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Executive Presence for Women Leaders

Executive Presence and How to Get It (Or Fake It) | CorporetteHow would you define “executive presence,” particularly for women? Have you worked to build your executive presence? What are your best executive presence tips? Here are some qualities of women with executive presence that Corporette readers have mentioned during conversations that have taken place in the comments:

  • having a “cool, calm, and commanding” presence
  • being a skilled public speaker
  • appearing put-together (clothes fit well, hair is neatly styled, etc.)
  • seeming “knowledgeable but not a know-it-all”
  • staying cool in a crisis
  • showing confidence
  • having an attitude of “the buck stops with me”

Earlier this year, we discussed new research that showed that looking “put-together” and exhibiting “good grooming” can boost women’s salaries (even more so than being considered attractive), and a couple of years ago we talked about a study that stated wearing more makeup makes women look more competent. Today we’ll go beyond that to take a closer look at executive presence and what it means for women leaders at work. (In the past, we’ve shared posts on imposter syndrome, the difference between confidence and arrogancebeing taken seriously when you look young, and books and resources to help you become a leader and a better manager. We’ve also discussed the book The Confidence Code.)  

According to research from Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, executive presence is composed of “how you act (otherwise known as gravitas, the most important quality), how you communicate, and how you look.” A 2013 Business Insider article describes it with 7 Cs: composure, connection, charisma, confidence, credibility, clarity, and conciseness. Hewlett (whose book we link to below) says that executive presence “accounts for as much as 28 percent of a woman’s success” (!).

These definitions sound straightforward enough, but cultivating executive presence requires women to walk a very fine line, thanks to the maddening contradictory messages we receive about how to act at work. You know: If you don’t ask for a raise, you’re blamed for the gender wage gap, but if you ask for a raise, you’re viewed as “greedy, demanding or just not very nice.” If you act with confidence and strength, you’re “too aggressive” or “a bitch”; if you don’t appear assertive enough, your behavior is interpreted as weakness. (As social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson puts it, the typical dichotomy for women is “competent and cold — that’s the bitch — or warm and incompetent — the doormat who no one takes seriously.”) Of course, this predicament extends to physical appearances, too; research shows that women with “unkempt nails” lose executive-presence points but that those with “overly done” nails are also viewed negatively. Faced with this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” minefield, some women are paying $2,000 to $5,000 to attend special workshops on executive presence.

Putting all of that aside for a moment, here are a few concrete tips on exhibiting executive presence at work:

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Professional Hairstyles: Do Ponytails Count?

Professional Hairstyles - Ponytails at Work | CorporetteDo ponytails count as professional hairstyles? Which are the best ponytails for the office?  Do you think 50s/cheerleader ponytails are no-gos for the office, or is any neat, easy hairstyle inherently professional? 

Have you guys been watching AMC’s Better Call Saul? It’s the prequel story to Breaking Bad, chronicling the path that small-time con-man/lawyer Jimmy McGill took to become everyone’s favorite drug lawyer (later known as Saul Goodman). One of the story lines involves Jimmy working at his brother’s BigLaw-esque law firm, and one of his main friends is Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn. Kim’s story is similar to Jimmy’s — she started in the mailroom, went through law school later in life, and is now working as an associate — but unlike Jimmy she’s squeaky clean. Without giving away too many spoilers, it’s so inspiring to see her efforts to make partner, including a long montage where she calls every single person she knows to try to bring on her own client. In another scene, she does so well on her first court appearance that the opposing counsel tries to hire her. In general, she’s a rockstar lawyer. She dresses professionally, too — but something I’ve been pondering is her hair: her most frequent look is a ponytail. Not just the low, harried ponytail many of us throw our hair into when we’re working in our office and want to keep our hair out of our faces — hers is curled, and part of her all-day look.  And while it isn’t super-high, it isn’t super-low, either. (In general, I think a lower ponytail is vastly better for being taken seriously.) Part of her character is that she’s earnest and kind of new to this world of BigLaw — so is her hair supposed to convey that as well? (Ah, here’s a picture of her ponytail from the back, below. And apparently the same actress wore the same hairstyle on another show where she also played a lawyer, but I’m not familiar with that show.) Maybe I’m biased against ponytails that feel too pageant/cheerleader as professional hairstyles? 

professional hairstyles ponytails

In the past, we’ve collected easy office updos (which included some ponytail looks), as well as discussed how to style long hair for interviews, but let’s discuss ponytails, ladies — what makes them appropriate (or inappropriate?) for the office or other big meetings? Are there different rules for women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s? 

Some thoughts from poking around the Internet: The Muse gives ponytails an enthusiastic thumbs up for professional hairstyles, and Buzzfeed has this niceish twisted ponytail for work, which I like so much I’m adding it to our Work-Appropriate Hair board on Pinterest. [Read more…]

Going-Out Clothes and Young Professionals

Going Out Clothes for Adults | CorporetteOnce you get to grad school, can you stick with your “going out” style from college, or is it time to make some changes? Reader C wonders how to dress for a night out on the town when she’s out with new friends from grad school…

I have a strange request/question. I’ve begun learning all about clothing for work, interviews, etc., and now know the difference between business casual and chic casual. My problem is that during my undergrad, “going out” almost certainly meant tight shirts, tight pants or leggings, and high heels, as well as blow-out hair and smokey eye makeup. Jackets were a never, and cleavage was a must.

I was recently invited to go out with from friends from my new school, and pretty much realized that I don’t know how to dress like a grown woman when I’m doing something super casual with friends, like going out for a few beers or even out dancing. I still want to look the part in some ways (these are, after all, my future colleagues — I don’t want to be remembered as “cleavage girl”), but still dress to have fun.

Please teach me to be a respectable adult, even while I’m supposed to be out having fun.

Great question, and I’m torn between a few thoughts. First: you’re in school; if you’re going out with friends it shouldn’t matter too much. On the flip side, I think it can make an impact on how people remember you, and the bigger the dichotomy between your work or student persona and your “weekend persona,” the more people will remember it.

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Being Confident at Work vs. Being Arrogant

Confidence, Arrogance: How to Tell the Difference | CorporetteWhat’s the difference between confidence and arrogance, especially at work, especially for women? How can you tell if you’ve crossed that line at work? Reader A wonders…

I’ve got a sensitive subject that I haven’t seen discussed about discipline at work. I was recently hired at a law office where I’ve summered the last two summers doing litigation.

At work I was called into the hiring managers office and told the following. Hiring Manager is one of my biggest supporters. He thinks my career can take me far beyond where most people go in their careers into the top division. However, a couple of my evaluations from supervisors from the summer thought I sometimes acted arrogant. He said he didn’t think I was arrogant but that some things I said at my interview danced the line between confident and arrogant and raised red flags. He said he only brought it up because he didn’t want to not say something in case it became an issue in the future.

Any insight on responding beyond thanking him for telling me and thanking him for supporting me?

Interesting question, reader A. We’ve talked about how to be professional without looking like you think you’re in charge, as well as stressed the importance of being humble and grateful when you’re networking with older people — but we haven’t talked about what to do when you’re told you’re arrogant. (On the flip side, we’ve talked about how to take a compliment, as well as a lot about a lack of confidence; we had a discussion about the book The Confidence Code and we’ve shared posts on facing fear and low self-esteem, imposter syndrome, and doing work you feel unprepared for.) I have a few thoughts, but I’m curious what readers will say.

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How to Style Long Hair for Job Interviews

long-hair-interviewWhat’s the best way to style your long hair for a job interview if you’re a woman in your early 20s? Could wearing it down make you look too young? Reader D wonders:

How should a 20-year-old style her long, straight hair for the interview process for a management consulting job? Is wearing it down and straight too young/collegiate? Is styling it with a curling iron too beauty-pageant/date-y? Just how conservative is the corporate culture of the big three consulting firms? Must hair be pulled back? Interview wardrobe all taken care of, and nails are neat and well-groomed, but what about long hair?

We’ve frequently discussed workplace hair, from whether long hair makes you look young, to whether ponytails at the office are acceptable, to what easy, maintainable hair looks like, to work-appropriate up-dos. We’ve also talked about what your hair says about you at work.

For this post I was going to find a bunch of YouTube tutorials and pictures of women with interview-appropriate updos, half-updos, and long hair. But… here’s the thing: so many of those look totally pageant-y, and on a young woman it’s going to look even more like you’re playing dress up. So here’s my answer:  for an interview, your hair should be neat, recently trimmed, and not something you play with. Ultimately, the hairstyle should be forgettable. I mean that in two ways: first, it should be forgettable for you —  once you do your hair and leave your house, you should be able to forget your hair and focus 100% on the interview(s). No touching, no smoothing, no combing — no thoughts of “ow, these bobbypins are sucking my will to live and when.can.I.get.them.out.please.God.is.it.now.” (Ahem. Personally I hate bobbypins.) Secondly, though, your hair should really be forgettable for your interviewer as well, because you want them to notice your resume and your qualifications and your smarts — not your hair. [Read more…]

How to Blend Conservative Style with Business Casual

business-casualHow should you follow a business casual dress code (and avoid looking overdressed) when your personal style tends toward classic, understated, and conservative — without buying an entirely new wardrobe? Oh, and also: you’re in a technical field, you’re the youngest employee in your office, and the only woman there besides the secretary. Reader K wonders:

I have recently started at my dream job which is a technical one and I work with men only (besides the receptionist). I am on a very tight budget but have invested in basic pieces such as good quality black suits, classic dresses, blouses, black pencil skirt. The dress code is business casual. Yet the other day I wore a classic grey dress, black blazer, heels, and pearls and the CEO made a comment before a meeting insinuating I was overdressed. He wears cords and a polo everyday. What can I wear to work? I prefer to wear more conservative clothes and feel more professional in blacks, and greys and dark color palettes with a small pop of color (like a maroon or emerald blouse). I am in my early 20s and look especially young and am the youngest in my office and prefer the clean cut conservative professional look so am at a loss of what to wear. Any help would be much appreciated.

We’ve talked about how best to dress in business casual in a male-dominated, technical workplace as a younger woman, dealing with other women’s backhanded compliments about dressing well, and being told by a male boss that you dress too well and need to dress “frumpier,” but not exactly this.  Personal style is often important, but sometimes showing that you can “read” company culture requires dressing in a different way than you might otherwise.  Furthermore, when you look young, it can come off even worse — like you’re playing dress up.  So here are a few ideas…

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