Viewpoint: How Women Can Master the Art of Executive Presence

Viewpoint: How Women Can Master the Art of Executive Presence

By Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC July 19, 2017
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Executive presence (EP) is the mysterious X-factor that often determines whether talented women rise to the top ranks of leadership.

While female leaders can advance their careers by refining their EP, professional success is not always determined by who has the most prestigious title. It's determined by who can make a great first impression, command respect and handle social situations with professionalism.  

"Often, brilliant employees with innovative ideas are ignored because they fail when it comes to the finer points of executive presence," said Jennifer Lee, director of learning and five-star facilitator for JB Training Solutions in the Chicago area.  

Lee exudes the kinds of confidence and authority that are considered hallmarks of EP. From the moment that she strode onto the stage at the Society for Human Resource Management's 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition and took her place at the podium to deliver her presentation on "The Art of Executive Presence: A Professional Women's Guide to Commanding the Room," she had a firm hold on both her subject matter and the audience's attention.  

Speaking to a packed auditorium of mostly female attendees, she outlined what she calls the "three buckets of executive presence: gravitas, communication and identity."  

Her talking points mirrored research conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a nonprofit research organization in New York that defines the three pillars of executive presence as gravitas, communication and image. Stated differently, EP reflects how you act, how you speak and how you look. 

CTI concluded that when people are perceived as capable of becoming leaders, they are more likely to be promoted into leadership roles. This is particularly important for aspiring female leaders who continue to battle both conscious and unconscious gender bias.  

Studies show that men are more often associated with leadership qualities and women with nurturing qualities. This forces women to confront the need to master an intricate balancing act that simultaneously conveys both softness and strength. Women with gravitas find a way to balance being "nice" with having a "can-do, will-do" attitude.

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Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is often cited as a role model because of her ability to project confidence in the male-dominated world of tech, communicate clearly and concisely, and be relatable.  

Lee's message about self-awareness and personal presentation resonated with conference attendee Christyn Johnson. Johnson is the western regional senior HR manager for Dragados USA, a civil construction firm headquartered in New York. As a woman working in the male-dominated industry of civil construction, Johnson wants to make sure that her delivery doesn't distract from her message. As a frequent advocate for the human (feelings) side of the business, she understands the value of maintaining the connection between the business and its people.  

Johnson is poised to step into an executive role and is determined to make a credible and compelling executive debut.  

"I need to push a little harder to make sure that the men don't talk over me," Johnson said.  

Or, to put it in Lee's terms, she needs to command the room by mastering the art of executive presence.

Gravitas

"Gravitas signals to the world that you know your stuff cold," said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Talent Innovation and author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success (Harper Business, 2014). "It's not about performance. It's about what you signal about your preparedness for the next big chance."  

Sixty-seven percent of the executives surveyed in a recent CTI study agreed that gravitas is a core characteristic of EP. The behaviors that they associated with gravitas include exuding confidence, acting decisively, projecting vision and demonstrating emotional intelligence.

"Because of its association with power, and the fact that men are typically seen as having greater dominance than women, gravitas is a notion we think of as a male quality," said  Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a University of Massachusetts psychology professor and the author of The Search for Fulfillment (Ballantine, 2010).   

Whitbourne believes that anyone can have gravitas. But displaying it tends to be a little easier for men than it is for women. For women to appear powerful, they have to be more aware of body language—how to enter a room, where to stand, how to sit.  

A 2015 study by Yale University psychologist April Bailey and Colgate University psychologist Spencer Kelly showed that women can be perceived as being more powerful when their body language shows openness and expansiveness. 

Lee made a similar distinction between what she called "high-power poses" and "low-power poses." In the interactive portion of her session, she asked participants to make themselves small, by hunkering down in their seats to demonstrate how a "low-power" pose looks and feels. She then asked participants to stand up and strike their best Wonder Woman poses by standing up straight with arms outstretched to show how a "high-power" pose looks and feels.   

The difference was palpable. When women adopted high-power poses, they looked and felt more powerful than when they were slumped down in their chairs.  

Communication

"The way to be seen as leadership material is to be compelling, credible and very concise," Hewlett said.

She believes that women often try too hard to prove their competence. When giving presentations, they may refer too much to their notes or over-rely on PowerPoint slides as a crutch (rather than a tool). 

"It's the kiss of death to rely on notes or slides."  

In the CTI study, great speaking skills were seen as contributing to a woman's EP, along with the ability to make the people in the room listen.  

"People with great executive presence have control of their audience," Lee said. "People want to pay attention to them."  

Every time Lee redirected the audience's attention from conversations with each other to a focus on her presentation, she demonstrated how it looks and feels when a presenter has control of her audience.  

Communication is equally important in routine encounters with co-workers and colleagues, as well as customers and clients: Be clear and project confidence and authority.   

Communication blunders often occur in informal settings when women may be less attentive to what they are saying and how they are saying it. The CTI study pointed to the folly of sounding uneducated, making politically incorrect (or insensitive) comments, and posting unprofessional comments online where colleagues and co-workers can view them.   

There are countless examples of once-credible professionals who destroyed their careers (and lost their jobs) after posting insensitive and inappropriate content on social media. Recently, the comedian Kathy Griffin did real damage to her career when she posted a picture of herself online holding a bloody head that looked like Donald Trump's. Supporters and critics of the president denounced the stunt, and Griffin quickly apologized.   

Everyone makes mistakes. What you do after a gaffe matters greatly. Hewlett's research shows that "grace under fire" is a key element of EP. 

"Someone who can keep their cool under fire has executive presence," she said.  

When Hewlett switched from giving academic presentations to speaking more extemporaneously to popular audiences, she faced a real challenge. After watching herself bomb in a Charlie Rose interview, she practiced delivering her message in a concise and relatable way (without using notes).    

Lee argues for the value of emotional calmness.  

"Women are often accused of being too emotional," Lee said. "A woman who can remain emotionally calm in stressful situations projects competence and confidence."   

She encourages women to know their trigger points and have a plan of action to handle emotional situations. For some women, that means leaving the room. Others might calm themselves down with soothing self-talk.   

A few common missteps women need to watch out for: gossiping, over-sharing and being oversensitive to criticism. If you're serious about advancing your career, learn to manage those reactions.  

Listening is another underrated but crucially important communication tool. Great leaders know how to pay attention to the people who are in the room with them. A leader who is distracted sends the message that the person he is she is talking to is not that important. You don't have to be talking all the time or issuing commands to make your presence felt—listening to others works, too.  

Professional Image

​Appearance counts, largely as a filter through which your communication skills and gravitas become more apparent, Hewlett said.

Lee agreed. "People make choices about who you are based on what you put out there."  

Do you look the part? Are you dressing in ways that give people confidence that you are competent in your role? Or is your attire distracting?

The answer may depend on your industry or company. It's important to know your audience and your field. Tech companies tend to be more relaxed. Creative fields encourage more self-expression. Traditional fields like banking and law are generally more conservative.

Women can send subtle (or not-so-subtle) cues with their hair, clothes, makeup and jewelry.   

"It's easier for men because they have fewer choices," Lee said, "and they aren't always judged as critically based on their appearance."   

Her comments raise the question about the role of spontaneity and individuality. When you are so focused on using the proper business gestures or standing the exact right way, does that dehumanize you and make you seem stilted and wooden? Or does it accomplish the goal of making you look polished and professional?   

"There is this tension between authenticity and conformity," Hewlett said. You can work to resolve that tension using a "practice and perfect" mentality. While EP seems to come naturally to some women, it requires sustained effort for others. 

For women who want to expand their influence and build successful careers, EP is an indispensable tool. While EP alone won't get you promoted, its absence will impede your progress—especially if you're a woman.

Arlene S. Hirsch, M.A., LCPC, is a noted career counselor and author with a private practice in Chicago. Her books include How to Be Happy at Work (Jist Publishing, 2003), Love Your Work and Success Will Follow (Wiley, 1995), and The Wall Street Journal Premier Guide to Interviewing (Wiley, 1999). Her website is www.arlenehirsch.com

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