What determines who gets ahead?

Executive presence often plays a role in who lands the top job

What determines who gets ahead?
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

Organizations look at many different factors when conducting top talent reviews and identifying succession candidates. Obviously, there are multiple dimensions that help determine who is thought of as a potential executive, but soft skills and “executive presence” are definitely important.

Talking and acting the part are important, and some would even argue looking the part is also important. However, we all know there are dangers in selecting candidates for executive appointments based even partially on things such as gender, age, race, disability, sexual orientation or even factors such as height, weight or appearance.

Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, people sometimes have a stereotypical image in their minds of what a leader should look like. For some reason, people who are tall, thin, male, athletic, attractive and neither too young nor too old have traditionally seemed to have an advantage when determining who has the potential to move into the ranks of senior management. I’m not saying this is right in any way, but it does happen at times.

Subconscious bias obviously has an impact, and I personally think people who fit the above profile may end up being more confident if they believe they “look the part.” I also think image, manners, social class, education and even accent can play a role, although we tend to think those factors are less important here in North America than they are elsewhere.

Having the ‘right’ background

I still maintain that having the “right” upbringing and cultivating a certain image can help someone get the top job. Rightly or wrongly, having an aura of money (especially “old money”) about oneself often leads people to believe an individual has the right background to become a senior leader.

Going on expensive vacations to exotic foreign locales, golfing at exclusive clubs, eating at the right restaurants, living in or having a cottage in an exclusive area, driving a luxury car and wearing expensive clothes all tend to give signals that one has a “posh” background. Even people of modest means can sometimes “fake it” by paying attention to these cues and trying to emulate those who are better off — at least to a certain extent.

Granted, this type of thing can actually go too far. For one thing, people can be disrespectful or outright snobbish when talking about their wealth or leisure activities, and conspicuous consumption that’s absolutely over the top just makes people look vulgar and out of touch. I have also seen down to earth or “folksy” types promoted into senior management roles because they had a certain way with people, so it doesn’t always work this way.

But there’s more to executive presence than looking and acting the part. In particular, soft skills are important for any leader and become even more important the higher up one goes on the corporate ladder. Empathy in particular is an important trait for any leader.

Executive presence training

Executive presence is far more than looking the part or possessing the right skills and abilities, according to a white paper by Diane Craig, president and founder of Corporate Class, entitled 7 Business Benefits of Executive Presence Training to: Attract top talent, boost the bottom line and keep key people from jumping ship: “Executive presence combines leadership qualities, communication skills, and engagement expertise in a powerful mix that leads to continuous upward mobility.”

Executive presence training can help people acquire the skills and competencies required to be successful as senior leaders — even if they didn’t necessarily have all the natural advantages to begin with. This is important to remember when considering “diamond in the rough” succession candidates or those from diverse backgrounds. Organizations need to avoid having a senior leadership team that is excessively homogeneous that lacks diversity and doesn’t reflect the demographic makeup of society.

According to Craig, executive presence training focuses on building team productivity across all levels, leadership expertise and capabilities needed to advance to the top of the organization. Such training focuses on coaching, classroom facilitation, group sessions and feedback, and helps trainees build alliances and obtain consensus, think strategically and build on existing personal strengths.

Some of the advantages of this training include improved retention of top talent, better prepared succession candidates, a more level playing field for women and diverse succession candidates and increased promotion from within.

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