I was recently invited to deliver a keynote speech for the annual conference of the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO), an organization for women presidents, CEOs, and managing directors of privately held, multimillion-dollar companies.
Before the conference, I asked attendees to submit questions they’d like answered. Several people asked a variation of the following:
“In some countries I work in, it’s extremely rare to see women in senior executive positions sitting at the Boardroom tables. How can I be successful in countries where female CEOs/business owners are not expected or respected?”
(If you think this does not apply to the United States, think again: A recent analysis by CNN Money found only 24 female CEOs in the entire S&P 500 — that’s just 5 percent. And the future breakdown does not look that much more promising, with only 330 women among the top 2,000 executives in these companies.)
Unfortunately, this is a reality women continue to deal with around the world, and being hard working, smart and having business savvy isn’t enough. But, there are steps women can take to feel empowered, to establish their credibility and hold onto it, when they conduct business anywhere.
A first impression is often built on appearance. And, sadly, this is especially true for women in business. For this reason, I recommend women create a neutral appearance, one that does not distract or detract from their authority. Opt for minimal accessories, clothing that is not too revealing, and a professional dress code — an appearance that says “listen to me,” and not “look at me.” Similarly, a strong physical “command presence” communicates you are in control. First, stand up straight, with feet slightly apart, chest open, shoulders back, and chin up. Then, shake it up and do it again. This is the ideal — a more relaxed, natural “command presence” that presents confidence and ease.
People of every culture pick up subtle cues that convey hierarchy. Use this to your advantage and enlist the help of your male colleagues to consistently communicate the status of your position. Have them introduce you with your proper professional title, and make sure that title is stated clearly on your business card. In most cultures, if a question is asked, the most senior person answers it. Speak to your colleagues ahead of time so that they defer questions to you — this helps continuously cement your position as the person in charge.
There are gender stereotypes we are aware of, and there are those that are so mundane they’re almost subconscious behaviors. But it’s these behaviors that can undermine your authority the most. For example, resist the urge to bring coffee to your colleagues, or casually clear dishes after a lunch meeting. You may think you are just being courteous, but to many people from different cultures, those behaviors say, “I’m not actually the CEO, I’m an assistant.”
When you’ve made it to the senior leadership level, you’re established and accomplished in your career, and you should present yourself that way. You have the benefit of experience. You look back and forward. You are confident, comfortable in your own skin, and a dynamic storyteller with an extensive library of examples. You are not ashamed to tell stories of your failures — in fact, you relish in sharing how you learned from them. Channel these qualities and you only further reinforce your status.
Imagine a dimmer switch in your home, the kind you use to brighten or soften a light. Your personality works the same way. You have a dimmer switch inside of you, and you can use it to control how bright or dark you show up. Depending on the person you are with or the circumstance you are in, you may need to adjust that dimmer switch. Women, especially, need to be aware of their “default” setting, and adjust as needed, because, unfortunately, we still have work to do to overcome gender-based stereotypes. You have the power to control that dimmer switch — you are adaptable and flexible.
The business world, in the United States and internationally, still has a far way to go to achieve complete gender equality. But, as a female entrepreneur or executive, you have the tools today to empower yourself, and inspire the generations that will follow you.