Is It Time To Stop Talking About Executive Presence?

I have worked with senior leaders for a long time. And as an executive coach, I am very aware that there are certain leadership and communication styles that propel people to reach the highest highs of positional power and authority. And while some of those leaders who make it to the top are extremely intelligent and effective people, there are many other equally intelligent and effective people who aren’t considered for the highest levels of leadership because their style doesn’t quite fit the mold. It often comes down to what is described as executive presence… or the lack of it.

But what is it really? This je ne sais quoi of leadership is most often described as an amalgamation of style, and character that, when combined, sends all the right signals. The perception of executive presence has the potential to have a huge impact on the trajectory of one’s career, and yet its meaning is illusive at best. When someone has it, we hear things that sound like:

Lucia has a commanding presence. People stop and listen to her when she speaks.

Joyce is confident, has poise under pressure, and is decisive.

Suzanne has got it. She just fits—looks the part.

And when executive presence is perceived to be lacking, when someone sends the wrong signals, it’s typically offered as an explanation for stalled or derailed careers:

Susan needs to work on her communication style. She can be very pushy and blunt. Her style is indelicate—lacks nuance. She can escalate quickly.

Ana is the most capable and hardworking person on my team. I want to promote her but she chokes when she has to present to more senior leaders.

Avital seems like she’s always trying to prove herself. She tries to use sophisticated language when she speaks; however, she often uses the wrong words. And while she’s trying to impress, it has the opposite effect. People think she’s inauthentic and hard to connect with.

I gotta say the term executive presence has always rubbed me the wrong way.  I think it’s because it has always struck me as code for something else.  My hypothesis is that this “something else” is class.

You might be wondering: What’s class got to do with it?

When people encounter one another, the first things they tend to notice are gender and race. Class, however, is just as potent a marker in defining who we are. Class is a cultural network of shared values, meanings, and interactions. Our class tells us how to talk, dress, spend money, eat, hold ourselves, and socialize. It shapes our language, tells us what to expect from life, and defines success. It doesn’t matter how much money one makes over a lifetime; the class you grew up in has a profound impact on your values and beliefs as well as your communication style. And these are not things you can hide—any more than you can hide your race or gender.

In my experience, I’ve seen how leaders who come from working class or poor backgrounds have found navigating the corporate culture a very different experience than my clients from middle and upper class families. Obviously, people are more complex than just a reflection of their class backgrounds. We are all shaped by the intersections of our multiple identities and experiences. However, there are distinct patterns connected to different class backgrounds that exist, have impact, and thus are worth exploring.

Let’s Explore the Relationship between Class and Executive Presence.

You may find what you read below to be over-generalizations or simplifications. However, take this as an opportunity to reflect on patterns that are often unseen, unnamed, and unexplored. They are constellations of traits and tendencies, not facts.

Reflect on the three descriptions below and consider how they might be connected to what we have come to know as executive presence.

  1. Many of my clients who grew up in working class families tend to value hard work and believe that their hard work should stand on its own as a measure of their merit. They haven’t had the experience of cultivating networks to get ahead. In fact, doing so is antithetical to some of their core values, whereas many of the middle and upper class people I’ve worked with have learned to rely on a vast web of networks and relationships to get things done. They have the lived experience of their success being achieved not just by what they know, or how hard they work, but by whom they know as well.
  2. I’ve also observed that some leaders who grew up in middle and upper class homes are conditioned to be more reserved and keep their emotions under wraps. They learned the strategy of keeping their cards close to their chests, whereas people who grow up in working-class families tend to communicate in a more forthright and emotional manner. The value of saying it like it is runs deep.
  3. Language is another key to class. My clients who were raised in working class or poor families had the sense that there were fewer options available in life. They report that in their families and communities they were exposed to limited experiences and opportunities. Their parents may have had little to no formal education. Because of that, people in their lives tended to talk and explain less, and use fewer words. Leaders who come from middle and upper class homes typically have had more educational opportunities and more of a multi-viewed perspective on the world. They traveled—met people from other cultures. Dinnertime conversations often involved an exchange of ideas about a given topic. Many report feeling encouraged to express and explore numerous opinions.

Reflection Questions

  1. Can you connect these points to the behaviors often referred to as executive presence?
  2. Can you identify the implicit biases?

My reflections:

Through my observations I have seen that our class biases create constraints in our organizations. Constraints about who can lead, get to the highest levels of power and whose thinking can have the greatest influence. Our biases around class, masked by our notions of executive presence, rob the organization of the good thinking, innovation, and brilliant leadership. Join me in bringing class into our conversations around equity and inclusion.

I vote for dumping the term executive presence.

I’d love to hear your reflections and learning from the exercise above. Please email me at lesli@p2leaderlab.com.

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