The Demands of 'Executive Presence' in the Workplace are Exhausting

Yesterday I attended “Executive Presence for Women”, a Stanford workshop ran by Allison Kluger. It was good, and I would recommend it to any woman that wants to grow in her career and is looking for ideas to hone how she is perceived in the workplace.

Allison gave good tips not only on how we present ourselves (choice of words and tone, physical appearance, body language, etc), but also on preparation, not asking for permission and other tactics to help us get heard and recognized as leaders. These ideas are helpful even if you are not interested in being a leadership position — they can help you be more effective overall.

The main caveat is that you’ll have to decide for yourself which of the tactics discussed will work for you (as always, no substitute for good judgement!) — for example, some of the tips around dress code and appearance seemed to me a little antiquated and not a good fit for my role as a technical leader in a tech company.

Despite all the inspiring and interesting content, by the time the workshop ended at 4 PM I was tired beyond words. It wasn’t just the dense content delivered in a short amount of time, nor was it simply the effects of my lingering cold. Spending six hours listening to all the things that we should do in order to be heard in American corporate settings is simply exhausting.

Make sure to not look tired or frazzled. You probably want to wear some makeup, but not too much, you don’t want to seem to be overly made-up. Some heel is always nice, but nothing too sexy. Be sure to speak out for yourself, but try to not come across as too aggressive or bitchy. Maybe you want to defuse things with humor, but watch out for self-deprecating humor, as that might backfire. Have a body language that looks relaxed and dynamic, but not too “wired” or nervous. Try to use stronger, more powerful language, and avoid hedging or sound like you’re asking for permission. But make sure that what you choose feels authentic to you, too, or else folks will pick up on the inauthenticity. Show some warmth and passion, but not too much, you don’t want to seem like you are out of control or driven by your emotions. You want to seem strong, but also be human, not invulnerable.

Oof. Just writing the above paragraph was absolutely draining.

The corporate environment demands that we present ourselves as these perfect images of what our culture has deemed is “leader-like” — a shared ideal that we are all supposed to aspire to. These demands are placed on men, too, but women have it even harder, since much of the ideal is based on masculine traits, and there is still much sexism and plenty of double standards. It sucks.

At the same time, it seems hard to opt out, no matter that a lot of this is plain old bullshit. If you want to continue working, you’ll likely need to play by some of these rules. I’m grateful to be able to work in tech, where there is a little bit more flexibility on things like appearance, and where there are some (tiny, but growing) pockets where folks are trying to bring in more inclusive practices and less bias.

If you are as overwhelmed as I am by the list of dos and donts above (only a small portion of what was discussed in Allison’s workshop!), my suggestion is that you take it slowly, baby step by baby step. Think of these ideas as ways to tweak your effectiveness here and there, gradually and over time. Don’t try to adopt them all at once. Start with one thing that seems doable or that particularly resonates. Incorporate that into your daily work, see what results it gets you (or doesn’t — not everything will work for everyone), and then iterate. Our career will be several decades long, and you don’t have to get to perfect right this second. Think of this as a marathon.

In the meantime, I hope that we’ll continue building and nurturing work environments where different ways of being are equally valued. Where we all strive, despite our cultural expectations and biases, to see others fully. Where we can hear someone’s ideas and engage with them no matter what they’re wearing, the color of their skin or their gender.