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The Executive Presence Trap

As a young lawyer, I routinely received feedback about what I later realized was executive presence.

In my first law firm job, I was told I “seemed young” and would “never be taken seriously” because of that. (But what can I do, I thought, about being in my twenties? I can’t accelerate the aging process more than I already have with those ill-advised indoor tanning sessions in my teenage years.) The problem wasn’t how I dressed; my skirts were always conservative, my suits the same drab gray law students are programmed into purchasing in bulk in preparation for 2L job interviews. My work product wasn’t the problem; my briefs were succinct and on point. I showed up on time for court; I treated opposing counsel with respect but also advocated zealously for my clients. My life experience wasn’t the problem either: unlike many of my contemporaries, I had worked for a few years between undergrad and law school. My career as a journalist meant I was as comfortable talking to CEOs and bus drivers and cops and random bystanders who’d witnessed a traffic accident — and everything in between.

I continued to receive similar amorphous feedback after moving into a corporate legal position, where I was the only woman in a sea of white male executives. In that environment, the perception of what made a good leader was very specific and very narrowly defined. I didn’t fit the mold — I was a woman, and a woman in her early 30s, at that — and I felt horribly discouraged. How would I ever snag that proverbial seat at the table if I was perceived to lack the “presence” the seat required?

I felt completely and utterly alone in this struggle. I wanted desperately to advance and had all the tools, education, and experience that required. To be sure, there are specific behaviors — like quality communication, delegation, confidence, and credibility — that bolster a leader’s authority or amplify her voice. But if the constant feedback loop is focused on examples of leadership that are white, straight, male, or able-bodied, how can we ever hope to advance if we don’t check those boxes?

Here’s what helped me turn the corner: I began working with an executive coach and joined a peer advisory group of executive women and it slowly became clear to be that what I was experiencing was systemic and pervasive across a variety of industries and professions. The coaching I received, both one-on-one and in my small cadre of trusted advisors — a personal board of directors, if you will — helped me gain the strength and foresight and courage to ask for specific feedback. They helped me transition to being treated with the dignity and weight of my position. I cannot say enough about the importance of giving voice to issues like these, and to surrounding yourself with others who are experiencing like struggles and challenges.

If you are reading this and this resonates with you, I leave you with this: you are not alone. You are not an island. The experience you’re having is widely shared and, unfortunately, is rarely discussed. Give it a voice and tell your story. And you find your people to help shepherd you to the next level.

To learn more about our take on executive presence, check out this video (and this one too!).

By Holly Amaya


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