3 Aspects of ‘Executive Presence’ Women Should Cultivate

Women looking for a leadership role in their firms should pay attention to these three attributes

Charles Schwab on Friday held a webinar that endeavored to help women build an “executive presence” at their firm and ultimately achieve a leadership role.

Key to building that presence, according to Melinda Marshall, senior vice president at the Center for Talent Innovation, is for women to develop a leadership style that is authentic to themselves and appropriate for the environment they work in.

Marshall and her firm conducted research that culminated in a book, “Executive Presence,” published in June.

There are three aspects to a powerful executive presence, according to Marshall: gravitas, communication and appearance.

Gravitas is overwhelmingly the most important aspect of executive presence, and the bulk of that trait is shown through confidence and the ability to show grace under fire, Marshall said. As an example, she referred to a speech Marissa Mayer gave that was interrupted by protesters. Undeterred, Mayer briefly explained to the audience why the protesters were there — “I’m also on the board of Walmart” — and continued her speech.

“Gravitas isn’t inborn,” Marshall said, but “it can be acquired.” She recommended women earn trust by keeping abreast of growing crises and calling attention to them before they come to a head. They should also “be six questions deep,” she said; that is, maintain a “total command of the facts, figures and dates” relevant to the topic at hand to be prepared to handle any questions that come up.

The actions that most betray gravitas are a lack of depth in experience or knowledge, Marshall said. Women who talk more than they listen or talk about inappropriate topics, show a limited grasp of key issues, or don’t accept responsibility for their actions undermine their own gravitas.

Communication is the second most important trait for women trying to build an executive presence, Marshall said. Superior speaking skills and the ability to command a room were the most important communication skills. However, more respondents rated command of a room important for men (54% versus 49% for women). More respondents cited the ability to read a client or audience an important trait for women (39% versus 33% for men).

“Men are often expected to command a room, while women are expected to read a room,” Marshall said.

Online communication is also important. Marshall said that 78% of professionals first search for information about a person online before making contact. She recommended women do a vanity search to determine what reputation they have online and curate their image.

In communicating with clients or colleagues, Marshall recommended women be succinct, offering two or three supporting points for their argument and then letting others ask for more details as necessary.

Although appearance ranked last in importance — just 3% of top-level executives said it was the most important aspect in executive presence — Marshall noted it’s the “first lens” colleagues view you through.

Simple grooming and polish in appearance was most important for both men and women. “There’s a reason bankers wear suits,” Marshall said. Tailored clothing imparts a sense of discipline, and good grooming in both men and women shows attention to detail, she said.

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