Honestly, I never felt like I fit in.
I struggled to find a space where I felt I could be my authentic self in corporate America. I had finally found my niche. But it was not valued. As a matter of fact, I believe it held me back. Although I was good at what I did, it still wasn’t good enough. I worked super hard to have my value recognized. I was literally traveling all over the world speaking to thousands of associates, and I thought, well, they must think that I'm good at what I do, or they wouldn't allow me to represent the company globally. Right? Yet. I couldn't break through to the next level.
I had hopes of advancing my career. And although there were lots of opportunities, I
kept getting passed over. The excuses felt like bias. I was trying to hit a moving target.
I kept getting hints that I didn't have that corporate executive presence package. I would
ask for a definition and examples. No one could seem to explain exactly what executive
presence is. I dressed well. I presented myself professionally. I have exceptional communication skills. I am confident. However, I was treated as if I just wasn't as polished as a lot of the people that I sat in rooms with. Funny though, I was consistently complimented about my work. My authenticity should not have been a deal breaker. But I believe, for me, it was.
Now, as a DEI Accountability Consultant, I can relate to people who are in those marginalized groups, including but not limited to people of color, and especially black women, who are fighting to be seen and heard and recognized for their strengths, experience, and knowledge.
So, what does “executive presence” really mean?
Or should I say, what does executive presence really mean to BIPOC? It should mean that you can be your authentic self, while meeting the company’s needs and achieving the goals set out for your role. But because it is often equated with likability and a certain je ne sais quoi, it is often used to gaslight or pigeonhole employees who don’t represent the company’s image of an executive.
As a leadership coach and DEI Accountability Consultant who advises organizations on
how to build inclusive cultures, I see how “executive presence,” or lack thereof, is weaponized against certain groups. I hear people complain about getting passed over for higher roles and never getting clear feedback about why from decision-makers. The gaslighting comes from vague rejection feedback, that is not actionable. It leaves employees hopeless and disempowered, as they have no way to improve for the next chance.
If a company has a particular uniform, script, or communication expectation, it should be
a standard that everyone is expected to adhere to. If these areas are metrics that
employees will be judged by, then everyone deserves the benefit of transparency.
I believe executive presence is an important quality. But I believe it is important for all
leaders, not just a select few. What’s the call to action? It’s simple. Stop using executive presence as a weapon against BIPOC and especially black women. If you truly aspire to be an inclusive organization that appreciates diversity – this should be an easy fix.
Annette P. Johnson is an accomplished global professional development facilitator, certified leadership coach, experienced DEI leader, motivational speaker, published author, and successful small business owner.