I have been speaking on the topic of leadership presence for several years, but only lately created a program designed for women – and the question I get most often is, “Why focus on women?” My answer is, as they say in the commercial, “Because we’re worth it!”
We’re highly educated. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women make up more than 56% of college students nationwide.
We increase innovation. An economist from Carnegie Mellon found that teams that included at least one female member had a collectively higher IQ than teams that had just men.
We make organizations more profitable. The Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, recently published a paper called “The Case for Investing in Women” detailing the huge difference that women make in the workforce. One of their findings is that in Fortune 500 companies with at least three female directors, the return on invested capital jumped over 66%, return on sales went up 42%, and return on equity increased by 53%.
But here’s the rub. Leadership presence doesn’t automatically come with your education, your talent for innovation, or your business results. Instead, leadership presence is entirely subjective. It depends on how others perceive you. And it’s different for women who face external challenges when it comes to being perceived as leaders.
One of the most pervasive obstacles are Unconscious Bias. Few people would consciously think that a woman can’t be a leader. But Unconscious Bias appears in numerous studies. For example, when researchers ask both men and women to draw a picture of a leader, they’ll almost always draw a male figure.
Women also face unique internal challenges. The Impostor Syndrome is the fear of being exposed as a fraud, of feeling unworthy of your success. While both genders experience it, a female’s self-doubt is more likely to negatively impact her career when she doesn’t exhibit the self-confidence expected in a leader. For example, internal research by Hewlett-Packard found that women only apply for jobs for which they feel they are a 100% match; men apply even when they meet no more than 60% of the requirements.
To complicate matters further, women fall into verbal and nonverbal communication traps that rob them of presence. Here are three of those traps:
Trap #1 – Sending nonverbal submission signals
Sometimes it’s as simple as the tilt of your head. Tilting your head to one side is a warm (“pro-social”) signal that you are listening and involved. As such, head tilts can be very empathetic and inclusive. But they are also subconsciously processed as submission signals. (Dogs tilt their heads to expose their necks, as a way to show deference to the dominant animal.)
Continue using head tilts when you want to demonstrate your concern for and interest in members of your team or when you want to encourage people to expand on what they are saying. But when you need to project power and confidence — asking for a promotion or giving a presentation to the executive team or board of directors — keep your head straight up in a more neutral (and authoritative) position.
Trap #2 – Looking less than you are
Here’s how most women sit around a conference table in a business meeting: Legs are crossed, elbows into waist, hands together on lap, shoulders slightly rounded. In other words, women condense their bodies. If you find yourself in this posture, realize that it could be depleting your leadership presence by making you look less confident, less professional, and less powerful than you really are.
Confidence and authority are nonverbally demonstrated through claiming height and space. If you are sitting, you can still project power by sitting straight with both feet on the floor (which makes you look and feel “grounded”), by hooking one arm over the back of your chair, by making more open arm gestures, or by spreading out your belongings on the conference table to claim more territory.
Remember, also, that if everyone is seated, standing when you speak gives you instant status by becoming — for the moment – the tallest person in the room. And if you move around, the additional space you take up adds to that impression.
Trap #3 – Staying invisible
The head of Human Resources told me that the saddest comment he hears when executives are evaluating potential candidates for high-level positions is, “I have no idea who she is.” I think this happens with female candidates because we are more likely to adopt a “good student” mentality – in which we believe that if we just keep our heads down and do good work, that others are bound to notice and reward us.
Apparently, that’s not the case.
Research with senior leaders in Silicon Valley found that the top criterion for promotion was visibility. One savvy female executive stated it this way: “It’s not enough to be a legend in your own mind. You need to make others aware of your talents and accomplishments.”
Are the executives in your company aware of your talents and accomplishments? If not, you need to increase your visibility by volunteering for key projects, offering to give presentations, publicizing your team’s accomplishments, and taking an active part in your professional associations. You need to broaden and deepen your network and look for mentors and sponsors who will guide and help promote you. Because as gifted as you may be, your leadership presence can only be built by getting out there and letting others see you in action.