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Categories: Career, Coaching, Leadership

How Does Being Virtual Affect Your Executive Presence?

Since the pandemic began, we’ve all read countless posts and articles about how we can maximize our video conference appearance by adjusting angles, settings and lighting.  These best practices make video meetings more effective, but have you also considered the impact being virtual has on your executive presence?

Executive presence is the “it” factor for business.  It is all about the perception you are creating while you are doing what you do. Executive presence signals to others that you are in charge or that you deserve to be.  According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success, executive presence gets people to “give you the chance to prove you are capable of more.”

Given that definition, we can likely all agree that executive presence holds a place of high importance in the world of leadership, whether we are leading in person or virtually.  Typically, our physical being affects our presence – we are there in 3-D, and can fill a space with our bodies and voices as well as by making eye contact.  In the virtual world, we lose those things.

Coqual (formerly Center for Talent Innovation) studied executive presence and made some interesting observations.  Their research shows that leaders with executive presence demonstrate excellence in three key characteristics, in order of importance – gravitas, communication and appearance.

Executive Presence – Gravitas

Let’s start with gravitas.  According to a September 2020 Harvard Business Review article entitled Gravitas is Something You Can Develop, “Having gravitas at work means you are taken seriously, your contributions are considered important, and you are trusted and respected.”

So, how do you create gravitas via video?  You can start by carefully considering your agenda for any video engagement just as you would for an in-person meeting.  Speak confidently, answer questions without showing defensiveness and use silence.

You will also want to focus on eliminating things that can reduce your gravitas.  As we all work from home, many leaders have been forced to use their bedrooms as offices.  If that’s you, consider a virtual background or turn your desk so your bed is not in the background. If those options don’t work, at least be sure you make your bed so it doesn’t look like you hopped up from a nap to join the meeting.

I recently met a leader in a Zoom meeting who serves as another example.  He appeared in front of a virtual background depicting a long wood bar filled with every imaginable type of liquor bottle.  How do you think that background affects his gravitas?

Executive Presence – Communication

The second component, communication, also plays a key role in executive presence. For better or for worse, our ability to communicate depends on our technology when we work virtually.  How can you command a room when you are not really in the room?  Start by being sure to test your sound to make sure you come across strongly and clearly.

Body language is also an element of communication.  Sit up straight, look the camera in the eye and keep yourself from fidgeting as much as possible so you are communicating professionalism and engagement.

Executive Presence – Appearance

Finally, let’s talk about appearance. Given video conferencing, I never knew one of my clients was a college basketball player.  In person, her height would have given her a presence advantage, but video was a great equalizer.  My five-feet became the equivalent of her nearly six feet of height.

Also, in the WFH age, we all tend to dress more casually, but don’t forget that whether it seems fair or not, people will judge based on appearance.  A first impression of your appearance will affect the other person’s view of your overall executive presence and will likely color whether they feel they can take you seriously.  Don’t be the person who gets up to let the dog out of the room during a video call and accidentally shows everyone your pajama pants!

I am sure you’ve noticed other people’s virtual presence, but how about taking note of your own? Virtual meetings are here to stay, so we all need to consider the impact being virtual has on our executive presence. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

To read more of Debby’s thoughts on leadership, please visit

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