Leadership: Developing Executive Presence

Thanks to a generous grant from CALL I was able to attend the 11th annual Women’s Leadership Institute hosted by the Association of College Unions International, the Association of College and Research Libraries, the National Association of College and University Business Officers, and NASPA – Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. It was an impressive gathering of women working at colleges and universities all across the country who were interested in pursuing executive leadership positions at their institutions.

The conference began with an empowering keynote from Emilie Aries, CEO of Bossed Up. Aries is a former political organizer who realized at a young age that her frantic work life was not sustainable. She transitioned into a career as a leadership consultant and now advises women on how to establish healthy, long-lasting careers. Her talk at the conference focused on how to prevent burnout. Her initial advice was something that resonated with me and I think is common among librarians who see themselves as service professionals—Ditch the Martyrdom Myth. She urged us to remember that success does not require suffering. Aries reminded us that when traveling on an airplane we are all told to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others, and that is true with our professional and personal lives as well. Acknowledging that we still have bosses and family obligations that may require us to make occasional sacrifices, she advised, “Put yourself first. Not always, but not never.”

Aries keynote was inspiring and provided practical advice on setting achievable goals. You can watch her talk about how to set healthy boundaries and invest in sustainable long-term achievement in her popular TED talk, “The Power of No.” I also recommend following Aries’ column on Forbes.com.

Over the next three days at the conference we heard from a number of remarkable women on topics ranging from navigating organizational politics, building cultural competencies, developing a career strategy, establishing financial well-being, and assertive communication. The last topic was one that set this conference apart from other leadership events. Because the attendees were women seeking leadership roles, several speakers remarked on the struggle women face in being seen as assertive, which is linked to being considered a “high potential” employee, vs. aggressive, which is often a euphemism for being a b****. We discussed that in this country there is a mismatch between conventional female qualities and the qualities that are thought necessary for leadership. One of the most important ways to be perceived as a high potential employee and a leader is to project executive presence, a key theme that popped up in almost every talk.

Throughout the conference several presenters referenced Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s work Executive Presence, which analyzes what it means to have “executive presence”, aka to be seen as a leader. According to Hewlett, having leadership skills alone is not enough. You need to be able to project executive presence because how others perceive you is as important as your actual performance.

But what is executive presence? Hewlett breaks it down into three basic, but not entirely equal, categories: gravitas, communication, and appearance. Gravitas is the most important of the three pillars, but as Hewlett explains, also the most elusive.  It is often described as a “know it when you see it” kind of character. However, through her national study of over 4,000 professionals, Hewlett tried to learn what exactly that means. According to the senior leaders who responded to her study, the most important aspects of gravitas include confidence, decisiveness, integrity, emotional intelligence, reputation, and vision. The book is filled with examples and anecdotes of Fortune 500 leaders both displaying gravitas and the repercussions of failing to do so in times of crisis. It goes on to provide practical advice on how to exude gravitas, such as surrounding yourself with people who are better than you, being generous with credit, and learning that empowering others’ executive presence will build your own.

Having read Hewlett’s Executive Presence upon returning from the conference, I discovered that it reinforced the main themes from the Women’s Leadership Institute, and in turn, I highly recommend it to everyone. I’d also like to recommend some of the other readings from the conference:

The Women’s Leadership Institute was a rewarding experience, and once again, I am grateful to CALL for providing the opportunity to attend the conference.

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