The Heart of Executive Presence

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Executive presence is a hot topic these days and in demand as a coaching objective for many of our clients, especially for senior executive women.  Because executive presence is a competency that can mean many things to different people, I decided to do some investigating by both looking at some research and talking with our clients.  It occurred to me that The Ayers Group Senior HR Women’s Roundtable, which consists of a group of senior executive women who meet periodically to discuss issues that affect them and the women in their organizations, would be a perfect forum to facilitate a discussion. I used a study conducted by The Center for Talent Innovation called “The Heart of Executive Presence” to serve as the basis for the conversation.

As the discussion began, everyone agreed with the research report that “executive presence matters.”  According to the report, “executive presence alone won’t get you promoted, but the absence will impede your progress, especially if you are a woman.”  Having agreed on the significance, the group struggled with how to define executive presence in a way that makes it a coachable objective.

The research report helped with that definition by identifying three pillars of executive presence: appearance, communication and - the heart of executive presence – gravitas. First, you have to dress like a leader, which means looking pulled together, polished and distinctive.  Next, you need to communicate clearly and concisely, read an audience and command a room.  Most importantly, you need to demonstrate gravitas, “the packaging that attracts impressed attention, allowing your hardcore skills, accumulated knowledge, depth of experience and raw talent to stand out and draw others to you.”  The research cites six core behaviors that make up gravitas, but the group focused on two of those for the purposes of discussion.  The first was confidence and “grace under fire.”  The second was decisiveness and “showing teeth.”

Grace under fire is the ability to exude confidence under extreme stress, to routinely share credit for success and to take responsibility when things go wrong.  Decisiveness and “showing teeth” is standing your ground; making unpopular decisions and sticking to them.

The group discussed the challenges for women leaders attempting to demonstrate leadership presence.  The first is that the models are steeped in male stereotypes of power.  While women can be decisive and “show teeth”, they have to be careful not to “bite”.  As many women know there is a fine line between being too aggressive and not being aggressive enough.  Another issue raised was the struggle to maintain authenticity while adhering to currently accepted leadership expectations.  How much can you be authentically and uniquely yourself and still adhere to the predominantly male models of leadership?

The research concludes that many women are not making it to top leadership positions because while they have the skills and capability, they lack the presence, particularly the gravitas it takes to be a senior leader.   The report suggests that providing feedback around this issue is critical and yet, as the group discussed, for many reasons leaders both male and female are reluctant to share their observations and expectations in relation to this topic.  Suggestions for encouraging appropriate feedback included providing training on how to give feedback effectively, identifying models demonstrating presence within and outside the organization, providing executive coaching and encouraging women to ask for feedback.

Do you agree with the research?  Have you experienced the challenges of demonstrating gravitas?  Do you have any suggestions for executive women or organizations on how to demonstrate and promote executive presence?

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