‘Executive presence’ plays a part in why people get promoted. According to October 2012 research by Sylvia Hewlett and her team at the Centre for Talent Innovation, it’s responsible for 26% of the reason why people move up.
What is more compelling is that 81% of women surveyed in the study found executive presence confusing and were unsure how to act upon it. Further interestingly findings just released by Brian Underhill and his research team in the US highlight that executive presence is now the second highest reason why clients seek an executive coach (behind the main driver which is leadership development).
So what is executive presence?
Most researchers concede that understanding exactly what defines executive presence is still difficult. It is also fraught with the gendered expectations of what traditional (typically male) leadership looks like, and this can be particularly challenging for women in managing these unwritten expectations.
The definition provided by the Hewlett study found that executive presence consists of a trilogy of the following qualities:
- Gravitas – Described as self-confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness, this was considered to be the core of executive presence by the 268 executives surveyed.
- Communication – Excellent speaking skills, assertiveness and the ability to read the audience comprised this quality, which was considered a secondary but important skill, particularly in being able to talk the language of business and to convey opinions with conviction.
- Physical appearance rated a much lower third and was described as “looking polished and pulled together”. However, the main takeaway was that if an individual’s appearance wasn’t managed well, it could detract from the two key qualities above, rather than being a central concern.
So what does building gravitas mean for women who aspire to more senior roles? Is gravitas itself a more male norm and do women need to be acquiring these qualities? Like all things in life I believe the answer is both yes and no.
“Yes” in that to achieve more women leaders in the current environment we need to recognise the unwritten expectations which exist at senior levels and go far beyond unconscious bias. As the research highlights, gravitas is seen as a signal of leadership prowess. Many would argue that the complexity of modern life requires this of any leader, regardless of gender. I know I have interviewed and worked with many, many women who show self-confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness every day. Building these executive presence qualities is important.
And on the flipside there is the “qualified no”. There is nothing overtly male about the trilogy of executive presence qualities that have been described, as long as we recognise these qualities have been created in a system of organisational leadership that is overtly male. (Here I am referring to the “Think Manager Think Male” idea which, while declining, is still prevalent in most cultures today).
The “qualified no” refers to the possibility that executive presence would be defined differently if it had emerged from a leadership system that was more gender balanced. If this were the case, would we be valuing a different set of qualities? What would these look like? (For example, would we be valuing listening skills and curiosity over decisiveness? Would we be valuing humility over assertiveness? And so on).
From this perspective, building executive presence may require a more considered approach. One that balances the norms of the existing leadership system with the unique identity each woman brings. This is not to say, necessarily, that women lead differently, as research highlights the similarities in male and female leadership are greater than the differences. But that doesn’t stop us from acknowledging the idea that leadership experiences for men and women are different and that these differences in experience and perspective have the potential to transform existing leadership norms in powerful ways.
Initiatives to welcome diversity of thought, background and gender are slowly unravelling the gender blindness that we know exists around leadership. These initiatives will accelerate the expansion of what leadership looks like – opening up executive ranks to a wider range of behaviours, skills and qualities.
And women are a fundamental part of this change. So if enhancing executive presence is a key factor in being promoted, find your coach/mentor/peer and build it in your own authentic way.