Emerging Women Leaders: When it comes to Impact and Presence – Sweat the Small Stuff

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By Jennifer Buras
February 02, 2021
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How many women have been offered feedback around executive presence? And more likely and more frequently than with men, maybe we were advised on attire and appearance. Certainly, it’s prudent to make appropriate choices that fit the culture and norms of your organization and your audiences. But once you’ve mastered that, learned some body language to “make yourself big,” and stopped ending sentences with an inflection like they’re a question – what else? What other techniques and behaviors can you incorporate to your repertoire – in an authentic way – to maximize your impact and presence? In the workplace, as your roles, responsibilities and audiences become more complex, and the stakes get higher, following are three micro-changes that can have a macro–affect.

Leadership is in large measure about creating followership, building trust, establishing credibility and competence, and engaging in productive relationships across your spheres of influence. As coaches, we often work with clients who are emerging leaders in their organizations, or seeking Board positions, or in transitions of various kinds, to help them develop “executive presence.” It’s a term which can be difficult to define, and can become even more nuanced as it relates to women executives.

Pitch and Pace

The influence of voice and its broad spectrum of expression should not be overlooked in developing executive presence. At a fundamental level, the flat, monotone delivery is a sure-fired way to lose a room, or the conference table. In contrast, a high-pitched, frenetic pace can have a similar affect…people stop listening.

Varying pitch, volume, and speed can significantly alter how your audience receives and perceives you. In U.S. culture, and some others, a low pitch is usually associated with authority and self-confidence; practicing a lower register (if your natural tendency is a higher pitch), can have positive effect. Volume, either loud or soft, can punctuate a point and keep the energy and attention of the listener high. For some people, speech speed tends to increase under stress, so be self-aware and mindful to keep a controlled cadence. Rushing, or speaking faster than what most people can absorb, can diminish your power and impact. Listeners can receive it as “it’s not important enough” to take the time.

Finally, a part of cadence is using silence, pauses can be particularly effective, in terms of emphasizing a point or allowing others time for reflection. Most people are uncomfortable with silence, so get comfortable with it, and notice the impact of this technique in holding the attention and command of the room.

And, should you experience the “hijacking” or “derailing” of your intended message when other voices attempt to fill a purposeful silence, smoothly bringing the conversation back on topic demonstrates executive presence: “That is an interesting point/topic we can table for “X.” In order to advance our discussion/decision making/next steps as it relates to “Y” I suggest…”

Inquiry and Insight

One particularly tough CEO used to set his expectations at the start of a conversation or meeting, by saying “tell me something I don’t already know.” He wanted insight. Not just data, or opinion. He wasn’t alone in that regard. While we focus to a great degree on what we will say, making powerful statements or building a case, how about focusing on what we ask? The use of inquiry is a powerful tool, it is the ability to ask a provocative question that inspires thought and offers a new lens through which to see challenges and opportunities. Truly listening and being fully present for the response, brings not only insight to others, but adds value to the relationship and builds your executive presence. You’ve invited and allowed room for the other person(s), but it’s you who led the way. So, think about pivotal opportunities for inquiry and “asking,” as much as you think about “telling.”

Stillness

Often overlooked in our fast-paced world, physical stillness is a powerful way to communicate a sense of confidence, effectiveness and control. Regardless of the inner churn or chaos of a particular situation, an unflappable external persona is a valued executive characteristic. It may seem counter intuitive that in order to be perceived as more commanding, an executive should develop the ability to be contained and still. However, in the words of Serge Benhayon, “Once you know yourself in your living stillness, there is nothing in this world that is greater than you.”

Build your awareness of self-soothing behaviors which may be habitual and get them under control. Touching one’s hair or face, kneading neck muscles, or tapping a pen and foot during a meeting are often unconscious behaviors associated with stress, or may signal hesitancy or lack of certainty.

Understanding the subtleties and “small stuff” of communication is important for all leaders, and particularly for emerging women leaders, as they develop their authentic leadership style. Use of voice, inquiry, and stillness are three tools that can be flexed to enhance effectiveness, and modified as situations warrant. Delivering a strong message, through both verbal and non-verbal communication, is a powerful way to exude confidence and competence, and by extension, executive presence and leadership.

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