In-House Counsel, Practice Pointers

Moonlighting: Executive Presence

Suppose you had two work colleagues. Both are great lawyers. Both produce superior results, and are admired and respected by their peers for their substantive knowledge and work ethic. Lawyer #1 shows up to most meetings a little bit late, sits hunched over, and speaks in low tones that are difficult to hear, making eye contact with only one or two people in the room. Lawyer #2 is always on time, sits straight, and speaks clearly and loudly enough for everyone to hear, while making eye contact all around the conference table. Lawyer #2 even has nice teeth.

Again, assuming both lawyers are equally competent in their subject matter areas, whom would you send to the next important meeting with the senior executives? Since this is not a trick question, no duh — Lawyer #2. Heck, I’d choose #2 over #1 for anything I even semi-care about (including proper dental hygiene).

Executive presence is one of those soft skills that they just don’t teach you about in law school. Yet, it’s a critical quality you’ll need to perfect in order for you to gain your clients’ trust and to progress in your career. Your pretty face and ability to spew out boilerplate assignment provisions in your sleep will not get you there alone. And despite its name, executive presence is not just for executives….

What is executive presence? This is a good question, as no one seems to agree on any single answer. Many people will offer you differing lists of the components that they believe comprise executive presence. However, they all agree that executive presence is not a standalone trait. It’s an entire package of qualities and characteristics, which include themes such as confidence (but not arrogance, which is a turnoff), trustworthiness, calmness, warmth, and professionalism.

Some people believe that executive presence can’t be learned — you either have it or you don’t. Although some people naturally exude a strong presence more than others, I disagree that executive presence can’t be taught. After all, many of the traits are behavioral. It seems that many people have some, but not all, of these transcendent qualities. Over time, individuals should be able to gradually improve their executive presence, just as Mia Thermopolis, the bushy-browed, dweeby commoner in The Princess Diaries, slowly acquired the behaviors for perfectly-tweezed, royal fabulousness. (Or, for you more senior folks reading this column, think Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.)

We begin our foray into the particulars of executive presence by examining one main trait in this article: body language. Experts have observed that most communication (some say up to 97%) is conveyed non-verbally. Does your body language convey the confidence, calm, and professionalism consistent with an executive presence? Or does it say that you’re a nervous wreck this morning because you skipped your ninth cup of coffee, so voilà, Mr. Crabby Counsel!?

Let’s get specific. When you’re in meetings, do you slouch and avoid eye contact with your arms crossed? Or do you sit straight-backed with a smile, your hands and arms in an open position taking up space on the table? Do you engage in nervous or distracting habits like drumming your fingers, playing with your pen, picking at your nails, or fussing with locks of hair (sometimes your own)?

How about the way you carry yourself when you participate in more difficult activities, such as… walking? Are you hunched over, pulled by bags and briefcases here and there while rushing from one meeting to the next? Or is your body centered while you glide smoothly, purposefully toward the distant sunset, the wind blowing in your immaculately-groomed tresses?

When you meet people for the first time, do you have a nice, firm handshake? But not crushing, please — it’s not an arm wrestling competition, for goodness’ sake. Did you know that a rough handshake was responsible for the loss of an election? Instead, look your colleague in the eyes and greet them using their name as you pump their hand a couple of times. In fact, use the moment as an opportunity to burn their face and name together into your long-term memory.

What are you telling others without saying a word? For next week’s post, we’ll examine some other crucial qualities of executive presence in more detail. In the meantime, if there’s anything you’d like to see discussed next week, or if have tips or stories you’d like to share, please email me or comment below.

Susan Moon is an in-house attorney at a travel and hospitality company. Her opinions are her own and not those of her company or anyone she works with. Susan may share both her own and others’ experiences (especially the experiences of those who have expressly indicated to her that they must not under any circumstances be shared on ATL). You can reach her at and follow her on Twitter at @SusanMoon.

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