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Executive Presence: Are You Doing It Wrong?

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic grounded all air travel, I sat in a cramped gate in a sweltering terminal at Newark’s Liberty Airport on the phone with a woman who was utterly panicked.

She was the general counsel of a large company, a role she had held for many years. She had weathered countless acquisitions and mergers and consolidations and survived every single one. Her reviews were flawless, her education second to none, and her experience unparalleled.

She called me for coaching on how to engage with her new CEO of three months. He was about twenty years older than she, with a CV including stints at all the right places. His style was assertive, perhaps a bit aggressive, and loud. Hers was reserved and hemmed in by the risk-benefit analysis language and cushioning a GC role requires. In her most recent review, he told her that while her work product was fine, her continued growth at the company would likely be limited because she was perceived to lack the right kind of “executive presence” for her role.

Understandably, my client was flummoxed. She did great work, helped the company navigate smooth seas and squalls, and yet was being called out for some lacking some amorphous je ne sais quoi. She had no idea how to quantify “executive presence,” let alone what the “right” expressions of it might be. When she pushed for more specific feedback, she was told to read a few books on leadership and to see what she could soak in.

What I am describing is far from unique. American business is grappling with a systemic problem in both how C-suite executive and upper managers envision the concept of executive presence, and in how this feedback is relayed to women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. As members of these groups strive to advance into positions of power, they are often met with “feedback” about their executive presence that ultimately limits their advancement and, in many cases, drives them out of their roles. All too often, the idea of executive presence is steeped in a homogenous identity that excludes introverts, the disabled, trans men or women, or people over a certain age (to name just a few). It’s hard to conform to an idea of executive presence that was shaped by middle-aged, white males if you’re neither middle-aged nor white nor male.

A lack of specific feedback compounds the problem. Members of underrepresented groups are simply not receiving the guidance they need to acquire leadership presence. Instead, they’re told they lack gravitas, or that they need to “communicate up” or improve their communication style, without specific feedback on how to actually do so. They’re criticized for being too aggressive (or not aggressive enough). For women in particular, this is an impossible line to toe; many of our clients report feeling taxed when they exert their power and communicate in a way that their white male colleagues do without fear of repercussions — but if they fail to step up and speak up in that way, they are told they lack the “presence” their role requires.

Research by the Center for Talent Innovation reveals that what we’ll call the “executive presence gap” has kept women and people of color marginalized into more junior roles, despite ample experience and education qualifying them for leadership positions. In 2018, Black professionals held a mere 3.3% of executive or senior leadership positions within two reporting levels of the CEO, according to data from the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission. Less than 1 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies are Black, and just over 7 percent are women. An openly gay woman did not hold a CEO role in a Fortune 500 company until 2018, when Beth Ford took the helm at Land O’Lakes. And according to a 2018 Human Rights Campaign survey, half of all LGBTQ employees in the U.S. are closeted at work.

To be sure, executive presence is a real concept. CTI defines it as an elusive mixture of “gravitas,” communication, and appearance, and the Internet is rife with examples of think pieces advocating for these types of qualities – without providing a real definitive roadmap for how their readers can get there. Certainly, there are specific behaviors, like quality communication, delegation, confidence, and credibility, that bolster a leader’s authority or amplify her voice. These behaviors can be managed — and the belief systems underpinning them disrupted and dismantled — if the leader is first conscious of them and is then committed to change.

Companies have spent a lot of time over the past year trumpeting their outrage over the disparate treatment of the Black community in American society. It is one thing to issue a statement denouncing racism and discrimination, but where companies must take decisive action is in implementing processes to amplify Black people, people of color, women, and those in the LGBTQ community. They must ditch the outdated modalities by which they measure and provide feedback on executive presence.

So how do we get there? Real change must start with a commitment emanating from the highest levels of leadership. Unpack how your organization’s senior management team views executive presence. Ask your management team and your C-suite what leadership qualities, attributes, and outcomes they’re trying to drive. Are they placing a disproportionate emphasis on being the loudest person in the room, or the person who speaks the most? What characteristics inform their view of presence?

Now examine how these views are impacting the feedback they’re giving direct reports, both in a day-to-day context and in performance reviews. How often is the issue of presence coming up? Is the concept of executive presence being used, whether inadvertently or otherwise, to blunt advancement and promotion? What specific feedback are they providing to help employees rise?

Great leaders are confident, thoughtful, authentic, generous, and ethical. These qualities are not the domain of one small, privileged group. Rather, they show up differently in different individuals. If you’re not looking for them, you may miss them – and if your company’s systems and metrics only define executive presence in one way, you will miss out on a wide range of talent. Armed with this understanding, companies must ask whether the feedback they’re giving is specific, actionable, and steeped in an expansive view of what executive presence can be.

Holly Amaya is co-founder of Story Imprinting, a full-service training and communications firm dedicated to teaching companies the art and science of storytelling through corporate training, executive coaching, and communications strategy. She has enjoyed a multifaceted career as a journalist, attorney, and communications strategist, but she’s been telling stories professionally since she snagged her first newspaper column in the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press at age 11. Her C.V. includes stints at Harper’s Bazaar in New York City, The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, in the office of a U.S. senator, and as general counsel of an international retail services provider. 

Check out more of our content on executive presence:

Redefining Executive Presence:

Why We Won’t Stop Talking About Executive Presence:

The Executive Presence Trap:

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