Gain a Competitive Edge with “Executive Presence”

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Posted November 21, 2012 by Barb Mednick in Building Your Brand

This past week I had the opportunity to meet with a successful young female managing partner who heads up the Detroit office at the company I work for. I was struck by how she exuded that often elusive quality known as “executive presence.” You know it when you see it, but it isn’t always easy to describe.

As a large professional services firm and Fortune 1000 company, most of the office managing partners (knows as OMP’s) are men, with females in the minority at the upper levels. After our meeting, I kept thinking about her confident demeanor, her direct style, her strong ability to influence the discussion without being overly aggressive, and I couldn’t help but wonder — how I could emulate her?

That’s why I was so intrigued with a recent study that sheds new light on this often murky concept of “executive presence” (EP); an essential component to corporate advancement, particularly for women.

The new study is from the Center for Talent Innovation (formerly the Center for Work-Life Policy), a non-profit “think tank” based in New York City. In the survey, 268 senior executives cited executive presence – being perceived as leadership material – as an essential component to getting ahead. In fact, executive presence accounted for, on average, 25 percent of what it takes to get promoted.

When it comes to career success, it can help you gain the competitive edge. The findings contribute fresh, startling new insight as to why so few women make it to the C-suite. While work/life balance challenges are often cited as a major factor, the fact that many women don’t understand EP also plays an important role according to the study, which included 18 focus groups, nearly 4,000 college graduate professionals, and more than 50 one-on-one interviews with high-level executives.

But what really is “executive presence” and how do you as a Career Girl cultivate it? Is it about being direct and demanding, knowing how to play office politics, wearing expensive clothes, or other factors?

The study defined three areas that govern the perception of “leadership material”:

  • Gravitas, or the ability to project confidence, poise under pressure, and decisiveness.
  • Communication, which comprises excellent speaking skills, assertiveness, and the ability to read an audience or situation.
  • Appearance – looking polished and pulled together.

Women and multicultural professionals surveyed feel that they are held to a stricter standard of EP and are given hopelessly contradictory feedback on expectations – often a common challenge on the job.

Following are other key findings:

  • Executive presence accounts for 26 percent of what it takes to get the next promotion, according to senior executives.
  • Gravitas is the core characteristic of EP, according to 67 percent of the 268 senior executives surveyed.
  • Communication telegraphs that you are leadership material, according to 28 percent of senior executives.
  • While only five percent of leaders consider appearance to be a key factor in EP, all of them recognize its potential for curtailing or derailing talented up-and-comers. Notable appearance blunders, not surprisingly, are unkempt attire (83 percent say it detracts from a woman’s EP, 76 percent say it detracts from a man’s) and, for women, too-tight or provocative clothing (73 percent say it detracts from a woman’s EP).
  • Sounding uneducated proves a tripwire (59 percent say it detracts from a woman’s EP and 58 percent say it detracts from a man’s).
  • Women and multicultural professionals tend to struggle with EPdue to intrinsic tension between conforming to corporate culture and remaining true to oneself:
    • 56 percent of people of color feel they are held to a stricter code around EP, compared with 31 percent of Caucasians
    • 36 percent deliberately recast the way they tell their stories, compared with 29 percent of Caucasians
  • For both women and people of color, feedback on EP can be hopelessly contradictory — which may be why 81 percent say they’re unclear as to how to act on it.

What are your thoughts on the power of executive presence? I’d love to get your feedback.


About the Author

Barb Mednick

Barbara K. Mednick is Associate Director of Corporate Communications for KPMG LLP in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She has a passion for workforce issues/trends, particularly as they relate to women. Previously she ran a successful, Twin Cities-based PR and marketing communications consultancy and held senior account management positions at several top Twin Cities PR and marketing agencies. Barbara began her career as a journalist at a daily newspaper and holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and a Mini-MBA Certificate from the University of St. Thomas. During her career, Barbara has written numerous articles and posts for various print and online media. She has garnered a number of industry awards for writing and successful PR and marketing communications campaigns conducted for clients. Also, she has taught a number of writing workshops for professionals and she blogs on the intersection of PR, marketing communications, and social media at http://bkminsights.blogspot.

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