How Important Is Executive Presence to Executive Success?

You may or may not have heard about the recent, sudden ouster and subsequent reinstatement of the University of Virginia's first woman president, Teresa Sullivan. The story received national attention and dominated the local news here in Virginia where I live.

As for why Sullivan was forced out, a New York Times article suggests that although she is a talented and well-credentialed administrator, UVA's Board of Visitors (i.e., board of trustees) perhaps felt she was just that -- an administrator rather than a leader. The article further infers that Board members thought Sullivan lacked vision and a strategic perspective, didn't possess the "mettle" necessary to make tough decisions, and didn't fit their image of a chief executive. But after numerous on-campus protests and a significant social media backlash, the Board reinstated her. I wish Teresa well in what will undoubtedly be an awkward, if not difficult, situation going forward.

Sullivan's experience drives home an important lesson for women leaders who aspire to the executive suite: it's not enough to have exceptional technical and leadership skills; to be successful at the most senior levels, you must have the whole "executive package." Whether the lack of presence was the primary reason Teresa was initially transitioned out of her role at UVA, it's one of the key reasons women often are not advanced to the senior leadership ranks. The other is not showing up strategic which links directly to executive presence. To be clear, executive presence is crucial for men as well, but it seems to be a much greater challenge for women.

While executive presence absolutely encompasses appearance, it is so much more than that. Executive presence has to do with the way one carries and conveys oneself, including confidence, composure, decisiveness, authenticity and the ability to communicate in an articulate manner. I realize it may seem shallow or "old school" that people might judge you as not being "executive material" just because you look, act or sound a certain way, but people make judgments on an unconscious level all the time. If you look and act the part, people will give you the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, not having executive presence can be a deal breaker.

I frequently speak at women's leadership conferences around the country. In talking with women leaders, I consistently find that executive presence is one of the biggest challenges they face, and yet they often fail to realize the importance of having it. This anecdotal evidence is supported by a Harvard Business Review report, "The Sponsor Effect," which found that only 45 percent of women think that executive presence helps one get ahead. This problem is compounded by another factor the report's authors discovered: women are 41 percent less likely than men to receive feedback about their image.

Unfortunately, in most organizations, there is no handbook or framework to guide women in what constitutes executive presence. Generally speaking, there are four characteristics most crucial to executive presence:

  • Personal/physical - We all know by now that the largest portion of communication is non-verbal such as facial expression, eye contact, and projection of inner confidence. Be certain your dress, hygiene, posture and demeanor convey a professional, executive image.
  • Communication - Speak the language of business, connect your information to the business strategy, be clear and concise, balance emotions with logic, and always add value to the conversation.
  • Relational - Connect with those you're speaking to by adapting your style and developing rapport with them. Be authentic and respectful to others. Actively listen and be open to other points of view.
  • Results - Work to develop a reputation as one who gets results, is a thought leader, and goes above and beyond to get the job done. Spark insight, stir passion for important work, and engage the workforce to achieve a mission.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that simply doing a good job and getting great results will get you that promotion into the upper leadership ranks. Proactively enhance your executive presence by seeking honest feedback from a trusted mentor who has seen you in action. Ask him or her which of the four characteristics you most need to improve. Then practice developing those skills in meetings, conference calls, and even in your email correspondence. And remember to always be intentional about the impression you are leaving with others.

What advice do you have for women leaders regarding executive presence?

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