A Commanding Presence: How Women Can Improve Their Professional Image

Published: Mar 08, 2018
Modified: May 18, 2020

By AMA Staff

How do you radiate executive presence when you walk into a room? How do you eliminate unprofessional habits that may be undermining your image? Those attending the Women’s Leadership Center’s (WLC) 1-Day Connect, Learn & Thrive Professional Women’s Event on Wednesday—a sold-out event—heard advice on improving their image and honing an executive presence.

Change is the only constant

The day started with a guided networking session led by Laura Katen, president of Katen Consulting, followed by the keynote address by Christine M. Riordan, PhD, president of Adelphi University. Riordan spoke about career strategies that will help women succeed in a workplace where change is the only constant. “You constantly have to think about how you’re reinventing yourself,” Riordan told attendees, cautioning them not to fall into the “inability to adapt” trap. “Develop your adaptive agility…. People who have adaptability have a sense of continuous improvement,” she said. Following Riordan’s talk, a panel of businesswomen discussed current issues affecting women in the workplace. Moderated by WLC Director Lauren McNally, the panel included Michaeline Daboul, co-founder and CEO of MMIS; Olga Lagunova, chief data and analytics officer and VP of commerce cloud technologies at Pitney Bowes; and Joann Lublin, author and management news editor for the Wall Street Journal.

Among other topics, the panel discussed how women still shy away from negotiating for more money or promoting their own achievements. “You have to advocate for yourself because no one else is going to do that,” Daboul said.

Enhancing your executive presence

In the afternoon workshop "Executive Presence for Women: Communicating with Confidence," Katen guided attendees in looking at the verbal, nonverbal, and mental elements that make up an executive presence.

Katen talked about the subtle things that can change how people perceive you. “Commanding a room is different than demanding attention. Interrupting is different than interjecting. Acknowledging is different than apologizing… No more over-apologizing!” she told the group.

Another way women can improve their presence is by looking at their speech patterns. Avoid “up speak,” which makes every statement sound like a question, Katen said. And work on filler words like “um,” “right,” and “you know,” and undermining phrases like “Can I bother you?” or “You may already have thought of this, but…” Other tips included:

  • Keep your hands in “the gesture box”—in front of you and mainly above the waist
  • Do not make yourself smaller by crossing your legs or hunching over
  • Hold eye contact for three to five seconds
  • Speak at an optimal volume—not too loudly, not too softly

All of these changes will take self-awareness and practice, Katen acknowledged. “Executive presence is a higher level of self-awareness.” 

Attendees said they felt inspired by the event. “The room is full of elite women,” said attendee Aprille Solis of Washington, DC, who works at the Australian Embassy. “I feel empowered.”

“I do feel that we underestimate the power of executive presence, especially with a first impression,” said Diane Brady, a media consultant from New York City. She suggested women need to feel more at ease with themselves and recognize their value. “As you get into a leadership role, own your status a bit more,” she said. "The women were very engaged, and we were happy to celebrate International Women’s Day with them,” McNally, director of the WLC, said.

“We had phenomenal participation and energy in the room.”