Level Up Your Career

Cultivate the New Traits of Executive Presence

At some point in their careers, most women receive advice about developing executive presence. Well-intentioned suggestions, such as “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” or “speak up at meetings because you were invited there for a reason,” were helpful 10 years ago.  

But cultural shifts arising from the pandemic and social movements like Black Lives Matter have redefined executive presence. While confidence and strong communication skills are still essential, new research featured in Harvard Business Review, The New Rules of Executive Presence, reveals six evolving traits of effective leadership:  

  • Inclusiveness 
  • Respect for others 
  • Command of Zoom 
  • A “listen to learn” orientation 
  • Authenticity 
  • Online and in-person presence 

Although “the number of women in the C-suite has increased from 17 to 28 %” since 2015, there’s still ample need for women to master these attributes if they want to advance.  

One solution is Forté’s Rise, a six-month leadership program launched in 2022, that helps mid- to senior-level professional women become more confident, effective leaders and nurtures their authentic leadership styles.  

Here’s a look at how three Rise participants have cultivated some of the new skills of executive presence: 

Suad Sherif Leads with Her Own Flair
Digital Offerings Leader, Thermo King

While the number of women STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workers is on the rise, men still dominate these fields. So, when Suad Sherif – who has 17 years of experience working for leading industrial manufacturing companies – wanted to advance her career, she sought out Forté’s Rise program. Citing Forté’s expertise in developing women leaders, Suad says,

I wanted a program that understood and promoted women in the corporate world.”  

Like many mid-career women, Suad’s definition of executive presence has shifted over time. Whereas she once thought of it as fixed traits – such as command of a room, competency, strong communication skills, and others’ perceptions – she now sees it as more of a continuum. “We should always be learning, transforming, and growing,” she says. 

Suad also embraces authenticity, one of the leadership markers The New Rules of Executive Presence highlights. It’s important “to dress in a way you feel comfortable – with your own flair,” Suad explains.  

Rise reflected her desire to keep learning, and it gave Suad a valuable new perspective on her professional path. In the past, she sometimes felt insecure about the breadth of her career – which includes stints in engineering, product management, IT, marketing technologies, and digital transformations. Suad was concerned that potential employers looking for deep subject matter expertise would pass her over, but Rise helped her see that a “career is a portfolio,” she explains, one that comprises “different components that tell the story of who you are.”  

Framing her diverse professional experiences in a new light was transformative for Suad.  “It was always hard to explain my background,” she says, and understanding “that it is a portfolio helped me lean into my strengths.”  

One strength that was there all along was leadership. “I wasn’t aware that I had executive presence in some areas,” she says, “but Rise nurtured that side of me and brought it to the surface so I could see it myself.”  

Katrina IobstKatrina Iobst “Listens to Learn” from Other Women
Senior Manager – Client Development, Baker McKenzie

Katrina Iobst wears two seemingly incongruous professional hats: business development professional for one of the largest global law firms and founder of a yoga and wellness business. Early in her career, Katrina didn’t see her diverse talents as a strength, but years of experience – combined with the pandemic’s blending of personal and professional lives – gave her “confidence to show up authentically,” she explains.  

With a goal to continue integrating her full self and honing her leadership chops, Katrina pursued the Rise program after reaching the mid-point of her career and setting her sights on the C-suite. Katrina’s mentors at Baker McKenzie encouraged her to participate in the Rise program.  

I was looking to grow into my next role and connect with other women in similar situations,” she says. Rise gave Katrina what she was looking for: a new network with “many strong, powerful and empathetic women – both in their personal and professional roles.”

In a small cohort, Katrina was able to get deep insights into the many facets, as well as challenges, of developing authentic executive presence. Katrina’s cohort is still connected via WhatsApp, where they encourage each other, share challenges, and ask for advice. 

It’s this level of intimacy that gave Katrina another valuable benefit: the courage to ask for help. Working alongside colleagues during Rise, Katrina realized she was not alone in her experiences, which encouraged her to seek out and learn from others. It echoes the “listen to learn orientation” described in The New Rules of Executive Presence. Having previously perceived asking for help as a weakness, Katrina now sees it as an opportunity to gain confidence, power, and inner strength as she moves into the next phase of her career.  

Jessica BrownJessica Brown Hones Her Online Presence
Associate Director of Admissions, Duke’s Fuqua School of Business

Jessica Brown’s impressive 20-year career in higher education has helped other people achieve their professional goals. But when the pandemic came, Jessica struggled to adapt to the shifting nuances of her own role. “The pandemic pulled me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to think differently about skillsets that I needed,” she explains. “I needed to be more entrepreneurial and creative, learn how to manage processes more smoothly, and connect authentically with colleagues in a collaborative community culture.” During the pandemic, an impressive online presence, as explained in The New Rules of Executive Presence, suddenly became as important, if not more, than a physical one. 

As an admissions professional, Jessica has a front row seat to global cultural shifts and knows that employers are increasingly looking for thought leaders with emotional intelligence who want to make a social impact. The old rules about acting, thinking, and appearing a certain way – what Jessica calls the “my way or the highway mentality” – have given way to more intentional, genuine, and active leadership styles. 

In seeking to advance her own leadership acumen, Jessica decided to participate in Forté’s Rise, where she found the strengths assessment very valuable. Most people, she explains, “generally know what they do well,” but the assessment suggested new ideas for how to apply her strengths. For example, Jessica scored high on empathy, but she has learned not to be overwhelmed when people come to her for support.

I listen to them and continue to connect without it being too consuming,” she says. “It helps me be more well-rounded.” 

The Rise session with Dr. Wanda Wallace transformed Jessica’s perspective on her career trajectory. She’d always pictured her career progression as a ladder that goes up and down, but Wanda suggested that a career could be like a tree instead – with a strong foundation at the base and branches that represent different paths and growth opportunities. “A career is not always connected to a title or pay grade,” Jessica explains. “There are more ways to grow than up. Sometimes you grow sideways, but each leaf, branch and stem can feed into your purpose.”  

While Suad, Jessica, and Katrina have honed different traits of the new executive presence – whether listening to learn from others, establishing an authentic style, or strengthening online gravitas – their Rise experiences have been similar in an essential way. Rise reinforced their confidence and commitment to growth. We’re excited to see where their ongoing journey of success and growth takes them next. 

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