Beyond the Traditional Executive Presence Definition

Quite often, the standards for promotion of diverse talent are stricter than for the average employee. Expanding the traditional executive presence definition will help you grow your organization’s brain.

In this article we will cover the definition of executive presence and the impact this traditional executive presence definition has on diversity talent, particularly in women.

Myrna, a highly educated Latina professional, with impressive credentials and a track record of accomplishments, was in a career development path but was denied the opportunity to move to the next level because “she didn’t have executive presence.” This is a true story (although I changed the name of the protagonist to respect her privacy) and one that many people with diverse backgrounds can relate to.

white men and white woman in suits

We need to expand the narrow executive presence definition to allow for a diversity of gender, backgrounds and styles

The truth is that the real reason for which Myrna wasn’t offered the promotion was the fact that she was assessed against the outdated standards of the executive presence definition. Her merits and accomplishments were never questioned, only the fact that she displayed executive presence in a different way than expected. The outcome of her assessment was that she did not meet the conventional criteria to be considered “leadership material,” that she lacked “leadership presence,” the “It” factor, or the “je ne sais quoi” needed to be promoted to the next level.

As a result of her performance review Myrna received “another” chance to earn her promotion, but not surprisingly, “the chance” had nothing to do with addressing her leadership presence or with a suggestion that she went to executive presence training. The standards for her promotion were stricter than for the average employee in the organization. Myrna was given a series of challenging projects to prove herself again-and-again and demonstrate that she was worthy of the next level, which always seemed to be one additional challenge away.

Executive Presence pillars

Executive Presence pillars

In a study conducted by The Center for Talent Innovation 268 senior executive participants said executive presence contributed 26% to career advancement. One of their conclusions was that executive presence is the link between merit and success.

The Three Pillars of Executive Presence

This research suggests that there are three pillars of executive presence:

Communication: How we share information

Appearance: How we look

Gravitas: How we impress others.

As simple as these three pillars sound, they show up very differently depending on the lens you use to evaluate a person.

Let’s take a look at how communication, appearance, and gravitas show up in high and low context cultures. (“High” and “Low” refers to communication styles, while “Context” refers to how circumstances or facts are explained during communication.) For example, in high context cultures –Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America— messages are communicated indirectly and implicitly with metaphors, analogies, and symbols. In low context cultures —United States, Canada Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland for instance— communication is more direct, concise, and explicit with frequent use of facts and specific examples.

Hand holding colored gears

Look at your talent through a diversity lens

In a high context culture communication styles are notably different than the styles of people from a low context culture. Africans can feel that the Dutch insult their intelligence by explaining the obvious, while the Dutch can feel that African leaders provide no information. In Myrna’s case, the American executives responsible for approving her promotion found Myrna to be secretive and unforthcoming with information while Myrna found the American executives to be offensively blunt. These examples only highlight the element of communication and culture. We are not yet discussing how the addition of other diverse characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, or age could further influence how a person’s communication impacts their executive presence.

The combination of diverse traits makes precise recognition and evaluation of the three executive presence pillars (communication, appearance, and gravitas) even harder. The traditional and narrow executive presence definition does not allow for the diversity lens to be applied to these three pillars.

Effective global leaders, however, are keenly aware of the complexity of these assessments, the need to use a diversity lens, and the importance of avoiding generalizations.

They redefine executive presence, champion diverse expression of leadership presence, and provide everyone a fair chance to be promoted based on how their authentic self contributes to the business objectives.

A couple of these effective global leaders were the ones that championed and coached Myrna, helping her get to the next level. These leaders were willing and able to see beyond the obvious, understand, and reward Myrna’s genuine executive presence.

Don't miss our Executive Presence Quiz, ideal to use with your women employees.

How to embrace an updated executive presence definition

How could you become one of these effective leaders with an uncanny ability to spot executive presence by transcending the narrow definition that keeps top talent out of the leadership track? Well, there are several actions you can take to objectively assess people’s leadership potential, honoring their uniqueness while enriching the thinking power of the organization.

Effective global leaders are fully aware of the need to use a diversity lens when assessing executive presence

Executive presence quote by Lily Benjamin

  • Provide constructive feedback. Build people by focusing on their strengths. Discuss what is working and what could be adjusted. For instance, “You have a very effective way of commanding the room (Gravitas) – give a specific example. During the presentation to the senior management group, last Friday, however, your report was too generic (Communication.) Unfortunately, that came across as though you had not done your homework or as if you didn’t want to provide specific information. This made you seem aloof to the needs of the audience and out of touch. Also, next time you have a meeting with this group, dress up more formally – a suit will work better with this audience (Appearance.) The combination of providing the correct and necessary information, while being dressed more on par for this audience, will enhance your executive presence and will help them connect with you.”
  • Provide executive sponsorship. Be the agent of your top talent. Talk about their strengths when they are in or out of the room. Highlight the value they add to the teams and the organization. Humanize them by sharing unique, valuable and relatable traits. Provide strategic public recognition. This means, ensure that in public settings this person gets appropriately praised for their merits and executive presence. Be their biggest Champion. Give others the language or qualifiers you want your talent’s brand to be remembered by. For example, “Myrna is a very influential and effective leader. She is credible and reliable. I trust her to do things right in any sensitive situation.”
  • Demystify the traditional (and very narrow) executive presence definition. A good way to spot authentic executive presence, regardless of diverse backgrounds, is to distinguish between myths and facts. Be mindful of the facts that can transcend any diverse element. By that I mean tangible diverse elements such as gender, sexual orientation, age, race, etc. or intangible elements such as diversity of thoughts, and diversity of styles in areas such as learning, communication, decision making, conflict resolutions, and so on. Below find a few myths and facts on executive presence.

Executive Presence

Myths

Facts

Bold: Shows a strong demeanor, vivid appearance, and ability to take risks Confidence: Is self-assured, calm, composed, with grace under fire
Vocal: Expresses opinions or feelings freely and emphatically, drawing people’s attention Clear Communicator: Shares substantive information, with great foresight, engaging and motivating people into action
Self-promoter: Publicizes self in a compelling and persuasive way Credible: Is authentic and persuades people, also ensuring that others get credit
Sophisticated: Demonstrates knowledge on and ability to discuss complex issues with ease Emotionally Intelligent: Is aware of, can control, and express emotions. Leads from the heart and head with empathy
Popular: Is liked, admired, accepted by many people, based on skills or knowledge Outstanding Reputation: Is known for her character, trustworthiness, and track record of accomplishments
Commanding: Expresses and projects authority, imposing points of view Assertive: Speaks up, expressing and owning feelings and opinions openly
Tenacious: Is determined and holds on firmly to positions and courses of action Courageous: Is not deterred by consequences of protecting principles and shared goals
The RSM Step Up Plus helps develop diverse women year-round.

Let's broaden the executive presence definition! In order to diversify your executive levels you must expand the narrow executive presence definition

In order to diversify your executive levels you must expand the narrow executive presence definition

After being coached and championed, Myrna learned to communicate and use her strategic authentic-self more effectively, which strengthened her professional brand. A year later, she was able to turn her “naysayers” into “yea-sayers.” The leader that had denied her promotion became her biggest champion, seeing beyond Myrna’s cultural mannerisms and focusing on her contributions instead. Myrna now heads up a global function in a Fortune 500 company.

Cracking the code on how to spot executive presence regardless of your talent’s background will allow you to rip the benefits of their full potential. Most importantly, it will help you ensure that the organization leverages a vast diversity of thought to transform and grow.

 

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Lily Benjamin

A Global Talent, Organization Development and Change Management Executive by trade. Innately, a conceptual architect because of my commitment to build people and organizations.
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