This article is the fourth of our 7-part women’s leadership series on creating leadership identity, based on principles from Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, by Lois Frankel, Ph.D. Be sure to refer back to the third article of this series, on how our actions speak loudly when it comes to assertiveness, decisiveness, and confidence – all traits of a strong, effective leader.
“Research shows that about 55 percent of your credibility comes from how you look. How you sound accounts for an additional 38 percent. Only 7 percent of your credibility is based on what you say.” – Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office
On the surface, those numbers are a little intimidating. It’s humbling to think that before someone even evaluates the substance of our message, that they are making quick judgments about us based on our visual and verbal presence.
Even if you’re a healthy skeptic on statistics, it’s smart to pay attention because this part of human nature – the continual evaluation our environment and the people around us – can help us to become better leaders. We subconsciously filter information – we accept what we perceive as credible and release the rest – and yes, that “credibility filtering” mechanism initially includes paying close attention to how others look and how they sound.
When it comes to visual presence, a little fine tuning can go a long way in making an immediate impact on your leadership identity, and pave the way for others to truly value the substance of your message. I’ve found that working on these “outside” attributes can give us momentum for the work that we’re doing on the “inside.”
Visual Presence – Your Dress
Your visual presence, or how you look, does mean the obvious – dressing the part of a leader and professional. I’ve worked in many different environments – workplace business casual, home office, and client-facing situations requiring business dress. I’ve been given some good advice during my career in terms of dress, which I’ll pass along:
- Dress for the future. Observe the people around you and how they dress – and then step it up a notch. Always dress for the part you want to play in the future, as opposed to the part you are playing today.
- My tailor is on speed dial. Tailor clothing that doesn’t fit “quite right.” This is a fairly inexpensive way to add the “leadership touch” to your existing wardrobe. And if an item of clothing won’t fit right even with the most skilled tailoring job, it’s time to help another woman get a step up by donating it to a good cause, like Dress for Success.
- Don’t forget the finishing touches. Pay attention to how you accessorize – add simple jewelry, handbags and shoes that are clean and current to your wardrobe. Also, fresh makeup and a flattering hairstyle are a must. These things don’t have to cost a fortune, and your attention to detail contributes to the entire package.
Visual Presence – The Subtle Cues
There are also some more subtle cues that contribute to your leadership identity. These are cues we may never pick up on, unless we’re paying attention to them. Things like:
- The space you take up. Pay attention in your next meeting to how men and women use space. Women tend to take up less space, and not just because of physical size. It’s a direct statement on our level of confidence and “belonging.” Make sure you are taking up an appropriate amount of space – I’m not saying be a space hog, but don’t let others crowd you out, and don’t minimize yourself.
- The seat you take at a conference table. Whenever I’m attending a meeting – I make sure to select a seat that allows me to see, be seen, and contribute. And I’ll often take the head seat if I’m leading the meeting.
- The way you sit in a meeting says a lot about you. For example – do you sit with one foot tucked up underneath the other leg? If you do, time to put both feet on the floor. Is your chair adjusted too low? If so, raise it up a couple of inches (especially helpful for those of us who are shorter). Do you keep your hands in your lap? Put them above the table. Although they may seem like simple things, when fixed, they will make you instantly look more like a leader.
- Your gestures and animations. Are your gestures and animations appropriate for your message? For example, I know some women (and men), who deliver tough messages with a smile. It’s usually a subconscious way to soften the message or an attempt to alleviate awkwardness, but what it does is affect your leadership credibility.
- Grooming can be a tough habit to break, but if you’re used to applying lipstick, fixing your hair, or checking your smile in public – time to put the mirror away. Save it for your office or the ladies’ room. I can’t think of the last time I saw a truly credible leader do that!
- Making eye contact. Eye contact conveys your confidence, your expertise, and your sincerity. Always make and maintain confident eye contact, especially with introductions.
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