How you act, move, and gesture (your nonverbal behavior), the ways in which you speak (your verbal behavior), and how you dress and present yourself (your appearance) control other people’s impressions of you. That’s right: what you signal to others by the image you convey is far more important in shaping their impressions of you than is the substance of your comments, your actual productivity, or the insightfulness of your ideas. Of course, your substantive performance — what you actually accomplish, how hard you work, and the help you provide your organization, supervisors, and co-workers — is critically important for your ultimate career success. But — unfair as it may be — unless you can package your accomplishments, work ethic, and potential in such a way that you are noticed as a leader who knows her stuff and is ready to move up, you are not likely to get that sought-after assignment, leadership opportunity, or important sales opening.
Many women resist changing their style and behavior to influence the ways in which others see them. Many women tell us that doing so would not “be authentic” or would make them “a phony.” But managing your impressions is not being inauthentic; it is displaying those aspects of your personality that are most likely to be effective in this particular situation. And different situations, cultures, and industries will call for you to exhibit a variety of these different aspects of your personality.
A new book by Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Ripa Rashid, Growing Global Executives: The New Competencies, provides a unique perspective on the need for this sort of impression management. Hewlett and Rashid looked at the behaviors that are understood to be characteristic of a leader in 11 different countries. They found that to be successful in multiple countries, an executive must be able to “pivot” so that her behavior in each country conforms to its prevailing expectation of appropriate leadership style. Indeed, they state that an executive’s ability to change her or his style from country to country is a necessary “core competency” of a successful global leader.
In all countries, a leader is expected to display “executive presence,” but executive presence is exhibited in different ways in different countries. In the U.S., executive presence depends on your ability to demonstrate authority. In Japan, however, executive presence depends on showing you can work across differences; in Russia you must first establish your reputation and status; and in India you must be able to inspire a following.
A woman may need to be assertive and strong to be recognized as a leader in the U.S.; in Japan she will need to be polite and soft. In the West generally, demonstrating authority (after establishing integrity) is what projects executive presence. In growth markets (Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Africa, and Turkey), however, executive presence derives less from a display of authority and more from inspiring a following and demonstrating emotional intelligence. Being authoritative will make you credible with top Western brass, but when dealing in foreign markets emotional intelligence is what you will need to earn the trust and respect of your team members, customers, and competitors.
Hewlett and Rashid conclude that the ability of a rising leader to alter her leadership style — change the way she projects executive presence — as she moves among cultures, contexts, and peoples is critical for her ability to advance in her career.
As interesting as are Hewlett and Rashid’s findings, you hardly have to have responsibilities in multiple countries to realize that projecting executive presence is context-dependent. Regardless of the business situation and interpersonal dynamic, you want the people with whom you are dealing to have an impression of you as poised, competent, and authentic; someone who is the real deal. But the verbal and nonverbal behavior with which you signal these qualities are likely to vary greatly from context to context.
It makes a difference whether you are working on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, London or Tokyo, IBM or Walmart. It also makes a difference whether there are many or few women in the meeting or on your team, the nature of the gender stereotypes your supervisors, customers, and co-workers hold, and the expectations surrounding the task you are about to perform. In each context, you must first assess the impression you need to make to get the job done. You must then present yourself in such a way that you make that impression. A truly successful career requires much more than projecting the right image, but impression management of this sort is a precondition to achieving that success.