Executive Presence: A Case Study on Influence for HR Leaders

executive presence hr Mar 11, 2024

In the contemporary corporate landscape, Human Resources (HR) leaders now can have a ‘seat at the table’ and influence policy and strategic direction.

This is a shift from only managing operational tasks and executing policies and this shift often requires exercising executive presence and understanding influence capital.

As an authority on self-leadership and an executive and leadership coach, I have been engaged by HR leadership teams to facilitate and coach executive presence. This case study of an HR Leadership Team for a Global Health Care Company outlines the problems and solutions that I have used to achieve results.

The Challenge

Business is about results, and those results are usually measured in financial terms such as EBITDA or the company’s stock price. The CEO, CFO, and other C-Suite executives are focused on delivering these results whereas the focus of HR has been on recruitment, retention, and engagement. There is a correlation between these HR activities and financial results, but correlation is not always causation.

A short story that illustrates my point. I was working with the Executive Leadership Team of a national bank, and we were addressing the cost of conflict. Rather than use an abstract case study, I asked that we look at a real problem for the bank. At that time two departments were each in the process of acquiring new IT systems. Having two different IT systems would double the cost and not be compatible with each other. As we worked through the conflict of each department head not wanting to share, eventually an agreement was reached that would save the bank $5 Million in the first year. I leaned over to the Chief Human Resource Officer and said, “You will never complain about my fee again”. He laughed and said, “Different budget!”.

The HR budget for developing people is usually considered a cost, whereas the much larger budget for sales and marketing is seen as an investment.

To influence the organization to invest in acquiring and developing the right people and culture HR leaders must be adept a making a great case and presenting that case with gravitas.

Executive Presence

Executive Presence can be defined as the ability to project gravitas, confidence, and poise under pressure. Additionally, it means reading the room.

Gravitas, or substantiveness means portraying a deep understanding of the subject matter. Confidence in your abilities and perspectives combined with composure under pressure can be decisive when it comes to influence. Reading the room means understanding the needs, wants and beliefs of the key stakeholders and framing your message in terms of what’s important to them.

Despite the appearance that some people seem to be born with executive presence, it is a skill that can be learned and developed.

Learning and Applying Executive Presence

I struggled with languages at school, I just didn’t see the point. Now, as a Global traveler married to a Brazilian and living in Portugal, I would love to have paid more attention in school. Now, when I see people who can seamlessly switch languages, create connections, and experience different cultures, I realize I hadn’t understood why it was so important.

The HR Teams of the aforementioned Global Health Company were not initially convinced of the importance of learning Executive Presence, they felt that their initiatives were self-evident and that the stakeholders and employees would just get the logic.

Two and a half thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote four books on rhetoric and taught that influence requires ethos, pathos, and logos. Logos, or logic is the least important, and ethos meaning character, or gravitas was the most influential with pathos coming in a close second. Pathos, which means empathy equates to reading the room in our executive presence model.

Establishing my own gravitas and confidently reframing the importance of learning and applying executive presence got full buy-in from the HR leaders.

The second reframe was that while preparation is important for effective performance, it is not solely the preparation of data or slide decks, but the preparation of the physiology of confidence, and preparation of messaging relevant to the audience that is core to executive presence.

Actors study how to get into character to convey ideas and emotions. To operate with executive presence, we can use acting exercises to train our physiology to stand, speak, and respond confidently under pressure. Sharing these activities with the HR leaders we witnessed a transformation in terms of the credibility and impact of their presentations.

Influence Capital

Influence, in contrast to manipulation, is to get a willing “yes”. People will say yes to what best serves their perceived self-interest.

Notice that I said, perceived self-interest because many times people will say, “no” to something that will benefit them because they do not realize it is in their own interest. If you have ever told a teenager to turn off their devices and go to sleep, you will understand my meaning.

HR Leaders typically need to get a yes from the Executive Leadership Team for more human-centric policies and from employees to embrace new work practices and standards.

In the case of the Global Health Care Company, both these challenges were present, and we were able to map the perceived self-interest of each group and craft messages that resonated.


As previously mentioned, the challenge for HR leaders is often to articulate correlation to causation, and from cost to investment.

What is the cost to an organization if a good idea is not articulated, or adopted?

Kodak not adopting digital cameras, and Blockbuster ignoring the rise of Netflix are case studies in the cost of missing disruption. The Great Resignation has a cost in terms of lost talent and organizational knowledge, and poor engagement scores have a cost in terms of productivity and the ability to hire the best people for competitive advantage.

Not all these costs can be calculated in advance, but when the HR Leadership of the Global Health Company were able to present their ideas to reduce costs and increase benefits with gravitas and confidence, they received the buy-in required.

HR is now perceived as an enabler of results rather than a cost center or administrative function.

We are measuring the financial results, but at the time of writing, I do not have permission to share these with you.

In Conclusion

Executive Presence, whether in person or on a video call, increases the chances of getting a willing yes. Executive Presence can be learned and developed but to not do so is to give up your seat at the table to someone else.

If you are interested in developing the executive presence of your team, feel free to contact me.





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