Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Becoming The Most Powerful and Impactful You”

Recently, I was working with a very bright and accomplished mid-level female client (let’s call her Terry) around building her executive presence. We had an intriguing conversation about her perception of what “executive presence” is and why she feels she doesn’t have enough of it.

In teasing out what she felt was missing, she shared that her biggest concern was how she appeared in meetings with senior leaders and managers. She deeply feared appearing as if she didn’t know enough and would be judged negatively, especially when presenting data and other material in front of the top leaders. She worried too about “What if they ask me a question I can’t answer? What do I do?”

I asked if this had ever happened (that she didn’t know the answer in a meeting), and she said “No.” In fact, she’d always been praised by senior leaders for how she handled herself and her presentations, and her boss was consistently very pleased with her performance.

This phenomenon is very common among the thousands of mid- to high-level professional women I work with and hear from. They suffer from the same feeling of not being “good enough” or “smart enough” in their work and their roles, no matter what they do and even when they’re performing wonderfully in the job.

I experienced this myself in my corporate life. This is a core part of the damaging “impostor syndrome” we hear so much about. I’ve also witnessed this as part of the 7 most damaging power and confidence “gaps” that so many (98%, in fact) of professional women experience today.

Fears around lacking executive presence involve a number of the Power Gaps, including Power Gap #1 – not recognizing one’s own special talents, abilities and accomplishments, and Power Gap #2 – not speaking confidently or authoritatively, and therefore not being able to leverage one’s talents fully. These gaps (plus the remaining 5) contribute to women living with a debilitating fear of being “found out” or feeling insecure about what they fear they don’t know.

Back to my client…I asked Terry what she thought “executive presence” was and what it looked like to her. She couldn’t quite nail it down but said that some folks just looked like they belonged at the “table” or seemed comfortable and at ease speaking as an authority in the room.

She asked what I perceived “executive presence” to be, and I shared my take, based on 18 years in corporate life and 16 years of coaching, speaking and training global audiences of professionals.

In my view, “executive presence” is a critical mix of the following ingredients, traits and behaviors:

Confidence – Demonstrating through the way you speak, behave and engage with others that you believe in yourself, your knowledge and experience, and in your ability to succeed and thrive

Self-authority – Possessing the internal power and external influence to make things happen, and also serving as an authority about the area you’re responsible for. This includes possessing a mastery of the key information necessary to make effective decisions

Strong communication – Speaking and listening in ways that move the discussion forward, and foster a respectful, open space where diverse ideas are appreciated and embraced

Contribution – Being comfortable bringing new thoughts, ideas and innovations to the table and going out on a limb where necessary to think outside of the box and share unconventional ideas that may lead to growth. With regard to information you don’t know, you have (or can create) ways to obtain that needed data or knowledge

Holding your own – Being able to stand your ground when challenged, and present coherent arguments for why you see things as you do

Calmness and balance – Not appearing extremely nervous, and seeming self-assured, calm and in control of your emotions. (A note on this – having some jitters or “nerves” when speaking in public is a very common physiological response and should not be mistaken for incompetence or lack of confidence. Here’s a powerful interview on my Finding Brave podcast with Dr. Nate Zinsser, a top expert in the psychology of human performance – on How Confidence is Key and How to Get It, Build It and Keep It:

– Understanding the role you play as a leader and sharing your vision and purpose, but at the same time, being comfortable serving as a consummate team player and helping others shine and be recognized for the great work they’re doing

Emotional strength – Demonstrating strong boundaries, and not becoming defensive or unhinged when others clash with you and push back hard on your ideas and comments

Many people over the years have researched and written about executive presence and how to develop it. While many of these recommendations hit the mark, I find many do not. Generally, it involves a far more complex and intricate interplay of numerous qualities and behaviors than people understand. And for many, adopting behaviors that convey executive presence can be very challenging and anxiety-provoking (even frightening) in their current places of work.

For instance, people may be strong communicators but grow defensive and angry when their ideas are attacked. Or they may have great new ideas to share but are too shy and reserved (or extremely introverted), finding that speaking in public is daunting so they shy away from contributing. And others are confident and competent, but the leaders of the organization refuse to see it (for a myriad of reasons).

To help Terry get in touch with what executive presence means to her, I asked if in the past ten meetings, she’d witnessed any female managers or leaders convey the type of presence she was going for. She recalled one woman. I probed further and asked, “What exactly did this executive do or say that made you feel she had executive presence?” Terry responded: “She just looked like she belonged there, at ease and confident, and people treated her like she did belong – they gave her their respect and attention.”

So there was a hint of one key issue – I sensed Terry didn’t quite believe in her heart that she belonged at the executive table.

Once we got to the bottom of the issue, we were able to push forward and help Terry recognize that she did indeed belong there, and had always made important and helpful contributions whenever she was there. She was, in fact, needed there. But in some organizational ecosystems, no matter how much you belong at the executive table, there is bias and discrimination, and individuals are made to feel that they don’t “have what it takes” to be in the inner circle. Managers give you vague and undefined feedback about skills that are “lacking,” but don’t identify them clearly or work with you in a solid development plan to build those skills.

In these cases, it’s time to evaluate if your organization today is really where you should be giving all your energy and commitment at this time, or if your leaders are individuals you should be following.

If you struggle to believe you have executive presence, below are three key questions you can ask yourself today that will move you forward in building more of it:

1. Do I have sufficient mastery of my area and the work I’m responsible for, and do I have the experience, understanding and insight necessary to serve the company well at the executive table?

2. Do I make a positive difference in my work, leveraging what I know in ways that contribute?

3. Is the real reason I believe I don’t have executive presence simply about my own internal insecurity and is not grounded in the reality of my performance or my abilities?

If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, it’s time to embrace the fact that you DO have the right to sit at the executive table. The organization needs your knowledge and expertise, and you’re not helping anyone by shying away from what you know and offer, or standing up to bravely to share it.

Honor the fact that you belong there and stop fearing that you’re an impostor and don’t have what it takes. Once you realize this, your behavior and demeanor can and will shift and you’ll grow more powerful, with a stronger presence.

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, it’s not hopeless. There is something you can do. Be proactive to identify exactly what’s in the way of your experiencing more confidence and self-authority, which leads to executive presence. Close your specific power gaps and get the support, training and experience you need to grow in your role, build your confidence and authority, and do what’s necessary to feel ready to take your rightful place at the leadership table.

Finally, if your employer and managers make you feel “less than” and unworthy no matter what you do, it’s time to seriously consider leaving. Or at the very least, begin interviewing at great organizations that will value your contributions, and see what transpires. Move away from work cultures that can’t support and respect you.

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For hands-on help to build your executive presence and confidence, join Kathy in her private Career & Leadership Breakthrough coaching program. To take empowered action to close your power and confidence gaps, read her book The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss and take her The Most Powerful You 8-module video training program.

For onsite training at your organization to actively facilitate the growth and success of women in your workforce, bring in The Most Powerful You training to your workforce. And for biweekly career and leadership growth support, tune into Kathy’s podcast Finding Brave.