We all like to believe that if we work hard at our career and do our best, success will inevitably follow, but this isn’t always the case. Simply doing your job won’t get you that promotion. In order to thrive at the most senior levels, you need to display ‘Executive Presence’ – the ability to create a strong personal brand and present oneself in a way that signals to the world you are leadership material.
While it’s true that this winning combination of confidence, poise and authenticity comes more naturally for some than others, there’s often an important factor left out from the extensive discourse surrounding fostering this ‘X-factor’ in leadership. And that’s gender. Or, more specifically, how harnessing this skill can be more challenging for women in the workplace.
Research suggests that women tend to struggle with Executive Presence because of what’s been described as an intrinsic tension between conforming to company culture and being true to oneself. According to a study by the ‘Centre for Talent Innovation’ in New York. Being ‘perceived as leadership material is essential to being promoted to a leadership position.’ The study defines Executive Presence as: ‘An amalgam of qualities that true leaders exude, culminating in an aura that telegraphs you’re in charge or deserve to be.’ Further research indicates women have a smaller window of “EP” acceptability than men and have to work harder to walk the fine line of Executive Presence. An example being the classic double bind women confront on the communication front. Either they’re too assertive and seen as pushy or not assertive enough and seen as a shrinking violet.
So, with women occupying less than a quarter of UK board positions, how do female leaders who aspire to the executive suite overcome these obstacles? The answer is in how you act (gravitas), speak (communication) and look (appearance).
- Gravitas: Some may argue that when a man asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet, when a woman displays the same behaviours, she risks being branded ‘bossy’. As a result, there is common fallacy among some female executives that they need to tone down their more expressive qualities and ‘act like men’ to get ahead. Cultivating gravitas, the most important aspect of Executive Presence, is avoiding the behaviours that get you struck off the list and figuring out your natural strengths. It’s about projecting confidence and creating buy-in from your audience, whilst being authentic to you. It’s maintaining grace under fire when the going gets rough and controlling your emotions to help foster strong relationships with colleagues over a long period of time.
- Communication: As a female executive you need to cultivate a strong verbal identity and communicate in a clear concise manner, speaking from experience, and in a voice of authority. Research suggests women tend to under communicate their achievements and performance results. It’s important to get comfortable communicating what you have achieved as this will help you to build your credibility and profile. Women also have a tendency to rely on security blankets such as PowerPoint when presenting, with many forgetting that a presentation should be a vehicle for influence, not a data dump. If you want your ideas to be heard, you need to be able to communicate them in a way that resonates with those you need to persuade. Remember not to focus on facts and figures to back up your argument (and quickly lose your audience). Instead, think about telling a story or anecdote, abandon your notes, know your content cold and have confidence in the message you are delivering.
- Appearance: Even though we have all heard the familiar phrase ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’, we all do. The problem is, when it comes to the way we look, women seem to have more opportunity to get it wrong! Economist, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, asked 4,000 senior business leaders for their views on appearance in the workplace. The findings highlighted a list of looks-based blunders twice as long for women as for men. From wearing too much or too little makeup, to unkempt nails and grey hairs! Whilst your appearance isn’t the be-all and end-all, being polished and groomed signals to others that you care about your success.
To help cultivate Executive Presence in women, we have developed a half-day programme tailored specifically for women, which is delivered by The Influence Business Associate, Marianne O Connor, who has a track record working with senior and high potential female executives on how they can develop their personal brand to raise their impact and profile. This interactive programme, for up to 10 female participants, will look at the specific challenges female executives face, offer you practical techniques to develop your Executive Presence and positively enhance how you are seen by others.