Look and Act Like a Leader

In April, President Obama publically declared during a speech from the White House that "When women succeed, America succeeds … America should be a level playing field, a fair race for everybody. A place where anyone who is willing to work hard has a chance to get ahead."

While it’s true that hard work is needed to get ahead, the playing field is not always even for women aiming for the highest levels of corporate America. Performance, hard work, and sponsors can certainly get the talented women recognized, but are these enough to propel them into the executive suite? Not always. Executive presence is a key ingredient in getting ahead.

Leadership roles are given to those who not only work hard, but also look and act the part. American Express was a partner company with the Center for Talent Innovation on research that revealed the top jobs often elude women and professionals of color because they are not perceivedas possessing executive presence. In fact, the research showed that executive presence accounts for 26 percent of what it takes to get the next promotion.

Exuding executive presence depends on getting three things right, a trio of qualities defined as gravitas, communication and appearance. Not surprisingly, gravitas — how one acts and behaves — contributes the most to one’s perceived executive presence. A person can build trust by doing what he/she says she will do, showing confidence and integrity while exerting balance through challenging situations. Communication is about understanding and connecting with one’s audience. This person needs to be agile and flexible enough to adjust their messaging to their audience. A sense of humor is also a key aspect of being an effective communicator as it can help to build connections with one’s audience. Lastly, appearance is about showing good judgment. Employees should dress appropriately for their company’s workplace culture while staying true to their personal identity. Appearance should not cause any distractions. Research showed that physical appearance makes up the smallest portion of executive presence, which suggests that substance is still more important than style –so it’s not a deal maker, but can be a deal breaker.

Women at American Express play a vital part in driving superior business results and positioning the company for success. American Express creates an atmosphere of opportunity for women to advance through the company and supports the development of women through various initiatives, including executive presence training and sponsorship workshops. A few common themes have emerged during these conversations that could apply to women at every organizational level aspiring to move up:

  1. Do the homework: Before stepping into the next meeting — think about the audience and be the subject matter expert. Tailor messages to the audience and be flexibility enough to respond to the room.
  2. Understand the company’s culture: Watch the successful people — how do they communicate, project gravitas and present themselves physically? Take inspiration from them and add a dash of personal flavor. The key is to emulate, not imitate. It’s a gentle balance between authenticity and aligning to the company’s culture.
  3. Cultivate confidence:Once the first two items are mastered, this third item will come more naturally. Have faith and be confident when speaking. Be sure to project that with body language as well.
  4. Personal branding:Leaders, peers and friends can usually give a pulse on one’s brand. See if there is a gap between what they say and what it should be.
  5. Track progress: the best way to assess progress is to ask for meaningful feedback. After certain presentations or interactions, ask for feedback from peers and leaders. Use the feedback to make any necessary changes.

Whether vying for a promotion, a new job, or even a seat in the c-suite, understanding and mastering executive presence will set one apart and help even out the playing field.