Executive Presence

Want to advance your career? Learn how to project your confidence and shine bright.

Women may hold up half the sky, as the saying goes, but we’re still a long way from getting equal promotions into senior management and appointments to boards. If you’re aiming for a higher position, higher salary, or higher job satisfaction in your current position, there is one quality you can harness right now to give yourself a prime advantage: you can elevate your executive presence.

What is executive presence? “It’s self-confidence,” says executive coach Jamie Lee. Executive coach and Forbes blogger Marti Fischer agrees. “Executive presence is how you inspire confidence in others,” she says. “That may sound very conceptual, but think of someone you respect and why you respect them. Chances are they are confident in their actions and make you feel secure and valued. This is the foundation of executive presence.” Executive presence will benefit you at any level of your career, whether you are just starting out or are well into your career trajectory.

What does it take to feel confident—and project that confidence to others? Dr. Vanessa Calderón, an executive coach who specializes in working with women of color, coaches her clients to “show up early, sit at the table or as close to the front as possible, be an active listener, and have the courage to ask questions. But executive presence has to start way before you get into the room. Women need to feel that they belong in that room.”

For many women, the feeling of “belonging in the room” requires overcoming personal insecurities and recognizing that they deserve to be there. This self-doubt is sometimes called “imposter syndrome”—though the problem often stems from workplaces centered on white, male, heteronormative values, not from the individual woman’s psychology. To help you take pride in your self-worth, find someone who believes in you. Seek out a workplace sponsor to show you the ropes, a coach for guidance and empowerment, or a mentor who’s “been there, done that” to provide perspective and serve as your sounding board.

Fischer says, “Building your executive presence begins with asking yourself, ‘How do I want to be remembered?’” For women, and especially women of color, being remembered as confident and capable will likely require navigating a sea of microaggressions. In her New York Times essay “This Is How Everyday Sexism Could Stop You From Getting That Promotion,” researcher Jessica Nordell points out that “Subtle biases and microaggressions pile up, few of which on their own rise to the level of ‘let’s take action,’ but are insidious nonetheless.”

“The challenge is that we have been socialized to be negative about women being in charge,” says Lee. “When you invest in a coach, you invest in your beautiful brain ‘debugging’ [its] program errors.” Lee gives an example of a client who, faced with a gender-biased performance review, took steps to address it with her manager. First, she depersonalized the event, reframing it to herself as her manager’s “blind spot.” Then, she scheduled a conversation with her manager. “She became like a mirror, beginning with ‘Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention,’” says Lee. “She then gave her manager the opportunity to self-reflect by addressing their blind spot and helping the manager to feel heard.” The client proposed a solution that worked for herself and her supervisor. “The result was a raise and promotion six months ahead of schedule. Her commanding presence helped generate a win-win.”

A coach, sponsor, or mentor can help a woman defang these workplace triggers. “I have a technique that I use to teach women how to actually outsmart their brain so they’re not reactive to their stress response,” says Calderón. Fischer adds that “Stressful situations tend to be remembered by others. Consider how you act and react under stress for insight into how others perceive your level of executive presence.”

Executive presence should be part of every woman’s career tool kit. It will help you raise your self-esteem, manage stress, and improve workplace relationships. It will also help increase your value as a colleague and employee. Will it vault you to the next level? Research published in 2020 by McKinsey showed that, worldwide, only 28 percent of senior vice president positions were held by women, and only 5 percent were held by women of color.

And of all executive positions, only 14 percent were held by women of color. But change making takes momentum, and that momentum is building. The US Department of Labor Statistics reported in 2020 that women held slightly more than half of professional- and managerial-level positions in businesses nationwide. That’s a powerful pipeline of talent.

And gender equity in the C-suite has proven to be profitable. An analysis of data obtained from nearly 22,000 companies in 91 countries, published in 2016 by the Peterson Institute for International Economics, reported that “the firm with more women can expect a six percent increase in net profit.” Research by Professor Corinne Post of Lehigh University has found management teams with more women in their ranks are more willing to invest in-house on innovative R&D—these teams are also more capable of managing internal and external forces in times of crisis. With women currently holding only about 6 percent of CEO positions among S&P 500 companies, businesses have a good reason to make diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a priority.

“The reason why we have a huge discrepancy between the number of women in middle management versus the C-suite is because if you don’t have a sponsor or mentor pulling you up—or people who look like you leading—you may not believe that you belong in those roles,” says Calderón. She also recognizes the impact that caregiving bias, punishing work hours, ongoing microaggressions, and poor to nonexistent family-leave policies can have on women navigating the work-life tightrope. “None of this is okay,” she says. “But how can we make a difference, so that you can get promoted?”

Calderón offers a few suggestions to C-suites on how to add women to their ranks. “The most important thing C-suites need to ask is, ‘Why is our organization struggling with this?’ It’s because you aren’t diverse now. The second question is, ‘Is our organization truly committed to diversity?’ And if that answer is ‘Yes,’ you address it like any other problem in your organization—by setting goals and specifying how you will achieve them, using numbers and a timeframe. So many work cultures are fear based. We need to be creative, because there are ways to achieve this.”

The arc of justice may move slowly, but change is on our side. As more businesses understand the fact that gender diversity from the top can increase profitability, expect to see more pathways to promotion, retooling processes for full inclusion instead of tokenism in disguise. And your executive presence can help you become the change your employer wants to see. As Fischer points out, “Within organizations that promote inclusion, women who ask open-ended questions and actively listen and act on the answers are the ones who will be remembered as inspirational leaders.” Lee sums it up this way: “Even when others might disagree with you, executive presence is a willingness to trust yourself.” DW


Janet Heit is a writer, fundraising executive for nonprofits, and founder-director of Another Nice Mask, a COVID mask-up initiative rooted in comedy rather than shaming.


Coaches’ Tips for Elevating Your Executive Presence

“Look for opportunities to assume a leadership role. Leadership roles can be any instances from running a project to publicly recognizing a colleague’s work to planning a social gathering. Do not, however, volunteer for ‘work wife’ activities like ordering lunch. These diminish your role in a male-dominated environment. You can also become an active listener. Here are some phrases you can incorporate right away: ‘How can we … ?’ ‘How can I … ?’ ‘What do you think?’ ‘What should we do first?’ ‘That’s an idea we haven’t explored, and we can use that to … ?.’”

— Marti Fischer

“You don’t have to overpromise or over-deliver. You don’t have to prove yourself. You already have. If you spend your life thinking you won’t be successful until you achieve x and y, you will not take stock of who you are in the now, and what you’ve achieved in the present moment. One of the best things you can do to feel confident is to borrow the thoughts and feelings of your future self: ‘I am valuable.’ ‘I have influence.’ You are the authority on your own career.”

— Jamie Lee

“Handling microaggressions is not just about turning off your stress response. You can also learn to respond with kindness in a way that makes it possible for the offender to be responsive. I’m a physician, and once while giving a keynote address, I was interrupted by a physician in the audience who thought it was okay to repeat my last name and enunciate the accent loud enough for everyone to hear. So I approached him afterward, and he apologized. To be successful, and to be seen as professional, we have to keep showing up, even in these moments that are so triggering. It starts with a mind-set that you belong in the room. As women of color, we don’t always have mentors pulling us up, so you have to find people who believe in you. And you have to believe that you can do it.”

– Dr. Vanessa Calderón

Join the Diversity Woman Community

Join a network of career-oriented women and use the member directory to see all the members in your community and find world class mentors. Access exclusive leadership development packages to help you achieve your career goals. Work With Coaches. Take Career Development Courses, and much more.