Executive Presence: The Intangible Leadership Essential

But rising stars also bring a less tangible quality: executive presence. They inspire trust and confidence from the moment they enter the room.


When executives and administrators rise to leadership on campus, it’s only partly through their technical skills. Many began their careers with excellence in academics or athletics, adding expertise in management and budget along the way.

But rising stars also bring a less tangible quality: executive presence. They inspire trust and confidence from the moment they enter the room.

Panelists at the NACWAA convention in Kansas City MO in October 2012 suggested ways women could enhance their executive presence.

Dutch Baughman, executive director of the Division IA Athletic Directors’ Association, said we constantly give out messages about ourselves—but not always the message we intend.

For example, consider this sign:

What message does a passing motorist get from this sign? Does it take work to find the key fact buried in small print on the last line— that the bridge is out?

Strangers and associates read you like a highway sign. Do they see you as having sharp edges? Is your large print mostly negative? Is the real message an afterthought?

You can control the messages you give out.

Baughman’s organization runs an annual three-day institute for senior-level associate directors of athletics who have the interest and potential to become athletic directors. One focus of the institute is to help the rising leaders take charge of how they come across. He said, “When they embrace executive presence in all they do, it’s amazing!”

 First impressions

“All look your best,” Peter Pan warned the lost boys as they got set to enter the house they had built for Wendy. “First impressions are awfully important.”

Plato described the mind as a wax tablet into which sights and experiences are pressed, leaving a permanent mark or impression as the wax hardens. We leave impressions wherever we go, based on how we look and what we say and do. Once an impression takes shape, it is difficult to change.

First impressions are visual, made before you utter a word. “Seventy percent of impressions are formed in the first four to six seconds,” Baughman said. Then your words and deeds add other impressions like tiles to a mosaic.

Impressions develop into opinions: conclusions, judgments or estimations of value, based not on positive knowledge but on how things seem to be. Parts of how people judge you are within your control.

He listed dozens of “impression points” that affect your executive presence:

Appearance and scent: hygiene, business attire, neckwear, shoes, belts, purses, planners, briefcases, nametags, sunglasses, watches, makeup and cologne. Dress for the place you are visiting so you won’t look either overdressed or underdressed. “In the work environment, jewelry is just fine unless it makes noise or draws attention and becomes a distraction,” he said.

Movement: what you drive and how you carry yourself as you stand, walk, go through doors or take escalators and elevators. Executives learn to move at a very slow pace when others can see them. They want to give the impression of being calm and in control.

Meeting and greeting: introductions, eye contact, handshakes, business cards and conversation openers. How do you ask people to wait when necessary? Do you forget or remember names? Shaking hands well is a learned skill; but there’s always the limp wrist and someone who won’t let go. He avoids hugs and kisses except with people he has known a long time. To forestall unwanted kisses and hugs, initiate a handshake; it signals your expectations while your hand in front of your chest says not to come any closer.

Ongoing business conduct: meetings, phone skills, correspondence, mealtime etiquette, public speaking, handling gossip and asking clarifying questions. Fully half of the 16 executive competencies listed by CEOs from top Fortune 500 companies relate to executive presence.

He also listed “reaction impression points” that leave a negative impression that’s hard to overcome. Avoid: sexist language, other inappropriate language, body piercing, profanity, smoking, tattoos, inappropriate jewelry and furs.


Executive presence can be summed up as energy, in the view of Dr. Joni Comstock, senior VP for championships at the NCAA. Energy is made up of:

Passion. “You can’t fake it.”

Credibility. People are watching and aware of you at all times.

Poise. This is the ability to remain unflappable, knowing that bad things may happen but that eventually all will be well.

She told of her first meeting in 1992 with Dr. Donna Lopiano, former women’s AD at the University of Texas and founding head of the Women’s Sports Foundation. As associate AD at Purdue University IN, Comstock was attending a basketball tourney at Texas and always dressed well for games. Walking into the gym to meet the great Lopiano, she realized that the two black shoes on her feet didn’t match. When she couldn’t find a table to hide behind, she quipped, “I just thought I’d try on a couple of different shoes today.”

Women get judged on their clothing and hair more constantly than men do. Each woman has her own personal style. As a new VP, Comstock started wearing her hair lon- ger, but decided she didn’t like it so cut it short again.

She recommended becoming a regular customer at a good store where they will phone you when they get something in your style. Find a good tailor who can make you look professional.

“We tend to be in situations where we’re the only woman so we need to be disciplined about how we react,” she said. Take care with your self-talk and ignore the chatter around you. She credited mentors, sponsors and successful women for teaching her the tricks of the trade.


Presence that inspires trust and confidence goes more than skin deep. You are judged on your credibility as well as your work product, said Anucha Browne Sanders, VP of women’s basketball championships at the NCAA.

Own who you are. Be comfortable with yourself; people can see if you aren’t. Love your physical and spiritual self. Being a woman is an asset, she said. “Women bring a calming presence to the workplace. Own it, celebrate it. It’s about being authentic.”

Pay attention to fit. Ask yourself, do I belong here? Do I respect the organization and its values? It’s a lot easier to work at a place where you can be authentic; you can’t fake it. Before moving to the NCAA, she was senior associate athletic director and senior woman administrator at the University of Buffalo. As a finalist for AD at Brown University RI, she met seven women, all wearing skirts or dresses. She prefers pants and blazers; it was “a cue that it wasn’t a good fit for me compared to where I was.”

Be accountable for your presence. “I’m so tired of being the only woman of color,” she said. Before Buffalo she was head of marketing and business operations for the New York Knicks, a job she lost after complaining of sexual harassment. After being fired, she brought a successful, high-profile lawsuit. “I was afraid it dominated who I am,” she reflected. “I needed to own it and let it go and heal. I had to embrace it.”

Avoid isolation. Use the power of mentoring and networking. She has created a small circle that gives her support and feedback. Isolation is a particular risk for women and especially women of color. She said guys go out to lunch all the time and they need their guy-time, but it isn’t authentic for her—she’d gain too much weight.


Chairing the panel was Robin Harris, executive director of the Ivy League and newly named NACWAA president. She said executive presence is all about self-confidence.

Women look at a new position for which they have nine of the ten qualifications and focus on the one that they lack. Men tend to bluster through and figure they’ll learn any skills that they’re missing.

“Dress is important. I have to dress up whenever I go to a sporting event because some AD may introduce me to their president,” she said.

From the surface details that leave indelible impressions to your authentic core, the presence you bring to every interaction is an essential part of leadership. Ignore it at your peril.

Dutch Baughman, db@d-1a.com
Robin Harris, robinharris@ivyleaguesports.com

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2012, December). Executive Presence: The Intangible Leadership Essential. Women in Higher Education, 21(12), 18-19.

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