Article: Why Executive Presence Is Harder For Women Leaders

Forbes, December 2, 2015, By Henna Inam

Kelly is an executive coaching client. She is considered high potential in her company and one of the coaching goals identified is for her to improve her executive presence. As I did feedback interviews about her, here’s what I heard from different people:

“Well, she just doesn’t act like she’s executive material”

“Hmm, I’d like for her to be more vocal and impactful in meetings”

“Kelly’s sometimes too emotional about her point of view. She needs to tone it down.”

“Kelly’s body language says she’s not comfortable being in executive situations.”

“She needs to dress the part, be more executive-like.”

I am confused. And likely so are you.

Too many times in my own career as I sat through employee succession planning discussions, someone would say: “Jane’s not ready to be promoted yet. She just needs more honing on executive presence”. Everyone would nod their heads knowingly and Jane was put in the “ready in 1 to 2 years” box. The problem was she never got out of that penalty box because no one dug deep to understand what executive presence really is, to give her direct feedback, or to help Jane grow in her executive presence.

Sometimes executive presence is a politically correct term to be intentionally vague so we don’t have to say what feels uncomfortable to give the employee direct feedback on.  As an executive coach, I get to have one-on-one conversations with bosses and receive feedback for my clients that they feel uncomfortable giving. Here are some of the statements I’ve heard:

“She needs to show less cleavage.”

“She’s built like a foot-ball player and dresses like one.”

“That accent she has is so thick, I can’t get her in front of clients.”

I am intentionally using examples of female leaders because in my experience it is by far women who get put in the executive presence penalty box most often. There are many more factors they need to deal with related to personal presentation and attire, not to mention gender bias related to operating style (too timid, too aggressive, etc).

EY Executive Coach Tracey Edwards says: defining executive presence is like nailing jello to a wall.

So based on interviews with many senior leaders in organizations, I created a framework I hope will be useful for us to be granular and productive as they identify executive presence strengths and development opportunities for others. It’s also a way for you to do a self-assessment and seek out the feedback that we all need to grow.

Physical Presence – This is about whether your physical presence is appropriate for the job. I put this first, not because it is most important, but that it is what people notice first. Here is the question to ask yourself: Is my attire and personal presentation (hair, make-up, clothes) appropriate to my job situation in a way that builds credibility? Not all of us can look like Angelina Jolie, but we can present our best selves. What is appropriate in your job is based on your workplace culture, so be attentive to how the people with credibility dress around you.

Communication Presence – This is about how you connect with people.  Since 90%+ of communication is non-verbal, it is also about your body language. Is your posture open and confident, your shoulders back and relaxed? Do you communicate to others through your body language that you are confident? Since most of us form first impressions quickly, is your handshake firm so that it communicates both strength and confidence? Do you make eye contact with people as you communicate with them?

How impactfully do you communicate your ideas? Is your voice high-pitched or low? Lower pitched voices generally convey greater authority. Do you speak with conviction? Do you pause to see if people are following you? How effective are you in presenting to larger and smaller groups and thinking on your feet to respond to questions? Do you interact with others in a way that is professional? It’s also about how well you listen to others, giving them your full attention, and give them cues that you understand what they’re saying.

Emotional Presence – This is really about emotional intelligence and self-management. Do you know how to manage yourself during stressful situations? Are you self-aware enough to know what your triggers are and what default behaviors they cause? Are you able to keep your head and stay calm in charged situations? Are you able to read a situation and be flexible in your response?

Executive presence comes down to conveying confidence, credibility, connection, and calm.

I hope this model and some of the questions I’ve posed can help us have more direct conversations and give people the opportunity to get direct feedback to grow our leaders.

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