We know executive presence when we see it. It’s that feeling you get when a woman walks in poised and polished, with the presence of a leader. There’s a certain je ne sais quoi about how she carries herself, which of course, seems effortless.
We all want it, but how do we get it? Until there is a Harry Potter-style magic potion for executive presence, there’s Jennifer Lee, a director of training and development and executive presence expert.
I recently had the pleasure of seeing Lee speak at the Society of Human Resource Managers conference. According to her, executive presence is comprised of three things:
Communication: how you talk
Gravitas: how you act
Perceived identity: how you look
Much has been written about how women talk, so I followed up with Lee to provide strategies surrounding gravitas and perceived identity for women.
1. Gravitas: Demonstrate confidence under pressure (or learn to fake it)
One of Lee’s clients led a great team, but when presenting in meetings that included people she perceived as more powerful, she would freeze with anxiety. Her executive presence would crash.
In order to keep her cool, she and Lee developed a pre-meeting strategy, like a basketball player’s free throw ritual. She would:
- Go somewhere quiet and take four really deep breaths.
- Grab a bottle of water. (Lee says when people get anxious they tend to get dry mouth. Then they start to freak out about the dry mouth, and then they’re losing their presence.)
- Bring a “friendly” to the meeting, someone who’s prepped to be an ally. If Lee’s client froze, the friendly would ask an easy question and derail the presentation long enough for Lee’s client to get her thoughts back on track – giving her a confidence boost in the process.
Just a few months after implementing this strategy, Lee’s client was perceived as a confident presenter to the c-suite.
Let’s be clear, four breaths plus a bottle of Dasani plus a "friendly" isn’t the magic recipe for gravitas. It was about emotional regulation. Lee’s client needed to proactively implement a plan before she experienced visible signs of stress.
For my money, it’s not about avoiding or suppressing the feelings that come up at work. It’s not that Lee’s client didn’t get anxious anymore, it’s that she found a way to cope with the emotions as they came up in a way that didn’t put her at a professional disadvantage.
2. Perceived identity: Look the part
Another of Lee’s clients is a consultant who has all the impressive credentials, but when she presented at conferences, she wasn’t seen as an expert. She was told she needed to look more polished, which meant wearing makeup.
(Let’s just pause for a moment and imagine a guy not being taken seriously without makeup.)
Citing research from Harvard Medical School, Lee says, “People assess your competence and trustworthiness in a quarter of a second based solely on how you look.”
“It’s not fair,” she says, “But if you want to move forward in your career, you want to look the part so your ideas are the focal point, not your wardrobe.”
Men aren’t immune. Mark Zuckerberg switched from his characteristic t-shirt and hoodie to a suit when meeting with investors. But unfortunately, “For women, there are just more things you need to do to make sure you don’t lose that quarter of a second,” Lee laments.
It’s about knowing the norms of your industry and dressing for the job you want. One of Lee’s clients is in tech, which is very casual. But if she wants to advance professionally, Lee says, “She can’t roll up in a Care Bear’s t-shirt and ripped jeans,” even though some of her colleagues do.
Perceived identity comes down to one question for Lee, “If I tell you what my job title is, do you believe that I can do my job?”
On the one hand, this makes sense to me. The woman who cuts my hair also styles the cheerleaders for a professional sports team. If I gave a keynote with cheerleader hair, I don’t think I’d be taken terribly seriously. Similarly, I won’t use enough hairspray in my lifetime to perform a halftime show.
On the other, policing women’s appearance to ensure it’s just the right amount of feminine is not my jam (nor is it Lee’s, if I had to guess). But, understanding the bias doesn’t mean we have to like it.
As with nearly everything in our professional lives, let’s recognize that women are held to a different standard when it comes to executive presence. What we do with that info is up to us. If you have no chill, are rocking a Care Bear’s shirt and think this shouldn’t matter, more power to you. If you want to advance in your career and get beyond that quarter of a second, Lee is here to help.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.