Defining (and Cultivating) Executive Presence
Written by Alissa McShane
You’ve heard from professional mentors (and the internet) that you should dress for the job you want, not the job you have. They say when you’re being interviewed for a position, you’re judged from the time you enter the building to the time you leave. You have also been warned that every day on the job is an interview for your next job or next promotion. What sits at the crossroads of all of these ideas? Executive presence.
What is executive presence?
Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett describes the concept in her titular book, “Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success.” It’s well-known that not everyone who appears merited for a promotion attains their ladder-climbing goals, and at first glance this might not seem fair. Well, consider yourself warned—there’s a missing rung in the ladder between merit and success, and according to Hewlett, it “depends on getting three things right: appearance, communication, and gravitas.”
Sylvia is getting at the idea that when you look around at people in leadership positions in your company, there is a way about them that you can’t put your finger on—something about how they always look put together and confident, dignified and polished. When you think about appearance, don’t think about spending your whole salary on manicures, designer heels and blowouts; it is more about not fidgeting to hide chipped polish, displaying stained or ill-fitting clothes, or showing up to work with wet hair. In their communication, individuals with executive presence handle professional encounters with respect, calculation, measure and maturity. Folks with executive presence always seem like they’re trying to solve problems rather than create them, bring people together rather than silo information and take responsibility rather than point fingers.
Making the effort
I work as an operations analyst at a small technology business, a traditionally internally facing role within an industry that traditionally does not pay much mind to appearance. I spent years comfortably neglecting to tend to my professional wardrobe, bragging about how relaxed my office culture was; why would I wear a pantsuit and heels when I was allowed to wear jeans and slip-on Vans? But there’s something to be said about dressing more professionally than you have to, just like there’s something to be said for showing up early, staying late or generally going the extra mile. It took me a while to realize that just because I’m not always client-facing doesn’t mean I don’t have someone to impress or something to prove.
Some components of the professional wardrobe are prebaked for men—it requires less creativity to put together a professional menswear closet than a work-appropriate wardrobe for a woman. Further, there are some innately unfair aspects of the female workplace outfit, and high heels are at the top of that list. Much has been written about the complicated relationship between women and their heels; some women covet their stilettos while others lament their very existence. The (unfortunate) truth is that science confirms the inherent worth of the heel. Throwing on a pair with a three-inch lift makes it more difficult for your taller male counterparts to intimidate you with body language. It may seem insignificant, but the internalized psychology of height has a large impact on respect, social status and interpersonal dominance. Women, who are on average shorter than men, should consider freely taking advantage of the manufactured opportunity to get a leg up and appear taller when interfacing with a client or boss in order to level the pitch.
Professional clothing not only has a bad rap for being uncomfortable, it’s also known for being boring. It can be difficult to find clothes that make you look professional, make you feel confident and allow you to make rent. To start building my repertoire of pieces, I began going up to any woman at a professional event whose outfit I lusted over and asking her where it was from—and where she shops, in general.
Another way you can start building your wardrobe is signing up for a subscription box like StitchFix or Hautelook. Tell your stylist you want to up your work-style game and ask for pieces that transition well from the office to post-office happy hour; they’ll likely present blazers, slacks and blouses for you to try on. These subscriptions come straight to your door, which eliminates the daunting sea of clothing racks. Most options are also non-committal; you’re free to send back anything that doesn’t work for you.
When it comes to communication and gravitas, transitioning between different work environments can create confusion. Every organization’s leadership will vary, so if you’re trying to get noticed for a promotion, start by gauging your organization’s leadership to determine their tolerance for corny jokes during meetings and jeans on casual Fridays.
Hewlett argues in her book that “top jobs often elude women because they lack ‘executive presence’ or underestimate its importance.” But the good news is you can start now by realizing the impact small choices and habits can have on your executive presence.
Making some of those choices differently from here on out may get you a seat in the boardroom you deserved to be in all along.
Alissa is an IT Project Manager and Florida State University MBA student living in Dayton, OH. A spirited young professional and natural-born leader, she is passionate about women feeling empowered to work in any field or profession they choose. Catch up with her at alissamcshane.com