Melissa Lewis Founder and CEO The Ascension Group has set out to research and uncover the science behind personal presence. Working for many years as a trusted advisor to talented executive women and witnessing firsthand the transformative effect of minor changes to presence on their career, Melissa became passionate about finding a way to define and measure the ephemeral quality of ‘presence’.
Share with us some of the research around female executives, and how executive presence is a factor in their leadership journey?
I Googled the term ‘executive presence’ a few years back. It’s the second largest searched professional development term when people seek out coaching, only behind ‘general leadership effectiveness’.
What’s happening is women leaders get to a point where they hit a wall in their career. They discover it isn’t enough to have incredible talent, work hard, have great ambitions and technical expertise. People with less talent are getting opportunities, not them. Why? Well, times have changed. Other people’s perceptions of us, whether they’re accurate or not, are just as important as our results and accomplishments.
Intuitively, women understand that they’re being judged on their executive presence, not just performance. But they’re failing to reach their full potential because they get stuck on the ‘how’. They have no idea what executive presence means, and often neither do their managers.
That’s fair enough because unlike other aspects of leadership development, executive presence is almost impossible to put a finger on. It’s always been the mysterious X-factor in leadership. Although executive presence is vital for professional success, it has not necessarily been tangible or measurable, until now!
The Ascension Group supports female leaders through analysing a blend of internal and external personal factors. Tell us how this approach works.
The Ascension Group is on a mission to assist talented, driven women working in male-dominated industries step into the roles they are capable of. We provide the data and insights to build on their natural strengths, uncover blind spots and bridge the gap between their intentions and perceptions of others.
I previously spent more than 8 years working in personal brand and image consulting for business women. I knew there still something missing in their presence. They looked great on the outside, but something was missing on the inside. It turns out that missing link was executive presence, which unites our leadership influence and values, professional brand and personal image. You’ve got to be credible from the inside out.
The Ascension Group has designed two pathways to help women lift their presence. We’re one of the only companies in the Australasian region to specialise in this fundamental leadership development issue.
The internal process deeply explores leadership traits and behaviours for professional growth through 360 or our PQ® proprietary diagnostic tools. This helps us discover if ours and others’ perceptions are aligned with our intentions and professional goals. The results form the basis of a tailored strategy for leadership success. With data and insights, we can now confidently measure what was an elusive term, and allow leaders to have honest and meaningful feedback on how their presence is being felt by others.
The external service provides image and wardrobe solution packages, which have proven to be hugely popular over the years. Women feel confident having a wardrobe that supports the many hats they wear for work and play, in a style they feel comfortable with. It allows them to focus on their work and what they love to do best. Our service also puts a stop to women spending a heck of a lot of money on clothes, but not getting value or confidence from the items.
Tell us about how you are using psychometric instruments to measure executive presence.
A few years ago I got fed up with organisations saying they didn’t have the right female talent in their organisations to promote to a higher level. I knew that the women were there, but they were just being overlooked or misinterpreted. I saw the missing X factor for women wasn’t their IQ (Intelligence Quotient) or EQ (Emotional Quotient), but rather their PQ® (Presence Quotient).
So I set out to find – and I did – the only science-based assessment tool in the world that can measure executive presence. It was developed by the leading Bates Communication in Boston, who I later trained with.
I combined this 360 assessment tool with my own diagnostic tool looking at perception of self. These tools combined offer women a powerful, structured and science-based way to elevate their presence. Basically, we take the guesswork out of the equation. I truly believe executive presence is the secret behind leadership success in today’s world. Now we can make the intangible tangible.
You’ve supported a large number of female executives and board directors to elevate their executive presence. What are some results clients have shared with you?
This is so rewarding and why I do the work I do. Over the years, I’ve worked with hundreds and hundreds of gifted women. I’m always thrilled to see and hear about the many successes my clients have once they have elevated their executive presence.
For example, many of my clients are now sitting on boards. They now feel they deserve that seat at the table, they are not questioning their worth, and they know the valuable insights they are able to contribute.
Other women learn how to confidently negotiate pay, and have those ‘difficult’ conversations. They have the poise to walk into any room full of males and own their space. Once they are armed with insights, they can shift the needle of perception and finesse their communication style, which leads to greater influence and commercial outcomes.
They become front of mind for juicy opportunities. And they have clarity and confidence in not only they understanding their value but others are recognising it too. Add to that the assurance they feel about their external image.
They no longer get stressed about what to wear for events, presentations and casual Fridays. Their wardrobe only has items that they love, feel great in and that support their professional brand. These things all add up to help my clients become the best version of themselves! It’s a wonderful upward spiral.
In your Principles of Presence keynote speeches, what are the key messages you focus on?
Principles Of Presence is based on my 8 years working with hundreds of smart, hard-working women combined with my research from Bates, who applied science to the topic of executive presence – a mammoth task.
The key message is that “we no longer just need to develop our IQ or our EQ, but our PQ®, our Presence Quotient”.
Impressions are formed instantly and unconsciously. It’s not necessarily the smartest person in the room who manages to exude the kind of credibility and executive maturity we associate with ‘success’.
Whether you’re a professional woman seeking a next-level promotion, greater financial rewards, or the visibility and influence you deserve, credentials alone will no longer get you there.
Executive presence is the ability to signal confidence, credibility and influence. It’s bridging the gap between what you know and how you’re perceived. We have identified that presence is made up of 3 principles: commercial demeanour, professional brand and executive style. And each principle is underpinned by 3 behavioural characteristics.
Think about the 3 principles like 3 wheels on a tricycle. Each is wheel is as important as the other, if you want to move forward efficiently and effectively. And if one or two tyres are flat, it puts pressure on the other tyre or tyres to compensate for the lack of air in the flat one/s.
The same thing happens if one or more of your principles of presence is not fully functioning. It puts pressure on the others.
Advice for future female leaders?
Back and invest in yourself, and find a tribe that will do so too. In life, there are so many challenges to navigate, personally and professionally. Having the right support at each stage of your career allows you to explore your full potential and propel to the next level. Investing in yourself is the greatest gift.
You are the female economy. Whether you are a female consumer, business owner or a woman in the workforce, you can create gender equality by choosing female led brands.
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