Executive Presence and Diversity


Confident BusinesswomanWhen I was a young attorney, I attended a National Institute for Trial Advocacy (NITA)  program. NITA uses role-playing and experiential training to teach lawyers how to conduct various aspects of a trial, from opening statements, to examining witnesses (both direct and cross-examination), to making objections, to closing arguments.

At one point during the week-long program, after I performed my bit, I received feedback from the judge in the mock trial on how I had done.

“I shook my head when you stood up to start,” she said. “I didn’t see how you could present yourself as an attorney. You’re so small and young.” At the time, I was 27-years-old, 5’1” tall, and weighed 90 pounds. My heart sank; not much I could do about my size or age. And this from an older female judge!

She continued, “But you took control of the court room, and held your own against older, more experienced attorneys twice your size. I was impressed.”

I thought of this anecdote when I read an article in The Glass Hammer last week entitled, Is Executive Presence Sexist?, by Melissa J. Anderson.

Ms. Anderson begins by saying,

“If you asked a random person on the street to imagine a CEO, they would probably think of a person who is male, white, tall, straight, decisive, genial, and a jumble of other traits that come together to form the CEO archetype.”

(The lawyer archetype is similar.) The author goes on to ask, “How can people who don’t automatically conform to the leadership stereotypes above attract and maintain power?”

My experience in the NITA program shows that it can be done. But what is required to be successful?

Ms. Anderson quotes a Center for Talent Innovation study, which found that 25 percent of what it takes to get promoted is executive presence. (See the press release summarizing this study here.)

Three factors make up executive presence: communication, gravitas, and appearance.

  • Gravitas (the ability to project confidence, poise under pressure, and decisiveness) is the core characteristic of executive presence, according to most of the senior executives surveyed by the Center for Talent Innovation. Thus, if you are seeking to build your executive presence, you should focus most on how you project confidence, poise, and decisiveness.
  • Strong communications skills (excellent speaking skills, assertiveness, and the ability to read an audience or situation) show others that you are leadership material. If you cannot communicate effectively, this is an important area for improvement.
  • Appearance (looking polished and pulled together) is a smaller factor, but an inappropriate appearance can derail potential leaders. Therefore, you should control what you can about your appearance.

Both men and women need these three factors, but the range of acceptable performance is narrower for women and people of color. People who are not white males can make more errors in gravitas, communications, and appearance. Perceived aggressiveness or passivity or other personality traits can prevent people seeing you as having executive gravitas. Voice pitch and accents can interfere with perceptions of your communications abilities. Clothing and hair styles can make you seem less authoritative.

But the answer is not to become a white-male clone. Authenticity is important regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or age. You can’t be authentic when you are trying to be what you are not.

For me, because I could not change my size, I compensated by always being completely prepared for any activity I undertook.  (When I was younger, I also dressed in older styles and more conservatively than my natural bent. Now that age has taken care of the youth problem, I don’t worry about my clothes as much.)

I recall taking particular care during the NITA program to be prepared, even though it was only a mock trial with no real significance. Whatever the witness said, I wanted to be ready to respond.

Being prepared came naturally to me – I had always prepared well for classes and work projects, and I like to feel knowledgeable. So for me to use preparation to give me confidence and to make sure I could communicate effectively was authentic.

Other people seeking executive presence might use personality traits that feel authentic to them. Empathy is a tool I have seen others, particularly women, use effectively – so long as empathy is used not to seem soft, but to seem poised and confident. (Think of the best customer service people you have known. They can hold the line on their position and improve your mood over a frustrating experience at the same time.)

People with debate and forensics training are trained speakers and can often read an audience very well. That ability can compensate for differences in their appearance that might detract from their executive presence.

There does, of course, have to be substance behind your attempts to demonstrate executive presence. We’ve all known people who think communications skills can substitute for knowledge and ability. But all the knowledge and ability in the world won’t get you to leadership positions, if you don’t fit within your organization’s perceptions of what a leader is.

What are your ways of showing executive presence authentically?

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