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The Friday Five

Unpacking Executive Presence for Young Lawyers

By Meyling "Mey" Ly Ortiz

During my eight years of private practice, I never heard of the term “executive presence.” I don’t know if that was because the concept wasn’t trendy yet, or just because I was so focused on billing. But now that I’m in-house, executive presence (EP) is a phrase I hear often, usually in conversations about influence and leadership.

executive presence

The more I mentor young lawyers, the more I believe that, at least here in the U.S., executive presence can be the unwritten, unspoken, perhaps even unknown but subconscious reason a lawyer accelerates or stagnates at a firm.

Shifting Expectations for Executive Presence

Candidly, I am no subject-matter expert here. In fact, many years ago, after receiving feedback in my performance review about the need to grow my executive presence, I began working with a professional coach.

Executive presence is often subjective. For context, however, Sylvia Ann Hewlett reports on the attributes that define EP — and how they have changed in the past decade — in her recent HBR article “The New Rules of Executive Presence.” Hewlett tells us EP “is typically perceived as consisting of three elements in descending order of importance: gravitas, skillful communication, and the ‘right’ appearance.” As she further explains:

[W]hile confidence and decisiveness are still paramount for gravitas, pedigree has become less central, and new weight is given to inclusiveness and respect for others. On the communication front, superior speaking skills and the ability to command a room still lead the list of desirable attributes, but comfort on Zoom, a ‘listen to learn’ orientation, and authenticity are on the rise. Projecting authenticity is also key to the appearance component of EP; so are dressing for the new normal, having an online image, and showing up in person.

What Are They Saying When You’re Not in the Room?

No matter how you define it — and whether you are mentoring young lawyers or are one — developing executive presence is key to developing a career as a successful attorney. Here are five things to consider.

1. Understand How Others Perceive You

What do you think people say about you when you’re not in the room? And why do you think they say that?

This concept is squarely within personal branding, but I believe it’s the foundation for exploring whether you are exhibiting executive presence. It is important to have an awareness of what the “buzz” is around you. When your name is brought up at work, whether in a formal meeting or in passing in the hallway, what are the words that people use? If you don’t know, this is where trusted mentors can be a great resource. Schedule a one-to-one meeting with a mentor and ask: “How am I being perceived at the firm?”

If you want to improve and grow, it’s important to take the time to understand why you are perceived the way you are. Is it the way you speak? Is it your nonverbal expressions? Is it your response time? Is it the way you dress?

2. Critically Review Good and Bad Feedback

It’s easy to just take the “A” and pat yourself on the back, but it’s more helpful to your development to know the specific actions and behaviors that are being rewarded so you can repeat them and turn them into habits. It’s also too easy to dismiss criticism and attribute feedback to partner idiosyncrasies. All feedback is data that you can leverage to make yourself better.

3. What Do You Want People to Say About You?

Beyond understanding how people perceive you, it’s critical to decide for yourself how you want to be perceived. What do you want them to say about you when you walk out of the room? What three or four words do you want people to use when describing you at work? While it may seem the answers to these questions would elicit the same words from everyone, you’d be surprised. People often have unique life experiences that drive their specific word choices, along with the actions they take to reinforce those perceptions. For example, I have a close friend who is notoriously known for being helpful, which she wants to encourage. In leaning into that word, she often intentionally includes lines like “in case it’s helpful” or “happy to help” or asks “how can I help?” in her emails.

Consider your actions in relation to how you want to be perceived. How can you show up to make those impressions?

It bears noting that how you want to be perceived should align with who you authentically are. It’s too exhausting to try to be something you’re not. Rather, you want to lean into and perhaps amplify parts of who you already are.

4. Be Clear About How You Do NOT Want to Be Perceived

It’s true that first impressions matter. And it is easy to get pigeonholed as a young lawyer through your early demeanor, appearance and actions. It may seem harmless at first, but it is important to be proactive — and strategic — about how you are perceived. Otherwise, you can get stuck doing work you don’t enjoy, or answering to an unflattering nickname, or worse.

For example, as a person under five feet tall and an aspiring executive leader, I do not want to be “cute” at work. So, when I dress for work, I avoid anything with bows. I don’t wear Mary Jane-style shoes, and I probably dress up more than I dress down.

5. Who Has Influence in Your Law Firm?

This question often surprises people and can elicit an “ick” factor. I see it less as Machiavellian and more pragmatic. Executive presence is often subjective and in the “eye of the beholder,” so it is important to figure out who has influence at your firm and be strategic. What is their definition of a successful, valued attorney at your firm — and what do they think of you?

Notice that I use the term “influence.” That is intentional because it may not correlate at all to your firm’s formal power or hierarchal authority.

Showing Up Authentically

As human beings, we make snap judgments all the time. It’s part of our evolution and was key to the survival of our earliest ancestors. This means others are making judgments about us, too. You can align those outside judgments with who you really are by showing up with intention and authenticity.

Related: “5 Traits of Successful Lawyers

Image © iStockPhoto.com.

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Meyling Meyling "Mey" Ly Ortiz

Meyling “Mey” Ly Ortiz is Managing Counsel of Employment at Toyota Motor North America, Inc. Her passions include mentoring, championing diversity and inclusion, and a personal blog: TheMeybe.com. At home, you can find her doing her best to be a “fun” mom to a toddler and preschooler and chasing her best self on her Peloton (her handle is Meybe if you want her to try to chase you too). You can follow her on LinkedIn and @Meybe_JD on Twitter. (And you knew this was coming: Her opinions are hers alone.)

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