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Female Leader, Melissa Lewis, Founder Style Confidante

Melissa Lewis, Founder of Style Confidante is passionate about helping women to succeed in their careers. She is a personal brand, presence and image specialist, with an irrepressible energy and genuine warmth. An early proponent of personal branding, Melissa has worked for years behind the scenes as a partner to prominent female senior executives, helping them to elevate their executive presence so they can bridge what they know and how they are perceived. From experience, she knows the secret sauce that will provide women with the tools they need to advance their career. And she’s bringing to Australia a new scientifically grounded assessment tool that measures Executive Presence.

Tell us about your new tool that measures Executive Presence and how this will help future female leaders combat unconscious bias.

Until now, Executive Presence has been that mysterious X factor in leadership that was hard to measure, summed up in the oft-repeated phrase: ‘I know it when I see it’. To truly help women succeed in their careers, I knew I needed an assessment tool that had weight and research to back up what I have known for years: it’s rarely lack of skills holding women back from further success, but rather external perceptions limiting them from being seen as ‘leadership material’

Executive presence is defined as the ability to engage, inspire, align, and move people to act. My breakthrough came last year when I discovered a scientifically grounded tool that cracks the code. The Bates Model uses the power of real feedback to validate and measure your Executive Presence against scientifically-derived criteria.

In early 2017, I travelled to Boston to become an accredited practitioner in the Bates ExPITM Assessment tool. This model was designed by Bates Communication and two professors from Boston University and The Wharton School. It is currently being successfully used in over 17 countries around the world in more than 30 different industries which is why I was so excited to be one of the few accredited people to bring this program to Australia.

There is so much work that needs to be done to combat unconscious bias in the workplace. This model is just one element to help women take control of how they are perceived and whether or not they are heard. Developing your unique presence based on your character, substance and style is crucial to getting to that next level of your career. Your ability to be able to influence others to achieve greater business outcomes depends on your relationships with your stakeholders.

How have you successfully helped women to progress in their career through personal branding and building confidence?

My work with clients explores and refines all elements of personal brand – character, substance and style. It is amazing to see what a woman can accomplish in her career and life goals when she truly knows her strengths and knows how to communicate this value to others.

Working with a woman named Clare is one of my favourite success stories to date. She came to my Women Who Lead program 18 months ago with low self-esteem and felt like an outsider at the office. We worked together in 1:1 personal brand and visibility sessions and found out what was holding her back from feeling confident and going for the roles she knew she was capable of. We worked through challenges and reframed previously limiting beliefs. We also worked on her external brand and image transformation.

With a set budget, we worked on a total ‘look’ including hair, make-up and outfits. It was really about working from the inside out to give Clare that edge that she felt was missing. The results were astounding. “I feel reborn!” was Clare’s reaction. She described the feeling of ‘removing the barriers’. Her new sense of calm confidence and value at work allowed her to initiate conversations with senior managers with whom she previously felt invisible. Clare has now taken control of her career by changing her mindset and has a managerial position in a job that she loves.

What are some of your financially savvy tips to help women get value for money out of their wardrobe?

We need to be commercial for our business and for ourselves! As with all investments, there are wardrobe choices that you can make to maximise future return.

In order for your purchases to offer the highest possible ROI, each item must:

  • complement your best features and make you feel great when you’re wearing it;
  • mix and match with existing items in your wardrobe in multiple ways; and
  • align with your personal brand to reflect the image and message you want to convey.

The golden rule for shopping smart is paying attention to FIT, COLOUR and FABRIC.

  • Do not compromise on the fit, but do be open to a little alteration to make the garment further complement your shape. It doesn’t matter what the magazines tell you is in fashion. If it doesn’t suit you, it doesn’t suit you!
  • Choose colours that complement your skin and hair tones. (Again, ignore whatever you’re being told about what colours are ‘in’ this season.)
  • Make sure the fabric is good quality, comfortable and resistant to creasing or stretching out of shape.

As a confidante to many corporate women, what difficulties are they facing in the corporate sector and how do you help navigate them to leadership positions?

One of the biggest obstacles for women stepping into leadership is that their presence doesn’t match their capabilities, so they are being overlooked. Over the past seven years, my focus has been on empowering women to differentiate themselves for greater visibility in a competitive work environment. For many women who may have doubted themselves, I help them to articulate and commercialise their value, cut through the noise and put themselves forward for promotions, step onto boards and take on the senior roles they are capable of doing.

Sometimes, women who already hold senior positions continue to face resistance from their teams or peers. Recently I had a client who found me on LinkedIn. She had just been promoted to Senior Executive at one of Australia’s major banks. She struggled to understand why she didn’t feel the respect and influence that she expected from her new role. She sought me out as her ‘confidante’. After working together we got to the crux of the issue: her leadership role had changed, so aspects of her brand that had served her well in the past were no longer enough. By shifting her perceptions and working successfully with me to reshape her brand, she was able to build influence and gain respect. She became more inclusive and intentional, and she sharpened her appearance to reflect the exceptional woman she had become.

While gender equality is a massive issue in the workplace and one that affects many of my clients in their career progression, an issue that comes up time and time again is actually being blocked by other women in the office! It is already hard enough for working women to find their place at the leadership table. We need to stop seeing our female colleagues as competitors and focus instead on growing our networks of support. We need to back ourselves with confidence and genuinely support each other to reach our professional goals.

What has been your greatest challenge?

Shifting my business from wardrobe consulting to personal branding was really challenging because this was a new concept in Australia. There was little context for it. Through networking, workshops, keynote speaking, publishing articles, expanding my 1:1 services, and even cold calling, I was able to change perceptions within my target market and build brand familiarity. Businesswomen began to see that personal branding is not just about the clothes, it’s about confidence and professional development. Re-educating my market has taken a balance of persistence and patience!

What are you most proud of?

One of the most rewarding and satisfying experiences has been travelling to Boston to become a Bates ExPI certified practitioner. Searching for something, finding it and then following my gut and investing in myself was a big move. But I’m already seeing the impact I can make and it makes it all worthwhile.

No matter how many years I do what I do, I still feel so proud when a client calls me to tell me that she’s achieved something in her career that she’s worked towards. It’s still such an honour to help women grow and succeed and it’s something I never take for granted.

What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?

There is no cookie cutter approach to success and at different times in your career you will be required to have different tools in your tool box. So, professional development is a must. It’s irrelevant what position or stage you are at you can always be better and you can always step things up.

Another important lesson is that you’re not going to be for everyone. I think as women especially we find it very hard not to be ‘liked’. But we can’t be all things for all people.

Your personal brand is built on your reputation so you need to be out there, connecting with others, sharing your expertise and allowing others to get to know what you have to offer. If you feel less confident about some of your skills, invest in yourself and learn. Fill the gaps.

This seems like three pieces of advice, but it’s all connected. It’s all about not compromising when it comes to ‘brand you’. Always work on strengthening your skills and what you have to offer while remaining true to your core values.


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Posted by Jade Collins - Femeconomy Director

Jade Collins has 20 years’ global experience in corporate executive Human Resources and management consulting roles in the Mining, Energy and Aerospace industries, leading large scale, complex multi-million-dollar change management programs. Jade finds the combination of her HR, Psychology and MBA qualifications and her leadership experience is invaluable for increasing gender equality in leadership across industries. Jade was a member of the Queensland Government's Strategic Advisory Group for the Toward Gender Parity: Women on Boards Initiative and the 2019 CQU Alumni of the Year for Social Impact for her work with Femeconomy.