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Up Yours: Leadership Presence and Confidence

Demystifying Leadership Presence: What Every Woman Needs to Know!

Leadership presence, or a lack of it, can get in the way of your career and business potential – it’s widely considered an essential attribute for those who aspire to make big dreams come true.

But for something so important to your success, it’s also maddeningly hard to define – what exactly IS leadership presence, also known as executive presence? And how do you obtain it, convey it, and benefit from it?

If you don’t know, you’re not alone.

Shann McGrail, executive director of the Haltech Innovation Centre, began to explore those questions during a career that included 17 years in leadership roles at Microsoft Canada. At Microsoft she had the opportunity to observe the traits of senior leaders around the world, in sectors from banking to tech. And she was also involved in thousands of performance evaluations and discussions with management teams about who was ready for promotion.

While promotions hinged on the perception of who had the right leadership qualities, McGrail found that “nobody could ever give me a straight answer” as to what exactly that entailed, beyond “’I know it when I see it’ or ‘they just lack that certain something.”

Her pursuit of data and insights of the subject has resulted in a wealth of information, tips, tools and techniques that she delivered in the Leadership Presentation and Confidence workshop for the Accelerator for Women in Entrepreneurship (AWE) series at Innovation Factory in January.

Leadership presence is as much of challenge for men as it is for women, notes McGrail; however, men are more likely to get specific and detailed advice on how to develop it.

Research shows that “for 81% of women in business, if they get feedback on leadership or executive presence at all, it’s either not clear, vague, or they don’t know what to do with it.”

To provide that clarity, McGrail shares the Presence Formula developed by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an expert on workplace power and influence.

Executive presence is a combination of:

· Gravitas, defined as confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness. It’s how you show up, present yourself and react in difficult situations, McGrail explains. “One component of gravitas is the ability to speak truth to power with respect and using the right communications skills.” It’s also about your ability to “burnish your reputation” by explaining specifically how YOUR skills and accomplishments led to a successful outcome.

· Communication encompasses your speaking skills, including your tone of voice and ability to interact with an audience and respond to situations, especially unpredictable ones. Communication also involves empathy and emotional intelligence, which are seen as more important qualities for women than men.

· Appearance, while accounting for only 5% of the executive presence mix, acts as a gateway to everything else, McGrail explains. “It’s not about being supermodel gorgeous, it’s about positive body language and looking like you put an effort into showing up” – with your shoes shined, for example.

Now that we have a working definition of executive presence, how does one cultivate it?

McGrail recommends starting with a self-assessment that involves rating eight characteristics:

· Empathy

· Reacting to Unpredictable Situations

· Clarity of Value

· Decisiveness

· Self-Confidence

· Language

· Physical

· Poise Under Pressure

For any areas with room for improvement, there are tools and techniques that can help you bridge the gap. Some key tactics are:

Lead with yes. This improvisation technique involves responding to a request by saying yes first before diving into details. Research shows that only 32% of women lead with yes; the rest default to immediately asking questions, pointing out problems and raising red flags in the face of opportunity. “’Yes’ means ‘let’s have a conversation about that and take it to the next step,’” McGrail counsels.

Strike an expansive pose prior to a big meeting or presentation. Even 30 seconds in a power pose – with arms wide and strong, for example – sends a message to your brain that increases your confidence and sense of power, as Amy Cuddy explains in her TED talk.

Breathe. When you are nervous your vocal cords tighten and your body tenses. Take five deep breaths to bring your heart rate down and make you feel more centered.

Be brief and learn to use silence. Women are conditioned to operate in ‘hostess mode,’ making small talk so others feel comfortable. Cut down the number of words you use, avoid filler words and, once you’ve delivered your message, be quiet. Silence is powerful and conveys that you are in control.

A final note on confidence: “Confidence is belief in a successful outcome – it’s a muscle you have to exercise,” McGrail says. “Start reframing situations, looking at the positive and taking action. Make a plan and do one thing new that scares you just a little bit every day.”

For further reading:

· Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

· Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy

· The Confidence Code: the Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know by Katty Kay & Claire Shipman

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