What women, people of colour need to land top jobs

What women, people of colour need to land top jobs

Dr Hume

Sunday, January 27, 2019

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All successful leaders have it. Professionals tapped for promotion tend to exude it. Beyond sterling job performance and hard work, they must look and act the part. They must possess what is called “executive presence” (EP). So crucial and invaluable it is in the workplace and business world that a majority of senior executives believe you cannot be successful without some measure of it.

Yet, research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), a New York-based non-profit research group, reveals that the top jobs often elude women and professionals of colour because they lack executive presence. A total of 268 senior executives surveyed said executive presence accounts for 26 per cent of what it takes to get the next promotion. Although executive presence alone won't get you promoted, the CTI concluded that its absence will impede your progress, especially if you're female or a person of colour.

So what is executive presence and how might professionals of colour and women ensure that they acquire it to increase their chances of career success? There are three core characteristics that an individual must possess and illustrate to be able to claim mastery of executive presence: gravitas, communication, and appearance.


Gravitas is confidence, grace under fire, and the ability to act decisively and with emotional intelligence. Seventy-nine per cent of the senior executives surveyed by CTI say exuding confidence and poise under pressure contributes much to the executive presence for men and women. People who project gravitas are not afraid to speak truth to power, they have integrity and they own their mistakes and the mistakes of their team. They may stumble, but they get up and they keep going. They tend to have a burnishing reputation and the ability to project vision. Gravitas is crucial because it gives weight and authority to anything you say or do. It is to be found in the person who has an attitude, poise or self-expression that compels attention and commands respect from others.

“Gravitas is the highest octave of self-confidence. Once a leader has enough self-confidence she can deepen her impact by developing gravitas. Gravitas is a quality a leader exudes because she chooses to say and do only what is important. Others grant her respect and pay particular attention to what she says and does because she knows that she adds weight or value to any situation in which she speaks”, says communication expert Sandra Zimmer.

To develop gravitas, she suggests that individuals be present both physically and vocally. In other words, let others know you are there; claim your position in the group and know that you bring value to the table. It is also essential to develop strong listening skills. People with gravitas, Zimmer asserts, lead others by speaking less but saying more. When they speak, people listen because what they say is important.


Do you command attention when you speak? Do people pause to listen? Can you walk into a room and own it; be charm personified and win over your audience? People with executive presence have exceptional public speaking and communication skills (both verbal and non-verbal). “They speak up, use strong and clear language, communicate with passion and energy, and display positive body language by standing tall, making eye contact, offering a firm handshake and using an authoritative tone of voice,” says communication expert Karen Friedman in an article by Genna Goudreau in Forbes magazine. It stands to reason that sounding uneducated will impact negatively on how you are perceived and limit your chances for promotions and other opportunities.

People with executive presence also have that 'wow' factor; that magnetism that compels attention and makes people want to listen. I recall at 17 years old I was auditioning for my first voice training class in order to pursue a career as a broadcaster. The coach was an elderly British-Jamaican man named Wycliffe Bennett. He was well studied in the theatre in Edinburgh, England and believed that speaking well and commanding a room was essential to your growth as an individual. I entered the audition room and introduced myself, as a few others before me had done. To my surprise, he sent me back outside the door and required that I walk in and introduce myself again. I must've done this around five times. I couldn't understand what I was doing wrong. At last, he said, “You are apologising for your presence. Occupy space.”Believe it or not, that phrase changed my life. I learned since then to walk into a room like I belonged there; to 'occupy space'. Fortunately, I also had vast amounts of speech training which provided me with powerful techniques for developing qualities like presence, gravitas, and how to speak with authority.

To develop these skills, I recommend that you sign up for public speaking classes where you can learn breathing and other vocal techniques such as pitch, timbre, vocal variety, pace and movement, as well as eye contact — tools that can improve substantially how you speak and how you come across. To project executive presence, you also have to be able to read your audience. Are they bored, tired, confused? Can you adjust your style or speech to respond to the mood of your audience? Being able to read the mood of your audience goes a long way in becoming a more effective and engaging speaker, and demonstrates that you possess executive presence.


The old adage says, “we should look to the mind and not the outward appearance.” I am in agreement here. Although appearance tends to represent the smallest part of executive presence, it is, however, no less important. Good grooming and physical attractiveness were noted as essential contributors to executive presence. Seventy-three per cent of the senior executives surveyed by CTI reported that too-tight or provocative clothing for women distracted from their executive presence while 83 per cent felt that unkempt attire is one blunder that could derail the career of talented professionals. Professionals of colour and women are advised to recognise the importance of presenting themselves, physically, in a way which communicates positive perceptions about them.

“When you look good, you feel good, so that builds confidence. If you go in [and] your shirt's untucked, your shoes untied, or something's torn, this tells the employer this person is not prepared. They don't have the skills to think things through to get to the next step. So even if you don't have the most stylish clothing, that is not going to hurt someone; no employer is going to hold that against you. But have it clean, have it tucked in, have it look neat,” says Dawn Creighton, director of Western Massachusetts chapter of the the non-profit, Dress for Success.

So now that you know the three main pillars of executive presence, how do you make sure you level up on executive presence? First, recognise that executive presence is not genetic predisposition, where you are simply born with attractiveness, confidence, charisma, and composure. Executive presence is a skill that can be learned. It is up to women and professionals of colour to pay attention to the areas they could improve on, and get help to make the adjustments. For example, engage a personal branding consultant who can help you audit your personal brand or ask trusted colleagues or friends for honest feedback, develop your presentation and public speaking skills and develop techniques using more of your emotional intelligence.

Executive presence should also be taught in schools, among other life skills, especially in communities and among groups where it is perceived to be most lacking. It is one of the themes to which students in my first-ever college course on personal branding at Roger Williams University were exposed. I remember sitting at the back of the lecture room as they listened intently to branding consultant and Forbes contributor Isabella Clivilez-Wu talk to them about executive presence. They were intrigued by the idea, asking many good questions to help them raise the bar on their own executive presence. Yet, there was only one black student in the course of two males and 11 women.

But that's a start.

Dr Hume Johnson is a branding and communications consultant, executive trainer and associate professor of public relations at Roger Williams University, Rhode Island. She can be reached at humejohnson@gmail.com

* A version of this article previously appeared on LinkedIn

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