How 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 arrogance, being 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:
- From a PR professional who preps company spokespeople for media interviews and public speaking: “Overall, one of the best ways to achieve executive presence is to make everyone around you feel like he or she is the only person in the room. … Don’t hog the conversation, and don’t speak over others or interrupt. When someone is talking, maintain eye contact, lean toward her, and nod at what she’s saying. Then, thoughtfully respond to what you heard, asking good questions to show that you were paying attention. The more you listen to other people, the more they will want to listen to you.“
- From a CEO: “[P]repare for dinner parties by knowing something about the people [you] are going to be sitting with. This helps you be more comfortable when you meet senior people in a social setting — you can ask them questions about themselves.“
- From a principal at a management consulting firm: “[F]ind your voice as an executive: that is, identify your assets and leverage them to the hilt. Some people are naturally gregarious and can fill a room with their personality. Others … rely on their listening ability, sense of timing, and ability to maintain their composure when others get emotional. In an increasingly diverse world, executive presence will look very different from one executive to another.”
- From an executive coach: “Whether you’re speaking to a crowd or chatting one-on-one, you’ll have more gravitas if you speak directly, without hesitation or self-deprecation. Ask colleagues to notice the way you talk, so they can help you spot self-critical phrasing or annoying habits like starting sentences with ‘I think,’ or, ‘I’m not an expert, but.’ If you sound like you’re not confident of your abilities or of what you’re saying, you can’t expect others to be convinced.”
- Kat’s tips: If you don’t want to start by asking colleagues to notice the way you talk, you can try a few things yourself or with friends, such as asking someone to interview you and recording the interview, either with audio or video — when you watch it you’ll start to see red flags like slumping, repeated hand gestures, unconscious tics like licking your lips. If you start leaving voice memos to yourself, or try to dictate memos or notes to yourself or your assistant, you’ll be able to hear more red flags.
What is your definition of executive presence? What have you done to try to develop it? Do you think it’s harder for women to be seen as possessing executive presence? How important do you think appearance and “grooming” are to executive presence? Have you read any books, watched any TED Talks, or gone to any workshops that teach about this?
- Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are [TED] (but also read this)
- (book) Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success
- (book) The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance — What Women Should Know
- What a Lack of Eye Contact Says About You, According to Science (and How to Fix It) [Inc.]
- How You Can Practice Being Confident Every Day [Forbes]