Shirey, Maria R. PhD, MBA, RN, NEA-BC, FACHE, FAAN
Executive presence (EP) is the influence and engagement needed to drive change in organizations and the broader society. Although discussion of EP as a key element of effective leadership abounds in the executive coaching and business literature, this concept is nonexistent in nursing publications. A search of Ovid and the Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health Literature databases generated only 1 nonpertinent article on EP; however, an advanced search of Amazon.com revealed seminal business books on EP.1 This lack of focus on EP in nursing literature may help explain why nursing is a trusted profession2 yet it rates so poorly in perceived influence.3 Without influence, fostered by EP, nursing’s voice will not be consistently heard or respected. Maximal influence will support nurse leaders having a place in key decision-making forums.
Executive presence is a key factor in a leader’s success.4 Because EP can be developed over time, it is important to understand what it is and then explore what is needed to achieve it. Accordingly, the purpose of this article was to define EP and describe its significance in the healthcare workplace. Ways to cultivate EP to achieve strategic influence will be presented.
Confusion exists regarding the definition of EP, even though sources say it is a recognizable attribute and people “know it when they see it.”4(p10) In an effort to generate a conceptual definition of EP, consultants Sally Williamson and Associates completed a formal survey of close to 400 chief executive officers, other C-level executives, corporate communications executives, and professional development managers. Williamson and her team concluded that EP is “the confidence to express ideas with conviction and the ability and desire to engage and influence others in the process.”5(p2) Furthermore, “presence is the balance of personal power and persuasion with compassion and connection.”5(p10) Hewlett et al6(p3) added that “executive presence is an amalgam of qualities that true leaders exude, culminating in an aura that telegraphs you’re in charge—or deserve to be.”
Because there is no agreement as to a uniform conceptual definition for EP, there is also not an operational definition. Although an instrument exists to measure presence from the broader perspective, such as general presence7 and presence in a virtual environment,8 there is not an available instrument that measures EP.
Hierarchy of Attributes
Williamson5 notes that EP exists within a hierarchy of attributes, which includes 4 distinct levels: physical, functional, rational, and emotional (Table 1). Levels 1 and 2 attributes are deemed as essential to advance beyond middle management. Achieving the higher level 3 and 4 attributes necessitates mastery of the preceding levels and requires the ability to engage others. A person need not be a senior executive to demonstrate EP. Leadership potential, however, may not be enough, as individuals who want to advance in their careers and influence more broadly must also look and act the part.6
Level 1, physical, refers to attributes that include the person’s external manifestations, such as their appearance, polish, or refinement. Level 2, functional, includes attributes such as learned skills (role knowledge, expertise) and personality traits (preparedness, professionalism, attention to detail) associated with leadership role competence. Level 3, rational, reflects attributes necessary to engage others and includes the ability to listen, persuade, and influence. Level 4, emotional, is the highest level in the hierarchy and encompasses leaders who possess the ability to express empathy, model authenticity, demonstrate transparency, and build positive relationships.
Based on Williamson’s5 findings, as individuals grow in EP, they pay careful attention to their behaviors and work diligently on developing across all 4 levels within the hierarchy. Individuals with well-developed EP focus on their personal presentation (physical), role proficiency (functional), engagement with others (rational), and ability to be genuine and trustworthy (emotional).
Although there are many anecdotal articles about EP in business journals, few empirical studies are available. The Center for Talent Innovation completed 1 such empirical study.6 With funding from various Fortune 100 companies, Hewlett et al6 conducted a survey of nearly 4000 college-educated professionals aged 21 to 62 years, including 268 senior executives in large US corporations, to get at the essence of EP. In addition to the surveys, focus groups and 1-on-1 interviews were conducted. Findings from the study suggest that EP requires having knowledge and skill to add value yet also entails getting 3 things right: appearance, communication, and gravitas. Therefore, how a person looks, speaks, and acts has a bearing on that individual’s professional success along a full career.
Appearance relates to how an individual dresses and includes presenting a distinctive and polished look that does not detract from personal substance. Appearance extends to an individual’s voice, speech, and physical bearing, all of which must project confidence, decisive judgment, and authority that go beyond a title or credentials.
Communication encompasses a variety of verbal and nonverbal messages. What individuals say and how they say it in both formal and casual venues may either enhance or detract from effective messaging. Findings from a recent Career Builder survey suggest that injecting swearing words into conversation reflects lack of control, makes employees appear less intelligent, and thus diminishes how others perceive them.9 Tone and nonverbal mannerisms also influence messaging and related perceptions. Findings from the Hewlett et al6 study indicate that even small actions such as gum chewing in an inappropriate venue could make a negative 1st impression and derail credibility. In addition to verbal and nonverbal messages, communication involves the skill to accurately read an audience. It entails the ability to command a room and have superior speaking skills to clearly and concisely articulate a substantive message. Effective communication also requires knowing when to remain silent.
Gravitas relates to an individual’s ability to demonstrate grace under fire, exude confidence, and project vision. Having the courage to speak truth to power is representative of gravitas. Hewlett et al6(p9) indicate that “being seen as someone who possesses gravitas, in addition to the requisite intellectual horsepower to do the job, is a non-negotiable requirement for anyone striving to attain positions where they can drive results and effect transformational change.”
Based on the findings of Hewlett et al,6 all 3 EP traits (appearance, communication, gravitas) complement each other but are not weighted equally. Of the executives in the Hewlett et al6 study, 67% reported that gravitas contributes the most toward EP, with communication ranking 2nd (28%), and appearance last (5%). Despite appearance ranking a low 5%, how a person looks makes an all-important 1st impression. How a person looks may form a good 1st impression, yet what they say provides a filter for whether or not they will be heard. Ultimately, it is gravitas that conveys credibility and exudes the needed confidence to follow and trust an individual.
Because what is valued in a single organization over another may vary, EP is considered to be relatively situation dependent. Executive presence is not a 1-size-fits-all concept and thus requires adapting throughout a career6 without sacrificing personal authenticity. Demonstrating the whole package of EP requires embracing the authentic self.6(p7)
Why Is EP Important?
Monarth1 suggests that EP operates like a personal or professional brand and must be developed. According to experts, individuals “who fail to recognize the influential power of executive presence—and fail to take a controlled approach toward nurturing their own—risk establishing an aura that distracts from rather than contributes to their leadership potential.”6(p3) Lack of EP diminishes credibility and interferes with the ability to be taken seriously. Understanding the importance of EP is thus crucial for strategic influence needed to make change happen.
In addition to contributing to leadership effectiveness, EP is considered to be an unwritten competency for leaders and is needed for achieving leadership promotion. Hewlett et al6 found that in addition to functional ability and values, EP contributes to 26% of what it takes for women to be promoted and 25% for men. Understanding the importance of EP has implications for talent development and leadership succession planning. Executive presence is so important that 100% of the executives interviewed in the Williamson5 study believed that EP is a leadership differentiator.
How Can EP Be Cultivated?
Understanding what EP is and recognizing its leadership importance are important precursors for developing this valued attribute. Williamson10 suggests that observation, coaching, and training contribute toward an individual’s EP development.
An individual seeking to grow in EP should begin with identifying exemplary role models then committing to observe and learn from the positive behaviors. On the basis of the observational experience, those wanting to further develop in EP can emulate the role model’s desirable comportment and evaluate the impact associated with practicing the learned behaviors. Formalizing an apprentice-like relationship can also facilitate professional growth through experiential learning. In addition, practicing in privacy such as in front of a mirror might help refine desirable high EP behaviors.
Coaching may supplement observational experiences to enhance EP, including enlisting the services of an executive coach. Individuals working with an executive coach often undergo an initial assessment for EP. The coach then uses both proactive and remedial approaches to address identified opportunities. Although using the services of an executive coach could be expensive, these services can be cost-effective over the long run. If individuals do not reflect on and use the executive coach’s feedback, ultimate benefit from such an experience may not be materialized. In the absence of an executive coach, a high-EP colleague may be helpful as an engaged and honest developmental partner. To supplement all coaching experiences, videotaping an individual’s important presentations before and during could provide an opportunity for critique and EP improvement. Simulation exercises can also enhance the coaching experience.
Completing formal courses on EP can be useful. Conducting a simple Google search can identify companies that provide formal courses. Pursuing informal learning through reading books about EP may also be beneficial. Because having mastery in presentation skills is an element of EP, gaining presentation experience is advised. In addition, investing in emotional and social intelligence skill development may be useful for cultivating EP.
This article explores EP and discusses its importance in the nursing discipline and healthcare workplace. Tangible strategies focusing on observation, coaching, and training to cultivate EP have been offered.
Hewlett and colleagues6(p67) said, “executive presence turns up the volume on top talent so everyone hears them, and pays attention. The intangibles that comprise EP, from gravitas to polish, ensure that the wisdom, knowledge, and ideas residing inside the brightest minds are unleashed, and that these individuals become leaders who deliver tangible results for all.” The time is now for nurses to only be trusted but also to be heard so they indeed may exert the strategic influence and presence needed to facilitate meaningful change.