How HR Managers can develop ‘executive presence’

Guest blog by Nikki Watkins, CEO, Tyche Consulting


Executive Presence.  We’ve all heard of it and we’re told we need it, but what exactly is it and how do we know if we’ve got “it” or not?

It is an elusive phrase used more frequently to give developmental feedback to women than men:

“You’re too quiet – you need to develop more Executive Presence.”


Sound familiar? 

Perhaps the way people often define executive presence is as a result of our history.  In the past, executives were usually men, and therefore the attributes associated with it tended to be more “masculine”.

In a world where corporate leaders are no longer confined to the white male stereotype of the past, there is a need for us to both be aware of how we can develop our own Executive Presence in order to be taken seriously, and also to educate those around us that the outdated perceptions of what “it” is, no longer belong in business.


Board presence for women: mainly in HR or Marketing Roles

In a profession like HR where 75% of professionals are women (in the UK, across Europe and the US),  there is undoubtedly more opportunity.  As a result we are seeing more role models and more acceptance of females getting to board level.

As organisations are realising the importance of diversity at the top table, the HR pipeline is loaded with great female talent and therefore it is no surprise that the majority of gender statistics are driven by either HR or Marketing roles. So how do aspiring HR leaders maximise the opportunity open to them and why does Executive Presence matter?

Alongside the growing reputation of how Strategic HR and true business partnering can help a company, there sit the old negative stereotypes associated with HR.  It is vital therefore for current and future HR leaders to continue to challenge old thinking through their behaviours and the impact they have.

However vague a concept it seems to you, can epitomise executive presence.  ‘It’  comes down to a few key areas to pay attention to, such as integrity, confidence, the ability to command a room, emotional intelligence and decisiveness.  It’s in the way you present yourself, the way you hold yourself, the way you communicate to, and with, others.  If you look at the successful HR directors around you, you will find those who have it in bucket-loads.


The real life women who have ‘it’ by the bucket-load

At a recent Women in Leadership workshop I was running at LinkedIn, the CHRO Pat Wadors came to share her view of how women can help themselves. She has perfected the art of storytelling – holding the room with her quiet, calm delivery, whilst being real. She is slightly quirky with a purple slash through her hair, a delightful chuckle and a vulnerability and openness about herself, and her family life, that is disarming. She is able to support and challenge in equal measure.  Her ability to command attention, read the room and create laughter and tears are all exemplary traits of leaders with Executive Presence.

Nicki Dexter is an HR Director with Telefonica; we worked together recently with the Chief Innovation and Data Officer creating a workshop for 25 senior leaders. Like all execs, he had a clear view of what he wanted; her ability was to acknowledge his ideas sensitively but to keep bringing him back to what the leaders actually needed. Her confidence in her belief, her ability to push back on him without being aggressive, the way she was poised to respond rather than react, and her previous reputation with him, all served to make her influential and impactful – the very epitome of Executive Presence.

Six years ago, Christine Isherwood, a quietly spoken woman with a history in IT Engineering, was an HR admin in a relatively small organisation. Her boss recognised a critical thinking mind and a strength that could be liberated through an increase in self-confidence and organisational knowledge.  After a year of coaching, a review of her wardrobe (yes appearance does matter; it is not the highest priority but take it off the table), and her own commitment to intense learning around broadening her knowledge, she became a trusted advisor to the MD and leadership team. This gave her strategic competence, and the confidence to build new relationships and to create a powerful reputation that within three years saw her move to the US to take a Global HR business partner role for that same company – Qliktech.


How you can develop your own executive presence

Whilst there are still hurdles to overcome, there are plenty of actions HR Managers can take to start building their Executive Presence. Here are a few questions to ask yourself no matter what your role or level:

  • How clearly, directly and decisively do I communicate?
  • Do my body language and tone of voice project confidence and credibility?
  • Does my overall appearance mirror that of an executive?
  • When I speak up or challenge, do people listen and respect what I say?
  • What is my current reputation?

In addition to this, because of the critical role HR play in succession planning and development across the business, it is worth checking your own biases about Executive Presence. Are you questioning the language often used to describe why women are not ready?

“Not confident enough/ Too quiet/ Not concise in communication/ Doesn’t push back”

Perhaps an updated definition of Executive Presence should include:

“The ability to empower others, the curiosity to enhance collective intelligence, the desire to collaborate, and the ability to listen rather than opine.”

Perhaps then we would be able to describe more women as having “it”.


Author: Editorial Team

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