My career coaching client wanted to talk about executive presence.

“My boss told me that I giggled in a meeting with the executive team,” she said. “He told me I needed to work on my executive presence.”

I almost giggled at the thought.

This woman sitting in my office is a senior director at a large organization. I couldn’t really imagine her “giggling.” Laughing, yes. Belly laughing and chuckling, yes. Even snickering.

But not giggling.

“So what is executive presence?” she asked me. “If I’m warm and funny, then I’m giggling and lack seriousness, but if I’m serious, then I’m stern and cold. What do I do here?”

Despite all the books and articles written about the “mystique” of executive presence, it can be coded language used to exclude people who don’t look and act a certain way. It is entirely subjective. It can be used as a weapon, I told my client.

“Were you giggling, do you think?” I asked her.

“I probably last giggled 30 years ago,” my client said. “Really, what I’m learning from his comment is that if it wasn’t giggling, it’d be something else.”

So what is executive presence, and who gets to have it?

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I like this definition in Forbes: “In its simplest terms, executive presence is about your ability to inspire confidence — inspiring confidence in your subordinates that you’re the leader they want to follow, inspiring confidence among peers that you’re capable and reliable and, most importantly, inspiring confidence among senior leaders that you have the potential for great achievements.”

But in order to inspire confidence in others, you need to be confident in yourself. You need to be really clear about what matters to you. “Real executive presence is about self-confidence,” I told my client. “Not bluster and bombast, but intrinsic confidence in yourself, rooted in your values.”

“So, for example, you care about engineering excellence. It is one of your core values,” I told my client. “You are fearless in your pursuit of excellence. You will take on anyone, regardless of title and rank, to do the right thing.”

“That’s executive presence,” I said. “That focus on excellence instills confidence in the people around you.”

How you walk down a sidewalk hints at your executive presence

“You care about the people who work for you,” I continued. “You lead with warmth and humor, and are tireless in your advocacy of their careers and growth.” (In fact, my client’s team has followed her on her career path, moving with her to different cities and organizations — she’s that kind of leader.)

“That’s executive presence,” I said. “That dedication to the people around you instills confidence.”

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Executive presence includes other ingredients, too, of course, like emotional control, emotional intelligence, communication skills, drive and preparation. But it starts with confidence in yourself — with getting really clear on your values, on where you take a stand, on what you’ll go to the mat for.

After our coaching session, I asked my client if I could use the giggle story for this column. She emailed back that she’d just gotten out of a meeting with her CEO.

“And he giggled through the whole thing,” she said.

Kathryn Crawford Saxer, jobs columnist for Seattle Times Explore
Kathryn Crawford Saxer, jobs columnist for Seattle Times Explore