Gravitate Towards Gravitas - How to Get Executive Presence!

Vanessa Harding-Farrenberg
January 14, 20164 mins read

What is gravitas? According to Wikipedia, it's "a quality of substance or depth of personality." To the ancient Roman Republic, it meant dignity, seriousness and duty; essential virtues expected of men to possess. However, in my opinion, it is a term I would use to describe someone whose words you listen to, someone you trust and respect, and who exudes excellence.

When interviewing, executives look for someone they believe can hold their own in sometimes difficult or unprecedented situations, deal with headstrong stakeholders, tackle problems calmly and make tough decisions. Certainly a lack of gravitas is the main reason I am given by a client when rejecting a senior level candidate and is top of the list of “must haves” in any executive job briefing I attend.

The power to influence is key. Without gravitas you can sometimes be perceived as a lightweight. But it is more than just the words you use, it is your tone, presence, body language, facial expressions, attire and confidence that are all subconsciously being scrutinised by your audience.

Perception is 9/10th of the law, and in a recent survey of 268 senior executives, it showed that gravitas attributed to 26% of what it took to get that senior management promotion.

There are people that are born with it and those who will never have it. Then there are those who will work towards cultivating it.

Whilst it is not something that will happen overnight, I believe there are a number of things that can be worked on to improve executive presence.

Phone a Friend
Ask someone you trust for honest feedback - where is your blind spot? This is the easiest way to know what to focus on first.

Poise: the ability to be ill at ease inconspicuously Earl Wilson
If you want to command the room, stand tall and use clear, concise language with an authoritive tone. Whilst displaying energy and passion is a positive thing, you won’t gain respect if you talk too much or joke around. Say what you mean and mean what you say!

Don’t Um and Ah
A big no no, along with “like”, “do you know what I mean”… you may not even know you do it. Experts suggest videoing yourself to spot where your weaknesses are. Toastmasters have an “um and ah” count for every speech and the count is usually very surprising for newcomers.

Confidence not arrogance
Those who mind don't matter, and those who matter don't mind.” - Bernard M. Baruch. Those with gravitas are not the ones who boast their credentials the loudest, but let their excellence shine through - a very common mistake!! Humility is a great sign of confidence; remember that whilst you want to be taken seriously, you also need to display strength of character and be known as someone who has genuine integrity. Strive for confidence based on substance and be fair and transparent in your dealings. You still want your personality to come through.

Look the part - be the part
Like it or not, how you look is important. Whilst buying a new expensive suit alone is not going to fool many, well-cut hair, a smart tailored suit, a corporate necktie and spit-shined shoes will not only boost your confidence but make the right first impression. If you are not well versed on what’s hot in the world of business attire, hire a style consultant. It will be worth it.

Be Present
Maintain eye contact and prepare to not only listen but fully absorb what is being said. Observe the others’ body language and tone and make your response targeted. Ask searching and challenging questions to make it clear you are interested and attentive. Make them feel that they, and what they are saying, are important.

The Silent Pause
“The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.” - Mark Twain. To ensure you have the attention you deserve, pause before you speak, get to the point and then stop talking. Embrace any silence that may follow. Think quality over quantity.

Personal Brand
When you feel you have worked on the above and have mastered a genuine, authentic confidence, you are ready to start to build your personal brand but take note: building a personal brand will not get you gravitas.

In this day and age, many work very hard on their public image through networking, social media, public speaking and other innovative channels. I believe one should only focus on this once they have focused on their executive presence so as not to appear foolish. Bluffing your way through it is not the way. I would recommend doing as much public speaking in less significant forums as possible. Practice makes perfect and it is far better to develop an authentic style. 

Vanessa Harding-Farrenberg's picture
APAC Regional Managing Director
vharding@morganmckinley.com