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Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

If you're going to be a big shot at a company, you'd better look good, sound good and keep it together under pressure.

That, in essence, is what is referred to as “executive presence.”

Actually, executive presence is much harder to define. Even though senior executives cite it as a key factor in deciding who makes it to the so-called C-level positions — top executive roles such as chief executive officer and chief technology officer — they struggle to explain it.

They know it when they see it. They can sense it.

“It ultimately boils down to your ability to project mature self-confidence, a sense that you can take control of difficult, unpredictable situations” and “make tough decisions in a timely way and hold your own with other talented and strong-willed members of the executive team,” says John Beeson, principal of Beeson Consulting in the Harvard Business Review Blog Network.

Executive presence — whether you are viewed as leadership material — is an essential component to getting ahead, accounting for 25 percent of what it takes to get promoted, a study from the Center for Talent Innovation says.

The study defines three areas that influence perception of whether or not you have executive presence:

• Gravitas. This is the ability to project decisiveness, confidence and poise under pressure. It's the core characteristic of executive presence, according to 67 percent of those surveyed.

• Communication. This includes excellent speaking skills, assertiveness and the ability to read an audience or a situation. It also can involve how you sound.

Specifically, 59 percent of those surveyed said sounding uneducated detracts from a woman's executive presence, and 58 percent said it detracts from a man's executive presence.

• Appearance. This includes looking polished and “pulled together.”

The most notable blunders are unkempt attire with 83 percent saying it detracts from a woman's executive presence and 76 percent saying it detracts from a man's executive presence. Seventy-three percent say that too tight or provocative clothing detracts from a woman's executive presence.

In his article, Beeson talks about why a man named Frank Simmons hasn't made it to the executive level.

Although Simmons is experienced, results oriented and committed, he “always looked a little rumpled and his posture was a bit hunched.” His presentations to the executive team were rambling, and he “was hesitant to insert himself into the conversation when the executives got into a debate.”

When it came down to it, as one executive put it: “I just can't envision putting him in front of a customer.”

In a 2010 article in Forbes, contributor Glenn Llopis says that when people have the right quality, their presence is felt when they walk into a room.

Mastered over time, he describes executive presence as having self-awareness.

“Executive presence is not about exercising your power and influence but rather the ability to make others feel your powerful presence in a safe environment.”

As Beeson says and I concur, the most critical part is to find your own voice as an executive: “Identify your assets, and leverage them to the hilt.”

Career consultant Andrea Kay can be reached at

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