Executive Presence: What Matters & What Gets in the Way
Updated: Sep 29, 2022
Do others take you seriously as a leader? If not, perhaps your executive presence could use some work. Here are three ways to show up more powerfully as a leader by paying closer attention to how you look, communicate and act.
Once again, Gabriella didn't get the promotion she thought she deserved. Despite being a top performer with a proven track record at her company, she is constantly being passed over by her (mostly male) colleagues with less talent and experience.
After the umpteenth time hearing, "you're not quite ready," she feels defeated. She believes that if she keeps her head down and works even harder, someone will eventually notice and reward her for her efforts.
In truth, Gabriella isn't being overlooked because she isn't ready. Others just don't view her as a leader. While she has the competence and qualifications for the role, she doesn't present herself in a way that commands respect, confidence, and trust from those who have a stake in her career.
She doesn't need to work harder. She needs to enhance her executive presence.
Do you have executive presence? Consider the following
▪ You do great work, but no one seems to notice
▪ You have great ideas, but no one is listening
▪ You get the interview, but not the job
▪ You have the leadership title, but not your team's respect and trust
What is Executive Presence?
Did you know that others are sizing you up within a few seconds of meeting you? They make snap judgments about your competence, confidence, credibility, and trustworthiness based on how you look, communicate and act.
How you act (gravitas), how you speak (communication) and how you look (appearance) count for a lot in determining your leadership presence. ~ Sylvia Ann Hewlett
It seems pretty superficial, right? Well, that is just how our brains are wired. We rely on our initial impressions of others as a shortcut to making broader generalizations about who they are and their suitability for leadership. It's not necessarily an indication of their true abilities, but whether or not they convey the characteristics and behaviors that shape how we see, connect, and trust them as leaders.
Why It Matters for Women Leaders
So what does executive presence have to do with women leaders? Well, first, consider that most organizations have an unconscious male bias. Throughout history, our assumptions about what makes a successful leader are primarily based on how men look, communicate and act.
So it's not surprising that women are held to a higher standard when perceived as leaders. And assume you are a woman of color working in a predominantly white and male-dominated profession (hello, legal profession). In that case, the stakes are even higher because so few of you are at the senior levels.
While some form of unconscious bias is likely operating in the background of every interaction you have with others, it doesn't have to derail your career. The key to being taken seriously as a leader is understanding what contributes most to our executive presence. And what might be getting in our way.
How to Enhance Your Executive Presence
Executive presence is one of those concepts that is hard to define but easy to notice when we see it - and also when we don't. So if yours could use a little (or a lot of) work, here are three key ways to show up more powerfully as a leader by paying closer attention to how you look, communicate and act.
1. Look Like a Leader
Earlier in my career as a law firm recruiter, our hiring partner seemed overly focused on how candidates looked when they showed up for the interview. It didn't matter how qualified or highly recommended they were. If they weren't polished, she would reject them outright.
Seeing my frustration, she took me aside and explained that she was actually doing them a favor. She knew that if they didn't make an excellent first impression, they wouldn't be given a second chance by the partners at our firm.
She was right. Our appearance is the primary filter through which we make the first impression of a person's leadership qualities. And these initial judgments are pretty resistant to change.
What Kind of First Impression Are You Making? Good grooming is a must if you want others to see you as a leader - especially with something as critical as an interview or initial client meeting. So ensure your clothes are nicely pressed, your hair looks neat, and there aren't any scuff marks on your shoes. Because even if your appearance is impeccable every other time, people will never forget you as the person who wore a wrinkled suit the first time they met you.
First impressions aren't just for in-person interactions. How many of you are showing up on Zoom calls looking like you just jumped out of the shower or came from the gym? I'm not saying you need to do the whole hair and make-up thing every time you go online, but make it look like you put forth the effort.
And while many of us are still working remotely, try to create the impression you are working in an office – even if it’s a home office. So check out the view others might have of you before turning on your camera. No one wants to see your unmade bed or a sink of dirty dishes in the background.
2. Communicate Like a Leader
I attended a panel recently where one of the speakers covered her mouth and ran her hands through her hair as she spoke. While she spoke with authority on the discussed topic, her body language communicated something else. That she was nervous and unsure of herself.
Are you saying one thing with your words but something different with your body language? This can look like crossing your arms, averting your eyes, covering your mouth, and even wrapping a hand around your neck while speaking. It's as if we are protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable. However, this misalignment between our words and behaviors signals a lack of confidence and credibility as a leader.
What is Your Body Language Saying? Most of us focus on the content of the message but pay little attention to how we are saying it with our tone and body language. This is critical because the vast majority of our communication is nonverbal. It's why we intuitively know when someone is lying, fake listening, or saying everything's "fine" when it really isn't.
To ensure you communicate in a way that reinforces your leadership, take a video of yourself while speaking. It might feel a tad uncomfortable to watch yourself on camera, but it will bring your tendency to fiddle with your hair, ramble on or say too many "ahs" or "ums" out of your blind spot. Because even if you think you are in control of what you are saying, your body language is likely giving you away.
3. Act Like a Leader
Cherise was excited to land her first client. She had met the GC of her firm's former client at a networking event where he asked that she represent his company on a particular matter.
So she was shocked when one of her firm partners claimed that he listed himself as the originating attorney for this new client, even though he hadn't worked with them in over five years. While it seemed grossly unfair, she didn't push back.
Do You Stand Up for Yourself? Many women leaders don't. We fear being confrontational will make us seem aggressive and "not nice." This is understandable given the double-bind dilemma women leaders face in our attempt to navigate the conflicting perceptions of being assertive and competent but also liked and accepted.
Yet, this unwillingness to advocate for ourselves diminishes our power and undermines our "gravitas" as leaders. Whether it's the promotion you rightly deserved or the origination credit awarded to someone else, have the courage to challenge the status quo when something's not quite right. Being able to advocate on your behalf sends the message that you believe in yourself and aren't afraid to show a little backbone when it's called for.
Want to Enhance Your Executive Presence?
Are you tired of being overlooked as a leader? Then start looking, communicating, and acting more like one.
Executive presence isn't about "faking it till you make it" or trying to put on a facade. It's about paying closer attention to how you show up with others to reflect more of the leader you already are.
Do you want to enhance your executive presence? If so, please contact me to learn how I can help you "get out of your own way" to realize your full power and potential as a leader.
Jill Lynch Cruz, Ph.D., PCC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Facilitator
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