Sylvia Ann Hewlitt, credited for the first use of the term ‘executive presence’, and author of the book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success says, “the way to be seen as ‘leadership material’ is to be compelling, credible, and very concise.”
Stepping into a leadership role, especially for women of color, can lead to extreme pressure to show up perfectly and to rely heavily on knowledge and data to drive results.
But in reality, effective leadership is much more than your intellect and problem-solving skills.
What’s truly important is what is referred to as your ‘executive presence’.
I work as a leadership and executive coach to create a Color Your Dreams Movement where women of color embody their values while leading teams, sustaining culture, doing less, and living more. I love sharing knowledge and resources about leadership development—specifically aspects that are often forgotten
Let’s unpack and demystify what executive presence really is and the importance of a strong executive presence when it comes to female leadership.
Understanding Executive Presence
While it may be tempting to want to define executive presence as one defining leadership quality, it’s a bit more illusive and subtle than that since executive presence goes beyond skills and qualifications. While it may vary in its precise definition and interpretation, the underlying concept remains consistent – the ability to project confidence, credibility, and influence as a leader. Projecting a strong executive presence can have a hugely positive impact on your career progression and influence, and it’s even more important for women of color working to become successful leaders.
Why is it so important for female-identifying leaders? Sylvia Ann Hewlitt shares that women often overlook the importance of certain characteristics of strong leaders in favor of more tangible aspects of professionalism. Women can feel more pressure to over-rely on preparation, data, presentations, and knowledge to make sure that they’re taken seriously in the workplace. However, in her book, Sylvia explains that’s not necessarily what makes an effective leader.
What does she say creates a strong executive presence?
- Gravitas – the way you act
- Communication – how you speak
- Appearance- how you look
As a business and career coach for women of color and allies, I want to share–from my work in coaching executive leaders–my own version of what makes up executive presence.
Not only is it an important discussion for all women, but for women of color leaders the concept of executive presence can be even harder to ‘achieve’.
The attributes that define executive presence were written by and for white men and often do not leave room for things like cultural identities, dress preferences, and value systems.
Hui Wu Curtis shares in this article that, “Minorities go through a different set of challenges, unconscious biases, and internal struggles thinking that one has to give up their cultural identity to ‘fit in’ and be more white in corporate America.”
So while honing some of the skills and attributes that traditionally make a strong executive presence, it’s important to understand that as a woman of color you will have work to do to redefine these ideas to better align with your own unique and valuable identity.
For a more in depth conversation about the importance of these aspects of leadership, listen to Episode 47 of the Color Your Dreams Podcast: Scripts + Strategies for Boundaries and Negotiation for WOC Leaders with Accion Opportunity Fund on Apple or Spotify.
What is Executive Presence?
I’ve served over 600 clients in helping them to build sustainable businesses and careers in many different industries and sectors. In my experience working with top executives, here are the main components that contribute to a powerful executive presence in women of color leaders.
This refers to a quality of a person’s demeanor that conveys seriousness, dignity, and importance. It’s often associated with a sense of authority, confidence, and poise. And while some of these words may evoke a sense of pretentiousness, I want to emphasize that you can convey your own sense of gravitas uniquely without being a staunch and strict leader. The important part is maintaining a confidence that allows you to inspire confidence in others. Gravitas is all about owning your expertise, maintaining confidence in crisis, and instilling confidence in your team and partners. Think calm, cool, collected.
Communication skills may seem like an obvious one, but there is nothing more important than harnessing the power of verbal and nonverbal communication (like body language). At the end of the day, your smarts don’t matter if you can’t express your ideas clearly to others. An effective communicator knows when to speak up, when to ask for feedback and listen, and how to navigate difficult conversations in a professional way that honors the humanity in others.
You can learn more about holding space for conscious conversations in Episode 40 of the Color Your Dreams Podcast: Why Difficult Conversations Improve our Life + Work Relationships with Erica Courdae and India Jackson on Apple or Spotify.
It’s been said that people don’t follow ideas, they follow people. Finding a way to show up authentically as your own unique human being makes it easier for those around you to relate, respect, and value your leadership. Authenticity is embracing your unique identity and values, not hiding them or attempting to regurgitate another person’s leadership style. It establishes trust, fosters genuine connections, and builds loyalty.
Women of color leaders often face unique challenges and biases in their professional journeys. Resilience enables you to navigate setbacks and adversities with strength and determination, demonstrating your ability to persevere and adapt. Resiliency is about bouncing back from obstacles, learning from failures, and continuing to grow from lessons learned. A resilient leader will face challenges by asking “What did I learn from this” rather than “Why did I fail again?”
How Women of Color Can Develop Their Executive Presence
Now that you have an understanding of what factors contribute to a strong executive presence, you may be wondering how you can better hone and develop those attributes. Here are my 5 strategies for developing executive presence:
1. Embrace self-awareness by understanding your strengths, values, and areas for growth. I’ve written extensively about the importance of emotional intelligence, and what many don’t understand about emotional intelligence is that it actually begins with self-awareness. If you don’t understand how you are perceived by others AND how you react to those perceptions, you will find it difficult to conduct yourself as a leader. You can read my strategies for becoming a more self aware leader here.
2. Hone your communication skills through regularly practicing articulating your thoughts and ideas, asking for feedback, and paying attention to nonverbal cues. Understand that people in the workplace show up with different backgrounds, cultures, and experiences that shape their communication styles; learn to hold space for those people and accommodate those differences by practicing conscious conversations.
3. Embrace cultural intelligence through your own experience and by identifying opportunities in the workplace. As a woman of color you bring a rich tapestry of experiences and ideas to your role, and embracing those experiences only strengthens your leadership capabilities. Learning to navigate and bridge cultural differences in a professional environment will build stronger workforces and enhance your executive presence and influence.
4. Practice resilience and understand you may face unique challenges and biases along your leadership journey. When an opportunity arises, work on bouncing back from setbacks and to learning from ‘failures’. When a difficult conversation arises, take time to reflect, journal, and think up some ways you can respond better next time. Resilience builds your skill set, allows you to make important decisions, and inspires others around you become better at overcoming obstacles.
5. Take calculated risks by being willing to step out of your comfort zone. A good leader has to recognize when to sit back and hold versus when to take a risk. Taking calculated risks enables you to break through barriers, seize opportunities, and demonstrate your confidence and ambition. Stepping out of your comfort zone showcases your willingness to challenge the status quo and embrace growth. This enhances your executive presence and positions yourself as an influential change-makers in your organization.
Executive presence is so much more than knowing your stuff and delegating tasks–it’s about your ability to command a room with your presence, not with your title. While I’ve given my own version of what makes a strong executive presence, remember that it’s an intuitive concept that is in flux depending on your skills, experiences, and goals. It’s not one definable concept or quality.
Great leaders embrace uniqueness in their own professional journeys and that’s what makes them inspirational and effective leaders with a strong executive presence.
If you’re looking to find and hone the attributes of your own executive presence, my leadership & executive coaching is all about cultivating conscious leadership by working toward achievable goals. Learn more about my executive coaching and see if it’s a right fit by clicking here
And if you want to schedule a call with me to see if it’s a good fit to work together, use this link. By the end of the call, you will receive 3 action-items towards your career.