When we think of leaders, we usually have a few ideas in mind about what they look like and how they act. If you asked a random person on the street to imagine a CEO, they would probably think of a person who is male, white, tall, straight, decisive, genial, and a jumble of other traits that come together to form the CEO archetype.
Another trait most leaders share is executive presence. It’s a trait that’s difficult to define, but you either have it or you don’t, and we know it when we see it.
It is precisely that intangibility that makes feedback on executive presence so hard to process. How can people who don’t automatically conform to the leadership stereotypes above attract and maintain power? And when women receive feedback on executive presence at work, are they simply receiving advice on how to act more stereotypically male? In other words, where do the male leadership stereotypes end, and the executive leadership traits begin?
According to Lauren Leader-Chivée, Senior Vice President at the Center for Talent Innovation, it is possible to detangle executive presence from the cult of masculinity. By understanding the foundational components of executive presence, she believes, women and minorities can better navigate the often contradictory messages around what makes someone “leadership material.”
What Does Leadership Material Look Like?
As the Center for Talent Innovation explains in a recent report, our concept of executive presence is linked with male leadership stereotypes. Authors Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Lauren Leader-Chivée, Laura Sherbin, and Joanne Gordon with Fabiola Dieudonne write:
“Indeed, many of the presumptive signals that someone is leadership material—aggressiveness, assertiveness, showing teeth, commanding a room, being tall, or having gray hair— are steeped in historic male stereotypes of power, especially in the workplace. The fact that 96 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are male, and only 4.4 percent are people of color, are two more data points that support what we already know intuitively as well as what we heard: ‘senior leadership is white, male, and preferably tall’ and the C-suite is ‘definitely more comfortable with sameness.’ Thus, it is assumed (and not just by white men) that future leaders must look, act, and come across like this white male model.”
Yet, today we do have leaders who are not white men, and we have lots of rising stars in the public and private space who don’t conform to that stereotype either. How can they climb to the top?
CTI polled 3,929 male and female executives, and according to the respondents, 25 percent of what it takes to get promoted is executive presence. Based on the research, CTI identified three factors that make up executive presence: communication, gravitas, and appearance – and, as Leader-Chivée pointed out, these three factors were equally important for male and female leaders to attain.
But there’s an added layer of complexity for women and multicultural individuals, she continued. “Each one of the dimensions were seen as equally important for men and women to advance. But as we know, it can be more complicated or difficult for women to be seen as having gotten it right. The same goes for people of color.”
For example, she said, think of how many times Hillary Clinton has been the subject of criticism for being too tough or edgy, not to mention the commentary on her hair or clothes. “It’s a double jeopardy that women with a strong sense of self have to face. There’s a general agreement that women have a thin line to walk to get it right.”
But the double jeopardy issue is also evolving, she continued. “I do think there is still the assumption that leaders look like Mitt Romney – his hair, his height, his cheekbones, his suit – he’s the archetypical CEO. But as Barack Obama proved, we’re at a point when we’re looking a little more deeply than those images. We’re looking at the whole picture.”
Authenticity and the Code
One of the key contradictions woman (and particularly African American women) hear time and time again is that they’re either too aggressive, or they’re not aggressive enough. And there’s more. For women it might be the pitch or tone of their voice, or for multicultural people it might be an accent.
Leader-Chivée pointed out, “There’s just a longer list of ‘errors’ that women and multicultural folks get harshly judged on when it comes to executive presence. Whether we like it or not, there is a code at play, and that code varies enormously depending on your organization’s culture.”
She continued, “We believe the model does need to evolve, and that the more women and multicultural folks that move into executive leadership teams and boards of directors, the more different it can become. At the same time, it’s extremely difficult to access that point, if you don’t follow the code.”
One bright spot the team discovered was the topic of authenticity. The survey respondents said that the ability to balance executive presence traits with personal authenticity was critical for leaders. That means leaders shouldn’t feel they are giving up part of who they are to fit in with organizational norms, but rather moderating their personal values through those norms. “What does being authentic really mean? To me, it means bringing your different perspectives to the table through something that is uniquely you, that challenges the conventional wisdom,” Leader-Chivée said.
If that means dressing or speaking in a certain way so you can get a seat at that table, she continued, that doesn’t mean you aren’t being true to yourself. “Your appearance is an enormous first filter that influences how seriously others will take you. And you have control over your appearance,” she added.
Taking and Giving Feedback
Finally, Leader-Chivée discussed a particularly sticky aspect of executive presence – how to ask for and give feedback on it.
The research showed that men were particularly uncomfortable giving feedback on executive presence to women. In fact, Leader-Chivée said, “Women and multicultural people are unlikely to get feedback on this aspect. So they need to learn how to look for cues around them in terms of looking at leaders and choosing how to emulate them. They also have to make it safe for other people to give feedback – make it clear you want feedback, that you genuinely want to know. And if you get feedback that is vague or evasive, make it clear you want a clarification.”
For those in a position to give advice on executive presence, she continued, “Giving feedback is a fabulous act of sponsorship. If you approach it, you can say something like, ‘I think you have a great future here. Are you open to feedback on elements of your personal brand.’ Or ‘I really want you to be successful here and I have your best interests at heart.’”
If someone doesn’t want that feedback, she continued, “I think that says something about whether you should be sponsoring them.”
She added, “Ambitious people generally want it, even if it’s hard to hear.”