The “It” Factor for Women Leaders

Someone in your company may have recently been promoted to a leadership position. This person successfully competed against other qualified candidates, some of whom were probably just as experienced and smart. As often happens in judging one candidate over another, the decision most likely came down to degrees of “executive presence” or what some refer to as the “It” factor.

Executive presence incorporates a range of verbal and nonverbal patterns (one’s appearance, posture, vocal quality, subtle movements)—a whole collection of signals that others process into an evaluative impression of a person. The concept of presence raises serious questions for women with ambitions of career advancement. If, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests in his book Blink, decisions are made intuitively, what do we need to know about “executive presence.”

As it turns out, everyone’s definition of the term seems to differ. But planning your career and determining your leadership development needs shouldn’t be left to guesswork.

Women who want to be promoted to the C-suite, must learn how to acquire or improve their level of executive presence. Women leaders who are already in senior management, must help nurture executive presence in the people they want to groom for succession.

The qualities associated with executive presence can be difficult to learn and practice. Most people aren’t born with executive presence. They develop the requisite skills with experience, maturity and a great deal of effort.

Executive presence should not be confused with speaking or presentation skills. They’re part of the total package, but presence is what you project wherever you are and whatever you’re doing. A woman leader’s challenge lies in managing others’ perceptions of her, which is no small task.

Work to develop the following 11 qualities that contribute to the “It” factor:

1.Transparency: Be genuine, open, straightforward, comfortable in your own skin. Aim for truth and clarity, even when difficult issues arise. Don’t try to please or cover up with spin.

2.Passion: Love and feel strongly about your profession, job, industry and life in general. See and believe in optimism.

3.Clarity: Communicate your thoughts, feelings and insights with crystal clarity and simplicity. Master metaphors and stories that make an impact.

4.Intelligence: Develop the ability to process, retain and apply information, whether it’s academic or street-worthy.

5.Pattern Recognition: Sharpen your ability to boil down complex factors and mounds of data to rare conclusions. Offer insights others may not see.

6.Results-Oriented: Be driven and full of purpose; determined to achieve and succeed. Able to discern dichotomies, unravel paradoxes and work with uncertainties. Flexible and willing to adjust goals. Be decisive under pressure. Have a bias toward action. An attitude of giving, rather than getting. Work in the service of common goals for the organization’s and society’s higher values.

7.Confidence: Communicate confidence even when you don’t have all the answers.  Ask questions and listen.

8.Humility: Be willing to admit mistakes. Seek answers and advice; listen to others.

9.Courage: Be willing to take risks and positions against considerable odds. Work to perceive possibilities and innovations.

10.Humor: Develop a balanced sense of humor that is not over-the-top, but in the right measure to disarm others’ defenses.

11.Social: Genuinely care about others; see both strengths and weaknesses in people. Allow for people to learn from mistakes. Promote healthy self-esteem in others. Respect others and show a real—not manufactured or superficial—interest in them.

Keep in mind that no single woman leader possesses all of these qualities in abundance. For example, many successful CEOs with strong executive presence lack one or more of the likeability factors, such as humor and humility, but they make up for it in other domains. Ultimately, your executive presence is reflected in the energy and image you convey, along with your understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

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