Executive Presence: A Learnable Skill

Lawyers who exhibit “executive presence” are more likely to make partner, to gain clients’ trust and loyalty, and to receive referrals from others. Executive presence is easy to spot, but difficult to define. A lucky few are born with it, but, in most cases, it is learned. This article discusses what executive presence is and how you can learn it.

So What Is ‘Executive Presence’?

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of the acclaimed book “Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success” and Founder/CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, asserts that “executive presence” can be divided into three distinct categories: gravitas (how you act), communication (how you speak) and appearance (how you look).

Hewlett surveyed 268 senior executives about which of these three traits were the most important in conveying executive presence. Sixty seven percent rated gravitas the highest, 28% rated communication the highest, and 5% rated appearance the highest.

Exactly what are gravitas, communication and appearance, and how can you improve yours? Gravitas is a sense of dignity and substance that is conveyed through how you act, particularly your confidence, grace under fire, decisiveness, toughness, and emotional intelligence. Communication in this context has to do with how you speak, particularly your ability to command a room, to control and modulate your voice, to maintain good eye contact and posture. Appearance has to do with how you look and dress. While the respondents rated appearance the lowest on the scale, you should not underestimate its importance. It is the filter through which gravitas and communication skills are experienced and evaluated. It is your first impression, and first impressions count for a great deal.

Can You Develop Executive Presence?

The Institute for Level Six Leadership at the University of Kansas and the United States Air Force Academy conducted research on this topic and found that leadership skills, including executive presence, can, to some extent, be acquired and learned through experience, maturity and effort. But, just like with anything, some people are more naturally gifted at it than others.


The ability to convey gravitas has to do with your ability to convey deep knowledge and substance, exude confidence, act decisively, show integrity, have an outstanding reputation, project vision, and demonstrate emotional intelligence (your ability to tap into your emotions and understand those of others). Getting in touch with your emotions can help you handle your stress levels and communicate more effectively. As an executive and leadership coach, I help lawyers tap into their emotional intelligence.

Here are a few practical tips about how to improve your emotional intelligence:

  1. Relax. Ironically, you often have to be relaxed to convey seriousness. Relaxing will rejuvenate you and put you in the right frame of mind so you can better handle the many stresses of your profession. People relax in different ways, so find out what works for you. For example, relaxation can mean meditating, exercising, a great meal, hanging out with your significant other and/or friends, playing or watching sports, listening to music, reading a great book, or watching endless hours of analysis of the Presidential election. Do not underestimate the importance of relaxing. Some law firms have bought into the benefits of mindfulness practices and are now offering mindfulness workshops to their lawyers. Sarah Stuart, a teacher of mindfulness meditation to lawyers at leading law firms, says that training helps hone emotional intelligence and empathic communication and leads to improved leadership and teamwork.
  2. Tap into Your Emotions. What emotions are you feeling when you wake up each morning and before you fall asleep at night? These emotions are huge indicators as to what is going on in your life. If your emotions are positive, then that is great. But if they are negative and getting in the way of your optimal level of functioning, then you may want to seek out professional help if you are having difficulty working through your problems. For instance, if you are nervous about your lack of business and unsure how to generate more, try hiring a business development coach. If you are putting on too many pounds and having difficulty taking them off, try hiring an athletic trainer and/or nutritionist.
  3. Pay Attention to Your Body. You can improve your emotional intelligence by learning how to read physical cues. For example, are your hands shaking and your heart pounding before you go into a negotiation or an important client meeting? Is it affecting your ability to operate at your best? Maybe it is just plain old nerves, but it could be more than that.
  4. Notice Patterns in Your Emotional History. When you feel strong emotions, key into how you react. The more you understand what spurs your impulses, the more control you will have over your emotions. If you can see patterns, you can exert more control over your behavior. Observe how you handled the situation before, and how you would like to handle it next time. Practice deciding how you want to behave. You can’t help what emotions you feel but you can decide how you want to react to the situation. Executive and leadership coaches can help you to become more self-aware so you can learn to react to people and situations more intelligently and positively.
  5. Show Grace.This has a lot to do with just accepting who you are and accepting others for whom they are. Listen to others and accept that people have different viewpoints. Rejoice in their successes as you would your own. People will react positively.


I know from personal experience how teachable communication skills are and how much they overlap with the skills that performing artists refine over their lifetimes. I trained to be an opera singer starting at the age of 13 and pivoted professionally after college. My operatic studies taught me very valuable and transferable communications skills: how to command an audience; how to use my voice to express and communicate through pitch, tone, timbre, and voice modulation; how to have good body posture; maintain poise; how to read an audience; and how to improvise when things go wrong. These are also the important communication skills for leaders.

Here are a few practical communication tips:

  1. Prepare. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” (Benjamin Franklin). I don’t know many lawyers who can go to a pitch without preparing, no matter how smart and capable they are. Lack of preparation shows, and it is too competitive out there to not be at your best. Sit with your fellow lawyers, go over the points that you feel are important to communicate and enlist the help of your marketing department. Prepare, prepare, prepare!
  2. Maintain Control over Your Voice. Pay attention to how you sound. Record yourself. Recordings don’t lie. Pay attention to your breath control. Are you taking shallow breaths? You may be nervous, so you will need to implement some relaxation techniques. If you have a heavy foreign accent and people are always asking you to repeat yourself because they are unsure of what you said, hire a speech or voice coach.
  3. Establish Good Eye Contact. Eye contact is very important. If you make eye contact with people, they will feel that you have genuinely connected with them and that you care about their reaction to what you are saying. If you are speaking to only one person, focus on them. Don’t look beyond them to see who is coming around the corner. If you are in a room full of people, take in everyone before you start. Pay attention to each person’s facial expressions. See how they are reacting to what you are saying. Don’t fixate on one person. That will undoubtedly make them feel uncomfortable. Different cultures have different norms about eye contact. Respect that by spending less eye contact time with them, but don’t ignore them.


How you look and dress matters. Substance is paramount in the legal profession, but form matters too. Every organization’s culture is different, so tune in to the culture of your clients’ organizations as well as your own firm’s culture and norms to determine the best dress for you. A strong, physically fit body projects resilience and toughness for the demanding job of lawyering and leadership. Your appearance should reinforce your professional competence and not undercut it.

Here are a few recommendations to help you with your appearance:

  1. Meet with an Image Consultant.Meet with a professional, or get help from a friend you think has a great sense of style. Ask them for feedback regarding your attire, hairstyle and grooming. Assure them that you will not be defensive and that you will receive their observations and suggestions as constructive guidance.
  2. Hire a Personal Shopper. Most higher-end department stores have someone available who can help you create a wardrobe. Your goal is to look polished, professional, and well-put together. You want to communicate success and that you are worthy of respect.
  3. Get in Shape. Invest in an exercise machine for your home, join a gym, and/or hire a personal trainer. Eat healthfully. Hire a nutritionist if you have to.


Leaders are not born, they are made. That is the good news! So, whether you are a managing partner, a partner overseeing a department, a partner growing a book of business, or an aspiring partner, executive presence will help you earn the respect of your peers and clients.

By Sheryl Odentz, Founder and President, of Progress in Work.  This article was published in the October 2016 issue of LJN’s Law Firm Partnership & Benefits Report, which is an ALM Publication.  For more information, Sheryl can be reached at 212-532-6670 or sodentz@progressinwork.com.