Executive presence tends to be the “make or break” factor for making promotion decisions to leadership, access to funding for business owners, and election to a political office across the country. Today, that picture of executive presence, of leadership, is of a white man more than any other: 72% of senior executives in organizations today are white men (Fortune magazine, 2017); most businesses are run by white men (US Census Bureau, 2014); in Congress today, where 78% of the people are white, at least 60% are white men (Thehill.com). Which begs the question: If you are not a white man, how do you create a winning executive presence?
I wrote previously about what is an executive presence is and why we need it. You can find more about that article here. The key conclusion: while the trust people will give you as a leader is rooted in their belief in your competence – that you not only know what to do, but how to do it, executive presence is concentrated on the image you project – whether you look the part. In other words, an essential component to your advancement, to winning people’s trust and support is not necessarily about your performance. So, how do you identify and reflect the executive presence you need to advance? Here are my two best strategies:
- Find a sponsor in addition to a mentor, they will not always look like you.
A mentor helps by giving advice, support and guidance on how to navigate your career. A sponsor helps by opening doors – connecting you to career opportunities, getting you on high profile projects, and advocating for your advancement when senior positions become available. A mentor can advise you on how to write a proposal to win a project, a sponsor is able to speak to the person awarding the proposal and endorse your ability to do the job. Research shows that when compared to white men, people of color and women tend to be over mentored and under sponsored.
Both are necessary, but sponsors are in positions of power and influence to interrupt bias because they have a seat at the table. So, learn how to acquire one. Acquiring a mentor is easy – through information interviews and networking you can ask someone to be your mentor, or you can read a book written by someone you admire. Acquiring access to someone who will publicly endorse you for a position or a project, is not as easy. Here’s how you do it:
- Work for a great boss. The best way to acquire a sponsor is to work for someone who is well connected, has power, seniority, and a great reputation. Don’t choose jobs, choose your boss. Your job description is irrelevant, what type of boss you will have, will they advocate for you, open doors for you, that is what really matters.
- Be known for doing excellent work. Your boss is not going to advocate for you if you don’t consistently do great work. So, start here, do great work and make your boss look good.
- Create a list. Outside of your own boss, who are the other people inside and outside of your organization and industry with power, seniority, and a great reputation? For example, get involved in cross-functional committees, networking and professional groups that open access to people. You are looking for people with the ability to refer you to opportunities you might otherwise have never heard of, introduce you to others, and give you critical feedback that enables you to grow. You are not looking for people to tell you how great you are, but people who can show you how to get better. If you look at your network and see: people of the same gender or race, at the same professional level, or you are the one doing the mentoring and sponsoring; you to make a list and build a wider network.
- Narrow that list. Cut it down to the ones who are already open to creating diversity and inclusiveness in their teams or organizations. Are they already advocating for underrepresented employees? If they are, here’s the opportunity to approach them or get an introduction to them. They are looking for great high potentials to invest in, you can be one of them.
- Tend to that list. Put aside time (e.g. one day a week) to network with them. Sponsorship is a two-way street, you are seeking to earn their trust. Share something with them that they are passionate about – articles, links, videos, information or assistance that they would find valuable. Invite them to lunch and pay, find ways to create value for them – offer your skills on a project, give wherever you can and share your goals with them.
- Demonstrate value. When they send opportunities your way, thank them and then prove your value by excelling and giving them a great return on their investment in you.
It goes without saying that your sponsor will probably not look like you. Understanding that means that you must not limit yourself to only people in your network, where you feel comfortable. Get out of your comfort zone.
- Routinely ask for specific, timely and constructive feedback.
Elevating your executive presence (acting, speaking and looking like a leader) begins with insightful and useful feedback. We know that waiting for someone to give you this feedback, particularly if you are a minority, does not work. So, you will need to develop a feedback process. Here’s how:
- Listen hard – listen to the off-the-cuff and casual remarks that people make about you and write them down. Pretty soon you will know how you are coming across. Compare it to the words you use to describe how you want to lead. Do they see you as you wish to be seen? If no, then figure out how to adjust your actions and words in a way that is acceptable to you. It is important that you balance adjusting your behavior with staying true to who you are. Authenticity is critical for your well-being. You can change your actions without changing who you are.
- Ask for feedback – choose a trusted colleague (or two) and along with your boss, sponsor, and mentor, get their permission to ask for feedback on a regular basis. Let them know that you are open to receiving their candid feedback, and you will not take it personally once it is constructive and specific, because they will be doing you a favor. Regular feedback will increase their comfort with the process. When asking for feedback resist the urge to ask general questions like: “how do you think I’m doing?”. Instead, be more specific: “how can I be a better leader? How could I have contributed better to that meeting? How can I be a better team member/colleague? Specifically, what do I need to work on to be on the next project team?”.
- Guide the process – probe further when you receive feedback so that the process becomes prescriptive – what do they think you should do based on what they saw. For example, if they thought that you came across as hostile during a meeting, you can ask: what would you recommend I do when I feel passionate about an issue? How can I better communicate that I am not angry, but committed to the process?” Or, “how could I have better communicated to Joe that he can’t assume that I am in meetings to take minutes? I am the only person that he asks to do it.” Oftentimes, it is not what you say, but how you say something that matters. Guiding the conversation helps you to figure how to communicate and connect better with the people around you. You will say the same thing, but tune the message to your audience.
- Connect with people – take complete responsibility for how you are heard. Effective communication is a fine art, work on improving it and figuring out how you can better get your message across. Building a feedback system and channels of communication where you get to hear from a variety of people helps you to better realize how your communication is being understood by others. Relationships matter.
As a woman and/or person of color, there is a certain weariness that comes with having to repeatedly prove yourself and earn people’s trust. Of having to justify yet again, that you deserve the position or the project. It is essential that you pay attention to your feedback process, to continuously reflect, adjust and evolve as needed, but do not stay too long in places that do not appreciate or value you. If the feedback you continually get reveals deep-seated biases in your workplace, you must leave. You are in control of your career and knowing and understanding your value means that you must be prepared to move on when necessary. After all, companies need us to succeed. The research continually reinforces that companies with women and people of color in executive positions perform better financially and significantly outperform the other companies in their industries.