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Executive Presence and the value of Coaching Supervision

The most recent research to come out on the Executive Coaching industry in the U.S. (Underhill and McAnally, 2013) is very clear. The #1 reason for hiring a coach is Leadership Development, and #2, to develop Executive Presence. However, both categories frequently show up on peer ratings of senior-level executives. This would suggest: 1) that people know what they want from coaching, and 2) that the measurements of other people’s assessment of those characteristics or behaviors should help us to ‘coach’ them toward higher ratings in those categories. A discussion of these assumptions alone could be very enlightening, but for the purpose of this paper, I would like to focus on how coaching supervision can be helpful in working through our undeveloped parts of self, as coaches, when client needs exceed our own experience.

First, how do we coach a client who comes to us for Leadership Development? One of the most common and effective ways of addressing this question in business coaching is the use of psychological and feedback surveys. Harvard Business Review, some years back, defined the basic leadership skills as “knowing yourself, managing yourself, and understanding your impact on others.” Usually the “knowing yourself” is covered by some personality or interpersonal-style instrument to increase awareness of differences and sameness among people. How well you know yourself becomes clear when comparing your self-ratings on leadership competencies to others’ ratings. How consistently do you overrate or underrate yourself? How well you “manage yourself”, and your “impact on others” can be illuminated by the ratings and comments on a 360 feedback instrument, as well as subsequent conversations with peers and colleagues. As a coach it is relatively easy to focus on the ratings of others, their self-ratings, then help the client define where they or others would ‘like’ them to be, and then develop an action plan. Do you, the coach, need to have actually ‘led’ a group or project or an organisation in order to help a client do that? Probably not. As long as you minimise your own assumptions, values, and interpretations, it is a pretty straightforward process. We eventually come to the provocative question, however, of “How can I, as a coach, help my client develop in a way that I haven’t experienced or developed in myself, and especially when the process is unclear?”

I think the question comes even more to the fore when you are working with executives who come to coaching for reason #2, developing Executive Presence. (The research report says that “This is a new category and relatively undefined in the industry.”) So what is that presence, anyway? Can we define it? Can we learn it or develop it? Have you ever experienced it in others? If you have, it might not have been in business or in an executive, either. Just what is Executive Presence? And how, if at all, is it any different from presence as experienced in any one individual, including yourself?

The executive 360 instrument called Executive Dimensions, used at the Center for Creative Leadership (Greensboro, NC), has a category of ratings called Executive Presence and the items are:


  • Communicates confidence and steadiness
  • Projects confidence and poise
  • Adapts to new situations
  • Commands attention and respect
  • Accepts setbacks with grace

This definition intuitively fits my experience of leaders I’ve worked with who happen to have that quality of Executive Presence. My own list would emphasise: confidence with humility, resilience and calm demeanor in times of stress, and a mindful presence. When I think of Executive Presence, I recognize that it isn’t conveyed through the words people use, or the clothes they wear, but mostly is recognised by others through their body language, tone of voice, and a personal quality which is interpreted as confidence, poise, respectfulness, generous acceptance, humility, calm, and mindfulness. [There was a quote recently about the new nominee for U.S. Atty. General, Loretta Lynch; “She really is the soul of grace under pressure.”] It is a hard quality to measure but we know it when we experience it.

This ‘presence’ that clients want to develop is an emotional and physical energy that resonates with, stabilises, and influences others. If your client comes to you to develop Executive Presence, even with clearly defined factors on peer ratings as a guide, how can you coach someone to have more ‘soul of grace under pressure’ as perceived by others? Doing a Google search on Executive Presence, you find very little written, and what there is, refers to appropriate dress, authoritative tone of voice, how you physically carry yourself, etc. In other words, it’s the outside-in perspective of executive ‘image’– i.e., if you act present, you don’t necessarily have to be present.

Then consider the questions that this challenge raises: How do you, as a coach, help a client address psychological factors like anxiety, lack of self-confidence, intolerance, rigidity, etc., that he or she might experience as emotional impediments to presence in times of stress or pressure? And how does culture play into effective and appropriate Executive Presence, be it national culture, team culture, or organisational culture? Is presence a universal trait? What the client may be seeking in building Executive Presence becomes a quagmire of questions, assumptions, experience, personality, blind spots, and projections (of yours as a coach, and theirs as well).

I think this is where the role of a coaching supervisor could be quite helpful, if not essential. It underscores the need for working together to learn about ourselves, especially where the focus is on a quality that is hard to measure, hard to define, sometimes undeveloped in ourselves as coaches, and yet can be a common or underlying focus of our work. It isn’t hard to imagine a situation in which the client needs to develop a quality or skill that the coach doesn’t have personally and maybe the supervisor doesn’t either. We are all walking through the garden of Executive Presence blindfolded, and making our own assumptions about what that means but finding applications all around us. (I’ve worked in indigenous cultures where this trait was described as “chiefly leadership” and the experience of what that felt like was taught by practicing a “majestic” posture/stance, even for children. Amy Cuddy has a terrific Ted talk about body posture changing your inner experience of power and confidence and consequently your ‘presence’; and the ‘Dog Whisperer’ teaches the value of a calm and assertive presence with unruly dogs.) But this mutual, and parallel, process is exactly where creativity and opportunity can bloom. Clients who have developed Executive Presence are shown to have a greater probability of being promoted to higher levels of leadership, and my intuition tells me that coaches who have developed Executive Presence have more success with, and demand from, hi-level executives.

I am convinced that Executive Presence, at its core, is a quality of mindfulness and centeredness, rather than a behavior, that involves some disengaging or detaching of oneself emotionally in highly charged experiences, yet being mindful of the people. This energy can feel quiet, watchful, and even a bit boring to you, if you are accustomed to a hyperkinetic work culture pushing a ‘sense of urgency.’ But to others it can be calming and stabilising and be seen as confident leadership, which has great influence and power in situations that are complex, confusing, and chaotic. This is the ‘executive’ aspect of Executive Presence—your impact on others, as perceived by others. Presence is an individual quality. Executive Presence is that quality of mindfulness, as perceived by others in the workplace, that communicates confidence and calm and can provoke a certain deference or respect: “The soul of grace under pressure.”

Herein lies our own potential for growth in this profession; we are constantly learning about ourselves through our work. At least that is true if we can remain open to our own biases, restricted comfort zones, personality preferences, and limited experience. As coaches and supervisors, reflecting on our un-illumined or unpolished facets of self, together, allows both of us to continue to develop our inner supervisor and our inner coach, thus building competence in our outer supervisor and our outer coach. Whether we work through the body (embodiment approaches), through the mind (contemplative practice), through psychology and behavior (Cognitive/Behavioral Therapy CBT), or by reflecting on our work with others, it is actually this inside-out, parallel process, that we engage in together, that ultimately brings the greatest value to our clients who are coming to us for reason #2, the wish to develop Executive Presence.


Underhill, B. and McAnally K., Executive Coaching Industry Research; CoachSource, 2013.

Dede Osborn MA          CSA Accredited Coach Supervisor.