She's Gotta Have "It"

A growing mound of research shows that female execs trounce men in nearly every area of performance. But many lack executive presence

By Michelle Conlin

She has Everest-size ambitions, a flawless track record, and an uncanny knack for strategy. "I'd love to promote her," the CEO says. "But she just doesn't have `it.' "

"It," in this case, is executive presence, the elusive quality that has over the past year become a major focus in women's leadership development circles. This trait is so important to companies such as Shell Group and J.P. Morgan Chase that they have packed off their high-potential female managers to special seminars to develop "it," lest they wind up adding to an already depressing statistic: Women make up half of management jobs but are still just a sliver--5%--of the executive ranks.

Executive presence goes far beyond banishing the wardrobe of frumpy brown suits and stopping the nail-biting at meetings. It refers to that ability to take hold of a room by making a polished entrance, immediately shaking people's hands, and forging quick, personal connections instead of defaulting to robotic formalism and shrinking into a chair. When leaders with executive presence speak, people listen--because the talk is filled with conviction instead of equivocation. They inspire that I'll-follow-you-anywhere loyalty, conveying an aura of warmth and authenticity to everybody from the receptionist to the CEO.

It makes sense that executive presence is the latest key in unlocking women's advancement. Over the past few years, a growing mound of research has revealed that women executives trounce men in nearly every aspect of performance. But a gender gulf remains in the most crucial area: confidence. And confidence is the secret sauce in executive presence.

It sounds so utterly, self-help simple. But Cynthia Scott, a partner with San Francisco-based executive coaching firm Changeworks, says she's astounded at how often females in danger of being written off for advancement will leave a meeting without having said much--if anything. That makes them come off as passive and unengaged. When they do pipe up, Scott says, they often blow it by using qualifiers such as "perhaps," pronouns such as "we"--and, worst of all, ending the sentence with the inflection of a question, causing people to doubt what they've just said.

As long as men continue to be the primary influence on the corporate culture, the nice-girl, seen-not-heard communication styles women were acculturated with will continue to hurt them the further up the career ladder they go. Recent research by The Leader's Edge, a Philadelphia leadership training firm, found that top females in Corporate America were far less comfortable challenging others than their male colleagues. They were also more guarded in their social interaction--even though speaking frankly to your colleagues becomes ever more important at the executive level. Building social capital is imperative for women. Leaders promote those they like and feel comfortable with.

One of the biggest ways women can improve their "it" is by not winging what they say at meetings. Coaches advise rehearsing what you say beforehand, using your own style of declarative speech without overcompensating by becoming a bully. Learn the art of polite interruption. Warm up the room by telling a quick story. "A lot of communicating is planning ahead," says Leigh Wasson, a managing director at J.P. Morgan who has worked with San Francisco coach Peggy Klaus. In hallways and elevators, open up about your personal life to forge bonds with the senior team--something many women confess feels riskier than burrowing into their work.

Self-promotion is also critical. In shadowing female executives, coaches cringe at how often high achievers dodge opportunities to trumpet themselves, almost as if their achievements will go without saying. "Women need to learn how to brag," says Klaus, who holds boasting seminars at companies such as Pfizer. One strategy: Weave accomplishments into anecdotes. Lighten up on the self-deprecation and pour on more humor.

The best news about confidence is that it's easier to develop than competence--the part of the job senior women usually have licked. Now, they just need to start working on their "it."

Hers columnist Toddi Gutner is on special assignment.

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