Over the last 18 months, I participated in a series of one-day regional symposiums incorporated into the Women, Influence & Power in Law framework. This initiative, known as Project 5/165, is designed to provide tools that aid women in-house counsel on the path to becoming general counsel in Fortune 500 companies. In breakout sessions, participants role-played a business simulation with sitting general counsel acting as a CEO. The topic of “executive presence” came up in almost every session, and no one could define the term with precision.

Why executive presence?

Leaders who exhibit executive presence tend to be people we trust and, quite importantly, follow. At the extreme, the lack of executive presence can sink a leader, cause others to question his or her judgment and destroy confidence in his or her ability to lead.

What is executive presence?

Think about legal leaders you know who demonstrate executive presence. What qualities do they exhibit? I developed the following short list from what I learned through Project 5/165 and my other experiences with GCs and leaders. Of course, not all those with executive presence have all these characteristics.

How they think and decide: They have a unique ability to sift through complex facts and assess what matters to stakeholders. This enables them to make risk assessments quickly and effectively. They go beyond problem solving and look at the big picture. This helps earn them a seat at the table where the most impactful decisions are being made. They are decisive and, when making decisions, they accept ambiguity. This quality allows them to decide with the information available.

How they act: They have a sense of calm that defies common sense. In a crisis, people look to them for guidance and direction. They do not raise their voices or show worry. They speak and act with confidence. They are also humble—willing to admit they went down the wrong path and then rectify it. They do the right thing, even if it is not the popular thing, including speaking out when needed. They view problem solving through the lens of values and principles.

How they treat people: They show empathy. They are the ones who treat staff with respect, whether in the office, hotel or restaurant. They give credit to others. When you speak with them, you know they are listening, because they make you feel you are the most important person in the world in that moment. They have high expectations of themselves and those around them.

How they appear: They look their role. This includes clothing, hair and other physical attributes. They pay attention to their physical condition—they take care of themselves. And their expressions and other non-verbal communication are appropriate for the circumstances.

Developing executive presence

First, learn about it. An Internet search will reveal a number of resources. One comprehensive resource is a study produced by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) in 2012 entitled Executive Presence. The study defines executive presence in three categories: Gravitas (confidence, decisiveness and integrity, among others); communication (speaking skills, command of a room and more); and appearance. To order it, or the more recent study Cracking the Code: Executive Presence and Multicultural Professionals, go to www.talentinnovation.org/research-publications

Second, practice what you learn. The CTI study contains a great list of suggestions on how to develop executive presence. Third, get feedback from a sponsor or mentor who understands executive presence. Ask for specifics about what you can do that will enhance your executive presence.

What can you do now?

There is no question executive presence is important. Decide how important it is to you and ask those you trust, including a sponsor or mentor, how you’re doing. Resolve to learn more and take action.