Several weeks ago, I was working with a very bright and accomplished mid-level female client (let's call her Janice) around building her executive presence. We had an intriguing conversation about her perception of what "executive presence" is and why she feels she doesn't have enough of it.
She shared that her biggest concern was how she appeared in meetings with senior leaders and managers. She deeply feared she would be judged negatively, especially when presenting data and other material. She worried, too, about "What if they ask me a question I can't answer? What do I do?"
I asked if this had ever happened and she said "No." She'd always been praised by senior leaders for how she handled herself and her presentations, and her boss was consistently very pleased with her performance.
I find this very common among the mid- to high-level women I work with. They suffer from the same feeling of not being good enough in their roles, no matter what they do and even when they're performing wonderfully. This is a core part of the damaging "impostor syndrome" and one of the seven most damaging "power gaps" that so many professional women experience today. This gap — not recognizing one's own special talents, abilities and accomplishments, and leveraging them fully — makes women live in constant fear of being "found out" for what they believe they don't know.
In my view, "executive presence" is a critical mix of the following ingredients, traits and behaviors:
Confidence — Demonstrating through the way you speak, behave and engage that you believe in yourself and in your ability to succeed and thrive.
Authority — Possessing the power and influence to make things happen, and also serving as an authority about the area you're responsible for. This includes possessing a mastery of the key information necessary to make effective decisions.
Strong communication — Speaking and listening in ways that move the discussion forward and fostering a space where diverse ideas are appreciated and embraced.
Contribution — Being comfortable bringing new thoughts, ideas and innovations to the table and going out on a limb where necessary to think outside of the box and share unconventional ideas that may lead to growth.
Holding your own — Being able to stand your ground when challenged and present coherent arguments for why you see things as you do.
Calmness and balance — Not appearing nervous, but rather, seeming self-assured, calm and in control.
Leadership — Understanding the role you play as a leader and sharing your vision and purpose but, at the same time, being comfortable serving as a consummate team player and helping others shine for the great work they're doing.
Emotional strength — Demonstrating strong boundaries and not becoming defensive or unhinged when others clash with you and push back hard on your ideas and comments.
To help Janice get in touch with what executive presence means to her, Janice recalled one woman who, she said, "looked like she belonged there."
So there was the real issue: Janice didn't quite believe in her heart that she belonged at the executive table.
If you struggle with believing you have executive presence, ask yourself these three questions to move forward:
- Do I have a sufficient mastery of my area and the work I'm responsible for, and do I have the experience, understanding and insight necessary to serve the company well at the executive table?
- Do I make a positive difference in my work, leveraging what I know in ways that contribute?
- Is the real reason I think I don't have executive presence simply about my own internal insecurity and not grounded in the reality of my performance or my abilities?
If you answer "Yes" to these questions, it's time to embrace the fact you do have the right to sit at the executive table. The organization needs your knowledge and expertise, and you're not helping anyone by shying away from what you know and offer.
If you answered "No" to any of these questions, it's not hopeless. Be proactive to identify exactly what's in the way of your experiencing more executive presence. Close your specific power gaps and get the support, training and experience you need to grow in your role, build your confidence and authority and do what's necessary to feel ready to take your place at the leadership table.
And if your organization and leaders make you feel "less than" and unworthy no matter what you do, it's time to leave. Move way from a culture that can't embrace and support you.
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