I recently heard someone say trying to define “executive presence” is like trying to nail jello to the wall. We know it’s important. But it can feel amorphous. Defining the concept is even more complex when it comes to executive presence for women. First, let’s take a look at what executive presence means through the lens of today’s modern workforce.
The Post-Lean In Discourse
For years, the message to women who wanted to climb up the proverbial corporate ladder has been “lean in.” But now there’s a backlash (paywall). A recent New York Times article went viral when it suggested that maybe the next wave of “lean in” should actually be for men to “lean out.” I appreciated this article but was still left with the question: What’s a woman to do in the meantime? What proactive steps can we take to move forward as we wait for society to catch up?
For me, the answer isn’t about anyone leaning out. It’s about women leaning into something that actually works. Something that works for our lives. And works in the reality of the modern workplace where women still face bias. And of course, this must be done in conjunction with systemic change that involves everyone, but that’s a bigger conversation. In terms of what women can do in the meantime, I believe developing an influential leadership presence, or executive presence, is one piece of the puzzle.
Developing A New Approach
I recently had the chance to present alongside two of my colleagues on the “Science of Authentic Executive Presence” at the Grace Hopper Conference, the largest conference focused on female technologists. Our audience was a group of 400 women and allies. I was thrilled. It was an opportunity to integrate my years of research and learning as a leadership coach and human development specialist and transform my experience into clear, actionable takeaways catered toward diverse, female leaders. But this opportunity also forced me to examine the research closely and ensure that what I was passing along was grounded in science, not stereotype. I also wanted to ensure that I wasn’t encouraging women to be anyone but themselves — albeit the most powerful version of themselves.
An Early Disparity
Executive presence accounts for 26% of what it takes to get a promotion. Given it’s an advanced skill, it’s particularly relevant for groups who face clear obstacles on the path toward leadership, such as women, and especially women of color. We talk a lot about disparities in the C-suite, or the highest levels of leadership, where women represent only 21% of executives, and women of color only 4%. But as this research from McKinsey reveals, the issue begins much earlier, with promotion bias at the earliest levels. For every 100 men promoted to management, only 72 women are given the same role. In other words, from the earliest promotions, women advance to management at 72% the rate of men. From the very first rung, the ladder to the top is different for women. Or, as the McKinsey report suggests, the rungs are broken.
Different Landscapes, Different Tools
Research shows that when people — of any gender — are asked to draw a picture of a leader, they almost always draw a man. It’s no wonder we see gender-based hiring bias, even at companies with the best intentions.
Common biases related to leadership can’t be ignored when talking about executive presence. The reality is that women are navigating a different landscape than their male counterparts, and therefore need different tools to reach the top.
In some ways, we’re all working and growing in a slightly unique ecosystem, and this is why customized solutions fare better than one-size-fits-all approaches. If I’m going for a day hike in the Northern California hills, I’ll need proper shoes, an adequate level of fitness and plenty of water. Everest, on the other hand, demands a whole different set of tools and training. This is why I separate out executive presence for women. Our leadership journey may be similar, but research makes it clear that it’s not the same.
An All-Access Definition Of Executive Presence
Before discussing the tools uniquely suited to the female leadership journey, it’s important to define what journey we’re even talking about. What is executive presence?
My favorite definition of executive presence is this: “Executive presence is the capacity to connect with others in a way that inspires. An authentic executive presence means doing this by being yourself.”
The connection piece comes from Kristi Hedges, one of the leadership coaches whose work on this topic I admire. The authenticity piece comes from my colleague and friend, Dr. Jacinta Jimenez, an expert in sustainable leadership. Not only is authentic leadership highly desirable and effective but it’s also made for longevity. It’s exhausting to be someone you’re not, and unnecessary.
Dismantling Stereotypes: What Executive Presence Is Not
Perhaps the most damaging way to define executive presence for women is to equate executive presence with assertiveness. There is nothing wrong with assertiveness. In fact, assertiveness training is great if that is indeed what people are seeking. But there are two significant problems with conflating assertiveness with executive presence.
1. If doubling down on assertiveness doesn’t feel authentic, assertiveness training becomes a missed opportunity for developing an authentic leadership presence.
2. The benefits of stereotypically assertive behavior for women in the workplace is not totally grounded in research. A model of executive presence as assertiveness is largely based on what works for men. For women, these behaviors have mixed results due to bias.
Now that we have a working definition of executive presence that is accessible, the next natural question is “How do I build it?” Stay tuned. My upcoming article will cover an inside-out approach to developing executive presence, specifically geared toward women, but helpful for anyone who falls outside the narrow, stereotyped version of what it means to be a leader.
This content was originally published here.