Executive Presence
What it takes to get ahead, influence others and drive results
BY MARILOU RYDER/School Administrator, March 2020

Marilou Ryder (center) with co-presenters at a career workshop on executive presence during the ACSA/AASA Women in School Leadership Forum in 2019.
I recently conducted a career workshop for educational leaders on how to prepare for a job interview. Twelve women and four men were in attendance. When I asked, “Who wants to be the first to volunteer for a mock interview?” the four men waved their hands in the air. I was stunned that not a single woman volunteered.

After the men had completed their interviews, I encouraged a few women to give it a try, stressing that participation would be a valuable experience. No luck. Finally, I walked over to one woman and whispered, “Come on, you can do this. What’s the problem?”

“Everyone will think I’m stupid because I don’t know how to answer these questions,” she whispered back. I tried to persuade her to get some courage. “I’ll help you.” With that reassurance, she finally volunteered. Everyone clapped as she walked to the front of the room. Her interview was excellent.

Out of curiosity, I asked the men in the group why they had volunteered for the mock interview. They responded they had nothing to lose and added they were used to taking shots and didn’t want to waste an opportunity to practice. That was a good answer.

Aptitude for Promotion
For years, men have demonstrated what it takes to get noticed and ride “the glass elevator.” The glass elevator is a metaphor for situations in which males acquire rapid leadership promotions over females in female-dominated professions. It is alive and well in public education. What causes men to board that glass elevator and leave women behind?

What do women need to do to finally take a seat at the table with our male equals? The answer, I believe is quite simple. We need to do what men have been doing all along by developing a strong presence in the workplace. Women don’t need to compete with men. Rather, women need to emulate what men have done so well in the field of education — become fearless competitors, take risks, exude confidence, sit in the front of the room and speak up to be heard.

Many experts in the field of career development refer to this aptitude for promotion as “executive presence,” the ability to engage and inspire people to act. Executive presence is part charisma, part communication and part a well-defined professional manner. The good news for women is that executive presence can be learned, just like negotiation skills or job interviewing. These skills can be mastered over time through trial and error and experimentation. Reflective feedback from peers is also helpful in growing confidence.

Research reveals that women have a confidence gap compared to men. The career workshops I run clearly resonate that theme. As an aspiring superintendent in the late 1990s, I remember thinking there must be more to the job promotion process than just getting an interview. After consulting with my female mentors, I learned I would need to employ precise tactical strategies to perfect my professional image if I were to become a superintendent. Those strategies included developing confidence, courage and personal power.

Now as a retired superintendent after six years in the role, I work as a university professor specializing in women in leadership. What follows is a condensed version from my current studies on “Executive Presence for Women.” These several strategies can get you started on developing your own executive presence.

» Be proud.
Ever caught yourself saying, “I’m just a teacher, I’m just a vice principal, I’m just a whatever”? Stop that habit! Remember, you are special, whatever your role is, so own it. Never undermine your own talents.

Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s not necessary to apologize over situations in which you have no control — it tends to put you in an inferior position. Walk into any room knowing you are an asset to the organization.

Finally, avoid any type of negative self-talk, which can erode your confidence. When you say things such as “I’m not good at public speaking,” your inner voice takes you down. Anticipating or believing you will fail can almost guarantee it will happen. And learn to take a compliment with grace and simply say “Thank you.”

» Stand and deliver.
Look people in the eye as it sends a message of confidence and power, as do purposeful hand gestures whenever you are talking. In a large group, when asked to speak, stand up and state your name and position and then speak. These assertive behaviors may be uncomfortable for women, yet they are unfailingly effective. Contribute to the discussion. Speak up in group settings, lean in and be heard. Your voice matters.

The real trick, given your busy day, is to step away from your computer and get out and talk to people. Be visible. The more people who actually see and engage with you, the stronger your presence becomes in the workplace.

Finally, embrace punctuality. Chief executives across America rate punctuality as the top professional leadership skill, as it tells people you are on top of things, you are well-organized and you can be trusted.

» Speak with clarity, credibility and conciseness.
We all have seen colleagues, male and female, try to monopolize a conversation. Ironically, these individuals will never “own the room” or gain a seat at the executive table. Speaking with clarity, telling your message in 20-30 seconds, is a high-level and powerful skill.

Clarity and conciseness in communication can be learned, if practiced. Plan to speak by writing down your main points and try to be as succinct as possible by skipping unnecessary details. Then follow up with questions such as “what else can I share about this idea?” Finally, be credible. Tell the truth and back it up with solid evidence. If you say you are going to follow up with something, keep your word.

» Learn to listen.
Being authentic is the No. 1 trait admired by most people. Listening with authenticity gains admiration and trust.

So how do we listen when our role involves so much talking, offering advice, directing people and solving problems? Indicate to employees and other stakeholders that you have an open mind and that you are willing to hear different sides of an issue. And how do you do that? You listen to the person who is talking to you as if he or she is the only one in the room. You look people in the eye, nod your head in agreement and ask clarifying questions. 

If you catch yourself saying, “Yes but …” in a conversation, you are not listening.

» Be cool, calm and collective.
When a school goes on lockdown, do you take a deep breath and go into action or do you panic? Yes, women can be emotional. That’s one of our special gifts. We are able to build trust quickly with others and establish positive teams. Yet sometimes our emotions can be perceived by others as signs of weakness. 

Show confidence in your leadership by walking slowly, speaking in deliberate terms and appearing to have a plan in mind. Additionally, crying in frustration or sharing personal details about a family crisis, while therapeutic, will not build your status as a leader.

» Don’t work yourself to death.
Do you neglect taking a vacation because you fear something will happen at work when you’re not there? Do you answer e-mails throughout the weekend and into the night?

Take time to truly be off from work for self-reflection and rejuvenation. And learn to work smarter, not harder. This is difficult for women who believe they must be better, smarter and more accomplished than their male colleagues to gain job promotions. Not true. You don’t have to work 18-hour days to be perceived as qualified. Many women spend too many hours developing strategic plans, initiatives and goals. The list is endless.

Pay more attention to the big picture, the view from the mountaintop. When you focus on the big picture, you can make better decisions.

» Seek and give support.
If you want to increase your executive presence, it’s essential to work with respected mentors and sponsors. They can advocate on your behalf, often having the ability to connect you to important players and jobs. They make themselves look good by supporting your initiatives and promoting your projects, so be a star performer and be loyal to them.

Women have many challenges to overcome to gain equity with their male counterparts, especially in securing top positions of leadership and authority. However, women need to mentor and support other women, not detract from their efforts. Find women allies who are co-workers, colleagues and supervisors within your organization and master the art of building strong and supportive female relationships.

» Be happy.
This should be a no-brainer, but it isn’t and yet it’s so easy to incorporate into your everyday agenda. Smile, think positively and compliment people on good work first before offering any criticism. Believe the glass is full before coming to work. After all, when is the last time you admired a leader who was a naysayer and grump? Smile, and the whole world will smile with you.

MARILOU RYDER, a retired superintendent, is a professor of organizational leadership at Brandman University in Irvine, Calif. Her latest book, Don’t Forget Your Lipstick, Girl: Sister to Sister Secrets for Gaining Confidence, Courage and Power, will be published in April.