately gives me a boost).”

Rachel Liaw , Cofounder & CEO at Fuse Inventory, emphasized the importance of resourcefulness and a growth mindset in leaders at startups,

“A leader has to have confidence, and we believe that confidence stems from someone who is very capable and is able to help their team out of any situation. With a resourceful and learning attitude, a leader can block and tackle for the rest of the team, without needing to place blame. This allows the team to take risks without fear of repercussion, as that’s what is needed in a startup.”

As for getting promotion-ready, Bre explains that one of the best behaviors she observes in high performers is the “ownership mentality”. This involves identifying problem areas and partnering with their manager to find ways to potentially expand their scope and take on new challenges.

“This is something that anyone at any level can do, and is a great way for people to demonstrate performance at the next level before they’re there.” She adds, “The most important thing is to communicate with your manager early and often about how you’re performing and what your path to the next level looks like. If your manager isn’t doing this already, schedule regular career check-ins and ask for feedback. You can use that as guidance to find ways to demonstrate that you’re meeting their expectations and eventually performing at the next level.”

Kim explains how they think about promotions at Zapier,

“When considering promotions, we first look at the individual’s experience level and ensure it falls within the range of the needed experience for the new role. Second, we look at how the individual has shown sustained strong performance. We look for evidence that the individual has added value to the company in their current role and shows evidence of stretching into next-level behaviors and responsibilities. Third, we ensure the individual is a good match for the new role and that it aligns with their interests, strengths, and career trajectory.”

She adds that, on an individual level, employees can prepare for promotion by prioritizing the right work at the right time and effectively communicating their work outcomes and impact on the business or customers.

Although definitions of executive presence can sometimes be vague and vary across organizations, it remains a key expectation for leaders. Understanding what your company values in terms of executive presence is crucial for career growth.

We hope this guide helps you gain clarity on how your company or employer may perceive executive presence and equips you with ways to develop it.

And remember, as Erica Rios states :

“Bias is a real thing. If you are confident you are demonstrating executive presence then it’s a good signal to find a role in another organization that will value it.”