Updated: Jun 28, 2022
New research dispels the executive presence myth; 3 things you should do instead of focusing on executive presence to advance your career.
Authenticity has exploded into the workplace in an unexpected but powerful way that practically everyone with a cubicle hopes is here to stay.
From more engaged, cohesive teams to increased productivity and higher rates of employee retention, employees embracing and being empowered to practice authenticity – the freedom to be unapologetically themselves and hold space at work for their values, their spirit, and spunk – has overarching benefits upon which Corporate America has only begun to scratch the surface.
However, one major hindrance to workplace authenticity is what I call "The Plague of the Executive Presence."
This is a term that is thrown around just about every women’s conference, in HR “high-potential” talent conversations, and is a much-used play in many executives coaches’ playbooks. "The Plague of Executive Presence" is simply that someone, regardless of how kick-ass they are at their job, will hit the popcorn ceiling of success if they can’t act “executivey.”
Conventional wisdom would say that the definition of “executivey” includes things like speaking with authority, dressing well, and conveying confidence.
However, executivey is not actually what people want or what new research is showing is creating success. We’ll get to the research in a bit, but first I want to tell a story.
A few months ago, I was leading a two-day workshop with executives at a large consulting company who were focused on solving some of their critical issues, including employee retention and increasing sales. Despite warnings that this group was a bit "old school", day one went remarkably well! They were excited, engaged, and quickly bought into the concept of authenticity being a strategic tool that could help them achieve amazing results.
The honeymoon came to an end, however, on day two when one executive participant’s concern killed the buzz for the entire group.
He said, “Erin, here’s the thing – authenticity sounds great and all, but the reality is, we don’t know if clients and prospects want to interact authentically or not,” implying that authenticity should only be something you practice if you are 100% sure the person on the other end does too; which, needless to say, isn’t authenticity at all.
Who has time for the mental gymnastics involved with psychoanalyzing every client and conversation until you know for sure it’s "safe” to come out like munchkins in the Wizard of Oz after the witch dies?
As I started to respond, another executive participant lit up as if the epiphany hit her like a mosquito on a windshield in spring. She shared that last week she had taken vacation time to celebrate the holidays with her family, and how even though she was using her hard-earned PTO and probably should have unplugged from work, she decided to take a meeting with a CEO of a company they were prospecting because it was the only time he could meet (surprise, surprise.)
But this meeting put her between a rock and a hard – or hot – place. Her mother, a retired pastry chef, had charged her with taking the made-from-scratch pies out of the oven. As luck would have it, the pies needed to come out at the same time as the meeting with the CEO. As someone who prided herself on being perfectly punctual to meetings, she had a decision to make.
Pie or CEO?
Deliciously delectable holiday dessert or grand-slam fourth-quarter sale?
What good is Thanksgiving dinner without Bailey’s pie to follow? Where’s the fun in returning to work after vacation when you let a promising opportunity fall by the wayside.. for your waist.. side?
She frantically grabbed the pies out of the oven, ran to her desk like she was running a 100-meter dash, slid into her seat, and clicked “Join meeting.” right on time (which for her is…late).
She had a choice to make:
Option 1: Display executive presence - apologize for her delinquency and carry on with the meeting.
Option 2: Lead with authenticity and tell the truth – that she chose her mom and her pies over him.
She went with option 2.
As soon as she fessed up to being late over dessert, the conversation and meeting went in an entirely different direction; one she’d never experienced before.
He asked her questions about the pie. Forgetting for a moment she was on such an important call, she playfully shared a secret ingredient or two in confidence with her new colleague. Surely her mom would understand. Later, while talking about their future business relationship, he said, “You better include pies in your proposal.”
As she reflected in real time about this experience along with her colleagues, she realized what I hoped to impart to every one of them during our session: that authenticity is like a pie at a restaurant. We all say, “no thank you,” but the truth is, we ALL secretly crave a piece of that damn pie.
Sometimes it takes just one person to say, “I’d like to see a dessert menu,” and like dominoes, the rest of the table follows suit. Similarly, authenticity has to start somewhere.
Dispelling the Executive Presence Myth
Putting on a show when in “executive presence” mode – acting the way one feels they are supposed to act when in the presence of executives – is often counterproductive to achieving the outcomes you’re after in the first place.
There is nothing worse or more ineffective than doing something just because it’s the way it’s always been done. Otherwise, we would all still be hair spraying our bangs up to the ceiling and wearing icy blue eyeshadow while we sing along to “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tiffany.
And while it’s okay if you still do one (or all) of these things, the fact is, being fearful of practicing authenticity lest the prospect or client not “approve” of the real you is not only oppressive, counterproductive, and well, miserable – but it stifles the untapped creativity and ingenuity that only you and your employees bring to the table that could be revolutionizing your business.
When you are fearful that the big-wigs you’re prospecting might not approve of your authenticity, consider these facts from a national “The Impact of Authenticity in the Workplace” study we conducted.
The research shows us that contrary to popular belief, an authentic company culture is not necessarily a top-down problem:
Executives were the most likely job class to say their manager was authentic. 82% of executives surveyed reported that they have authentic managers vs non-executive managers (76%) and non-managers (69%)
Executives are 2-3x more likely to say they would follow their manager if they took a job elsewhere, vs. non-executive managers and non-managers
While only semi-related, we also found that executives are the happiest of the three job classes, proving that sh*t does really run downhill
Put Executive Presence on the Back Burner and Do These Things Instead
The data paints a surprising picture that the same executives many of us are afraid to be ourselves around are not only practicing authenticity themselves, but are more successful and happier at work because of it. The study also showed the pie situation was no fluke; there are significant benefits to employees’ careers if they’re authentic at work. So what can you specifically do to start ditching the presence and instead, practice authenticity?
Purposefully expose something of humility. As was the case with the pie-nurturing executive, she chose (likely subconsciously) to avail her sticky situation rather than hide it. When you choose this path, it creates an almost immediate connection and builds a level of trust that no formal conversation or buzzwords can do. The other person thinks, Cool, they’re just like me - imperfect and human. I can relate to and trust them.
Tell a story. Authentic leaders realize that stories have the power to inspire, create clarity, and make a point much more than sticking with facts and figures. Pick one place to start where you insert a small story that helps paint the picture of what you’re talking about. And know that stories don’t have to be dramatic, funny, or long. Even a short simile or a metaphor that highlights your point will help you create connections and stand out from the crowd.
Do something unexpected. The best leaders aren’t those that simply go through the motions, checking all the right boxes and saying all the right things. The best leaders instead “glow” through the motions, bucking the norm when the norm no longer serves others. For example, if your standard team meeting has followed a set agenda since the beginning of time, re-evaluate what in that agenda is serving people and where you need to mix things up. Even something as simple as adding a 10-minute opening item that’s reserved for offering up leadership best practices or inspiring news and ideas can make a world of difference.
I hope the next time someone goes through the motions to tell you how important executive presence is, that you’ll instead offer them a piece of your pie. That way you both can have your cake pie and eat it too.
If you’re ready to leave "The Plague of Executive Presence" behind, download my free Authenticity Playbook that gives you 10 easy, actionable steps you can take – whether you’re an executive or an intern – that will help you bust through that popcorn ceiling by using authenticity as your new secret weapon to success.