Let’s face it, executive presence training focuses more on erasing gender differences than on teaching women how to assert their presence by taping into their own strengths.
Is there a real need for executive presence training?
Almost everywhere I go lately, I hear about the need for women to go through executive presence training in order to reach the highest levels of decision making. Well, maybe women do need to learn a thing or two about the way the game is played in their organizations, the politics, and the unwritten rules. But the problem with the notion that they need to go through executive presence training is the implicit belief that women lack executive presence altogether. That by attending executive presence training they will learn how to imitate the group that currently occupies the majority of the executive positions, namely white middle -aged men.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for learning—how to diversify your network and how to manage a relationship with a potential sponsor, how to negotiate and delegate, how to improve your communication style, and so on.
The difference is that when you talk about executive presence training you are educating people to look and sound all the same. Rather than encouraging your team to discover and hone their own style you’re asking them to emulate someone else’s style.
The thing about my hair (and why executive presence training would not work for me)
Case in point: When I first started my career as a speaker, my then career coach —a very successful executive man— told me that I would have to do something with my hair. “You’ll have to straighten it or pull it up. It doesn’t look professional.” (Code for “it doesn’t project executive presence.”)
I remember clearly how my stomach churned at the comment. My immediate response was, “I will wear smaller accessories. I will wear a jacket and a skirt. But I won’t change my hair. It’s my brand.” I was sure of it. I knew that if I did anything to my hair I wouldn’t look or feel like myself and something important would be lost in the process.
Through the years, that decision has served me well. Not only because my hair is indeed a big part of my brand and the way people recognize me, but mostly because it helps others see that it’s possible to succeed while being yourself. That you can be taken seriously “even” with big, curly hair. That you can get a seat at the table even when you look very different from everyone else.
Why we need more women supporting women’s styles rather than offering executive presence training to force them to imitate someone else’s style.
Very often it is women managers and executives who feel the need to bring executive presence training to their organizations without exploring what the focus of the program is. And it is often women who don’t realize their role in perpetuating a homogeneous workforce that they are allegedly trying to diversify. Managers who make their staff feel inadequate when they wear a dress instead of a pantsuit to work at a financial institution. Or who frown at the sight of red shoes or curly hair.
It’s time to start watching carefully how you provide feedback to men and women
In a recent study of how men and women are given feedback during their performance review, a startling statistic emerged: 71% of women receive negative feedback vs. 2% of men. In addition the feedback women receive is almost always loaded with negative criticism focused on their personality traits (you are too abrasive, aggressive, strident, etc.) rather than on their performance.
And although the gender of the managers didn’t make a difference in terms of the feedback they provided, it’s worrisome that when it comes to their female staff women managers still focus on personality or style much more than on performance and accomplishments.
Executive presence training is valuable when it instills a sense of confidence and provides insights on how to project gravitas and credibility. When it helps women remain calm in the face of adverse situations so they can exert their leadership. But how can you ever be credible if you’re imitating someone else’s style, values, and behavior? If the only way in which you can be taken seriously is by being someone else?
So before you bring executive presence training to your company consider your goals. Are you trying to create leadership opportunities for more women or are you trying to get women to adopt the reigning leadership style? Are you inadvertently setting them up for failure? Answer these questions first and you’ll choose a meaningful executive presence training. One that actually helps your female staff leverage their female traits to move forward.
You can always test your team’s executive presence by asking them to take our Executive Presence quiz.