Carol Kinsey GomanMy special project when coaching female leaders is to improve their influence and impact skills – their leadership presence.

You might be surprised to find that leadership presence is not an attribute automatically assigned to you because of your business results. Nor is it necessarily reflective of your true qualities and potential. Instead, it depends almost entirely on how others perceive you. And that, in turn, depends primarily on how favourably you impress people and how convincingly you deliver your messages, verbally and non-verbally.

To gain a deeper understanding of what it takes to step into a senior executive position, I interviewed the following leaders:

• Kathryn Raethel, FACHE, MHA, MPH, RN, president and CEO of Adventist Health Castle

• Suzy Monford, president of Quality Food Center Division, The Kroger Co., and CEO and founder of Food Sport International

• Dana Simberkoff, chief risk, security and information officer at AvePoint

• NJ Goldston, editor-in-chief of the fashion and lifestyle site The Blonde and The Brunette and a leading female venture capitalist in numerous businesses.

• Nat Sutton, partner and head of non-profit practice at Buffkin/Baker, an executive recruiting agency that specializes in placing C-suite-level executives

Here are five tips they came up with to help you navigate your way to the top:

Assess the current reality

Sutton: There are no easy answers for women who aspire to the highest levels – because the culture of business has been very slow to fully embrace female executives. According to research from Catalyst (an organization that studies women in leadership), at S&P 500 organizations, 45 per cent of employees are women, but just 37 per cent of midlevel managers and 27 per cent of senior managers are women.

Research also shows that while female executives are much less likely than male executives to become the ultimate boss, they are more likely than men to do so if they stay on the management path for many years. Currently, however, women are pushed out or leave at every stage along the way.

Staying with a company, while building your reputation and skills, is an important key to the executive suite today. Listen, learn and be continually curious about what goes on not just in your area, but in operations outside your department and/or division.

Cultivate a mentor relationship in the management level directly above you and learn all you can about everything you can. If you can’t find a mentor, analyze how the most successful leaders within the organization operate – not only their business skills, but also how they negotiate the organization’s culture. Apply what you learn from them to become a more effective leader.

Actively investigate possibilities for advancement or change to other disciplines that appeal to you. Then, when you’re ready, apply to move to the next level or, perhaps, to a different area of the company.

Take more risks

Raethel: Women have a tendency to be self-limiting – we think we can’t do something because we fail to appreciate our abilities. Because of that, we’re sometimes less willing to take risks, step outside of the box, and pursue an opportunity that presents itself. Whenever a door opens, walk through it if you can – take the risk, don’t grow too comfortable where you are. When you have a can-do attitude, people seek you out.

I also think the first step to the C-suite is (surprisingly) not aspiring to become an executive. People often aspire to the title rather than to the journey. I’ve found it is more valuable to ask yourself, “What job am I going to progress to next? In what ways will I excel?”

Speak up

Goldston: Women can fall into the trap of waiting their turn or holding back at meetings. They don’t speak up and own their place at the table.

Not only should you speak up but be direct in your speech. Don’t add qualifiers that make you seem insecure or powerless: “I’m not sure if you’ll agree,” “I’m sorry,” or “I’m not sure what you’ll think.” Don’t apologize. Period. You’re there for a good reason. Own that. Most importantly, be brief and get right to the point. No one wants to listen to long-winded explanations.

Monford: My greatest leadership skill is my ability to communicate, to tailor and craft messages that resonate with audiences, whether I’m in the backroom talking with truck drivers or in a meeting with the executive board. And, by the way, the boardroom is where you need to be the most courageous and forthright – and always speak truth to power. 

Be your best authentic self

Raethel: I have come to really value the word authentic – people need to see the real you. I believe that when people know you, like you and respect you, they will come with you on the journey.

Monford: Take a deep breath, trust your instincts and don’t over think it. When you trust your instincts, your true self bubbles up in the most authentic way.

Increase your visibility

Simberkoff: If you want to be evaluated positively for top leadership positions, being a legend in your own mind is not enough. You need to increase your visibility: Find ways to ensure that executives in your company are aware of your work and accomplishments (and do so in a way that is not seen as boasting, but as informative and helpful). Promote yourself by volunteering for projects, giving speeches, writing blogs and taking an active part in professional organizations. Network within and outside your industry. Find mentors and sponsors who will guide and help promote you.

Goldston: Who you know within your industry and area of expertise can be a major advantage in moving your agenda forward, and some of the best connections are made outside the office. Use informal gatherings and industry events to make connections that may prove invaluable to projects and your career. By having strong and varied contacts, you bring new resources to your company, gain credibility and build a powerful professional network.

Defeat the double-bind paradox

My contribution: As males rise in rank and status at work, they retain (and often increase) their perceived likability – so they can be both powerful and likable. The double-bind paradox states that while women must project authority in order to advance in the business world, the more powerful they appear, the less they are liked. Catalyst calls this the “dammed if you do, doomed if don’t” dilemma. Their research shows that women in power can be seen as capable or likable – but rarely both.

Blame it on the stereotypes of women as nurturing, sensitive and collaborative, When their behaviour is congruent with these traits, women are liked, although not seen as especially powerful. When their behaviour runs counter to the stereotype, they’re perceived more negatively. A frequently cited Stanford University Graduate School of Business study, the Heidi/Howard case, shows that when the same highly assertive and successful leader is described to grad students (of both genders), that person is seen as far more appealing when given a male name instead of a female one.

Does that mean you are indeed dammed or doomed, as Catalyst suggested?

Maybe not.

One encouraging possibility that addresses this bias comes from another study at Stanford that found businesswomen who are assertive and confident, but who can turn these traits on and off depending on the social circumstances, get more promotions than either men or other women.

The most successful women leaders have developed a strategic ability to read a situation and alter their behaviour accordingly. Like them, you can take this potent combination of softness and toughness all the way to the C-suite.

Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.

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