Executive Presence – Should We Ditch Our Ladylike Qualities In Order To Be Successful?

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Posted November 20, 2013 by Kristen J. Zavo in Building Your Brand
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Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah Winfrey, Arianna Huffington and Sonia Sotomayor – When you think of these women, what comes to mind? They are very different people, in diverse professions with unique objectives. What they all have in common, though, is their ability to command a room and inspire others to examine their beliefs, challenge the status quo and take action. They are respected as experts in their domain and admired by many. They have executive presence.

I recently attended a workshop for women on developing executive presence. We covered many topics you’d expect, including the importance of self-confidence, body language, tone of voice and preparation.

The part of the program that was not on the agenda, however, was most interesting. There was a heated discussion over whether or not it was appropriate for businesswomen to smile or be too nurturing. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some feared coming across as too harsh, so as to be called the “B” word. This got me thinking – are femininity and executive presence mutually exclusive?

What Is  Executive Presence?

But first, let’s define executive presence. Business Insider calls out the 7 “Cs” of executive presence: composure, connection, charisma, confidence, credibility, clarity and conciseness. And in an interview with Marie Claire, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of Center for Talent Innovation, described the three pillars of executive presence as how you look, how you speak and how you behave.

I like the way this Forbes article put it best. It states that

The ability to project gravitas–confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness –…, communication – including speaking skills, assertiveness and the ability to read an audience or situation – and appearance contribute to a person’s perceived executive presence.

Female Qualities – A Workplace Curse?

Certain qualities typically attributed to women clearly do not serve us in this area. For example, those of us with a naturally soft or high-pitched voice must learn to control our tone, speaking loudly enough for all to hear and in a manner that does not make our sentences sound like questions.

Another area where some of us need work is body language. After all, the go-to position for a “lady” is legs crossed and arms by our sides or in our lap. But in order to convey confidence, it is important to adopt a self-assured posture and position, standing (or sitting) tall, shoulders back, uncrossed arms…and yes, taking a seat at the boardroom table instead of finding a spot out of the line of fire (and influence!) at the periphery of the room.

Or Blessing…

While the above examples are important for developing presence (for both men and women) they are specific to cultivating and portraying confidence. So what about other characteristics traditionally attributed to females such as friendliness, collaboration, emotional intelligence and overall warmth – should we also tone down, or altogether eliminate, these traits in an effort to exude more presence?

Rather than act as hindrance, I believe these qualities can actually provide an edge in business, allowing us to more naturally and authentically connect with others, feel out a crowd and confidently get buy-in from the team, board or shareholders. This ability to command a room and inspire others to take action towards a common goal is an irrefutable sign of executive presence.

Final Thoughts

There was a time, not too long ago, when women felt they had to dress like men in order to be taken seriously at work. That seems ridiculous to many of us now, but abandoning our positive feminine traits in favor of an inauthentic masculine version is really no different.

Rather than try to fit ourselves into traditional molds of success and influence that pre-date women entering the workforce, we should remember that it is the diversity of skills, experiences and yes – personal qualities – that allow companies to be both better run and more profitable.

What are your thoughts? Do you believe it is possible for a woman to be both feminine and have a strong executive presence?


About the Author

Kristen J. Zavo

Kristen J. Zavo is a finance and strategy professional, with a special interest in the retail industry. Having always been interested in the people side of business, Kristen loves to explore, reflect on, and share stories about the challenges and adventures of being a businesswoman. No topic is off limits - whether it's how to handle being the only woman in the boardroom, or figuring out how to to pack all the "essentials" for a 2-week business trip in just a carry-on! Outside of work, she loves exploring new places, spending time at the beach and meeting friends to workout (spin or yoga, anyone?!).

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