Executive presence, simply put, is a collection of behaviors that result in your ability to instill confidence in others. In my experience working in organizations that support talent across many industries, this vague term is applied to explain what leaders needed to get to the next level. While the discussions around executive presence applied to both men and women, it seemed to be a term that centered around women most often. Coincidentally, more often than not, this assessment was made by a male executive.
According to a McKinsey & Company article (November 17, 2022), women and women of color, even more so, remain vastly underrepresented in leadership roles across corporate America. This noticeable difference is more pronounced the higher the position is in the organization. As a fresh data point, 10% of the top CEO roles in the Fortune 500 belong to women; that is 53 positions (Ciment, 2023). Women face stronger headwinds than men; they are less likely to have mentors and sponsors and are more likely to experience bias from both men and women as they seek higher positions (McKinsey & Company 2022–Women in the Workplace).
As a result, more women are switching jobs, starting companies, or exiting the workforce completely when they hit the ceiling or their values, goals, and needs no longer align with their organization (McKinsey & Company, 2022). Companies that want to retain talent and are focused on supporting the growth and development of females at all levels of leadership need to take different actions; what has been done in the past is not yielding the results. To support the development needs of female leaders, there needs to be a specific and tailored approach that honors the conditions and variables unique to women.
Many times, when a leader reaches higher levels of leadership, the development needs that they require are related less to technical competencies or capabilities and are more often associated with how they interact, influence, and work with others. Women have an advantage in this aspect of work. Partly because we are socialized differently, and society has gender norms and expectations that perhaps in the past were viewed less favorably, today, those can be leveraged in the workplace. Research on emotional intelligence has shown that there are small differences in the traits of men and women. Women tend to have slightly higher empathy and social responsibility, and men have slightly higher stress tolerance. Women have stronger interpersonal relationships, and men score higher in self-regard. Overall, Stein & Book (2000) point out that in every area, women have a natural advantage, and men have a counterbalancing strength what is interesting to note is that the areas of strength may be part of what contributes to keeping things status quo.
The world needs more empathy in leadership. For women to excel, we need to pull back the distinct behaviors and competencies that, when woven together, demonstrate the executive presence and balance this historically masculine set of norms with what is needed today. Not only to support the advancement of women but to celebrate the many unique experiences and contributions that women have earned through both the benefit and the burden of being female in corporate America.
Along with my colleague, Juliann Wiese B. Ed, PCC, CMC, we host a 6 part development series on Confidence & Executive Presence coupled with executive coaching sessions to support the development of women in leadership roles. The next cohort starts in April 2023. If you are interested to learn more, click here.
About Karyn Edwards, Ph.D.
Karyn Edwards, Ph.D., ACC, has over 25 years of corporate human resources experience in various disciplines, including organizational development, talent management, team building, learning, diagnostics, leadership development, and facilitation. Karyn has provided executive Coaching, training, change management, and consulting within several established organizations and start-up industries. Working with hundreds of leaders to build the teams, organizations, and careers they are striving towards.
Karyn earned her Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational Psychology in 2017 and is a certified Professional and Executive coach earning her certification from the University of Texas at Dallas and the ICF in 2022.