Hospitality Leadership Series On ‘Professional Visibility’: The 3 Cs of Executive Presence


Seasoned executive search professionals and human capital advisors, Andrew Hazelton and Thomas Mielke, share their thoughts on achieving 'professional visibility'.

The 3 Cs of Executive Presence

Last month, we investigated what it takes to be visible in the professional market place and concluded with the suggestion that “visibility” is only worth something if it is tied to “relatability”. In this article, we stipulate that the former and the latter should be complemented by “executive presence”. Google “executive presence” and you’ll be “inundated” with 163 million hits. You’re bound to learn useful tips if you can somehow sift through this avalanche of material to find the tried and true nuggets of wisdom. Or, you could take the Dale Carnegie’s course on public speaking or immerse yourself in leadership books that aim to describe and nurture executive presence reportedly from academic perspectives. Executive presence undoubtedly factors in any equation that predicts who gains visibility and who doesn’t. It appears that people make first impressions of others within the first 11 seconds, according to a 2009 study published by neuroscientists at New York University and Harvard University. Executive presence can nevertheless be tricky to define, but people seem to know it when they see it. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that people know it when they “experience” it. Moreover, it matters that others do experience it, since some research suggests that, on average, executive presence accounts for 25% of what it takes to get promoted. Alex Stadlin, the international-focused Chief Operating Officer at Playa Hotels and Resorts, pretty much cut to the chase with his definition that he shared with us several years ago – i.e., executive presence is “confidence without arrogance and an ability to communicate harmoniously.” His view parallels other definitions we’ve heard from HR pros, hiring managers and C-suite execs over the years. It’s also not far off from the results of a survey on executive presence that found 60% of senior executives cited “gravitas” (i.e., projected confidence, poise under pressure, and decisiveness) as its core characteristic, with 20% of executives also identifying good communication skills and only 5% of executives citing professional appearance. But, based on this collective feedback over 15 years of dealing with hospitality power-brokers, we humbly amend Alex’s nice synopsis by adding that executive presence must have substance to complement the style. In other words, we propose a C3 model:
  • Credibility: there’s no executive presence without being in command of your material.
  • Confidence: there’s no executive presence without presenting material in a manner that conveys comfort with the domain expertise.
  • Charisma: and finally, there’s no executive presence without connecting information to the needs, interests or value set of the audience, i.e., making you and the material relevant and “relatable” (also see our previous pulse on this topic here).
The quickest way to present material in a way that’s irrelevant and unrelatable is to speak deliberately in overly “smart” or “sophisticated language.” Such a person is called a “sesquipedalian” – and they usually don’t connect well with audiences who simply want clear and concise communication. This doesn’t mean words don’t matter. To be sure, nearly 60% of respondents to the executive presence survey felt that unprofessional or uninformed speech is a critical detractor. In short, what we’ve heard from industry leaders and the available science on this topic is that executive presence doesn’t equate to charm, status or natural intelligence. Rather, it reflects an individual’s balance of the three above characteristics in the context of communicating or presenting, especially under pressure.  The best part is that each component in this model can be learned – so get going.