The Unexpected Combination For Mastering Executive Presence

Confidence alone will only take you so far. To get to the top, you need humility too.


a spotlight

A few weeks ago, I was invited to lead a dinner discussion with a group of 20 finance executives and give a preview of the speech I’d give at FEI Austin the next morning.


For this small group of senior leaders, I shared a few key concepts from my talk, titled Developing Executive Presence. This naturally led to a discussion of what executive presence means — where its essence lies.


“It all comes down to humble confidence,” I explained.


When these two traits — humility and confidence — combine, they produce a powerful blend of self-assurance without arrogance. And that blend lies at the heart of what people call executive presence.


Let’s take a closer look at the two components of this dynamite combination.


First, confidence. Every leader wants to demonstrate it — after all, their job is to point the way for others and inspire them to follow. Real confidence comes from expertise — not only technical expertise but also interpersonal expertise.


Technical expertise is “table stakes” in every profession. Whether you work in engineering, finance, human resources, supply chain, sales or marketing, you need a master’s grasp of your job’s technical aspects just to get through the door.


But while technical prowess is a vital necessity, it becomes less and less of a differentiator as you rise to the level where everyone’s an expert.


To differentiate yourself at those top levels—and continue to grow in your career—you need more than just technical expertise. That’s when interpersonal expertise comes into play.


You’ll often hear interpersonal expertise called one of the “soft skills”— skills like building trust, managing conflict, motivating people, holding each other accountable, delivering results. But in truth, these skills are anything but fluffy. Interpersonal competence empowers you to collaborate effectively with others — accomplishing far more than you ever could on your own.


Together, technical expertise and interpersonal expertise form the foundation of confidence — ingredient #1 in our dynamite combination.


The second ingredient is humility — and it’s every bit as important as confidence. In fact, without humility, confidence is just arrogance — even if you’ve got the technical expertise to back it up.


Arrogance is more than just off-putting — it actively repels most people, degrading your ability to build trust and inspire your team. Even worse, arrogance stifles your mind. When you’re convinced you’re always right, you close yourself off within the limited universe of your own personal knowledge and experience. And you miss out on a world of new solutions that can only come from the unique perspectives of others on your team.


In short, humility unlocks infinite perspectives. As your colleagues experience your humility, they’re more inclined to open up and share ideas you may have never dreamed of — in effect, making you smarter. And as my former CEO at Microsoft, Steve Balmer, is famous for saying “I always reserve the right to get smarter!”


When you marry humility with confidence, you get a magic combination. Those around you will be drawn to your self-assurance and know-how in the face of tough challenges. And they’ll stick with you as they witness your willingness to weigh new information and adapt accordingly.


Over the course of my finance career in senior roles at Microsoft and Novartis, I witnessed this enviable combination in the leaders I admired most. In my work as an executive coach, I’ve helped many leaders develop the same smart composure — that elusive aura that seems to effortlessly propel a few execs’ careers to the highest ranks.


In a nutshell, here are my tips for developing humble confidence:‍

  1. Become an expert in your profession. Get all the formal education you can — then throw yourself into on-the-job learning. Volunteer for stretch assignments. Read the best books in your field. Attend conferences and listen to those who are successful in your work. Hone your craft. Adopt a learning and growth mindset. The best book I know on this last approach is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol S. Dweck.

  2. Develop your interpersonal expertise. The fastest way I know how to do this is to work with an executive coach with a proven track record. A good coach will interview your key stakeholders and let you know how you’re seen through the eyes of others. They’ll also administer a personality assessment, and give you unvarnished feedback that’ll shine a light on your blind spots, expanding your perspective and choice. For this angle, I also recommend the book Conscious Business, by Fred Kofman. ‍

  3. Cultivate humility. Personal tragedies, like going bankrupt, getting fired or nearly dying, are effective catalysts for developing more humility. But there are less painful ways of doing it, too. Try to develop greater humility by listening to others, keeping a gratefulness journal, practicing mindfulness and/or prayer, asking for help when you need it, studying the great texts of world spiritual traditions, serving others less fortunate than you, and spending time with experts outside your own field.


If you’re feeling stuck at your current stage of career growth, try taking a step back and asking yourself if you’ve cultivated confidence and humility in tandem — or if you’ve been cultivating the former at the expense of the latter.


Next time you’re in a meeting, resist the urge to demonstrate your expertise and extend more trust to others on your team. After all, they’ve spent years cultivating their own expertise, just as you have.