About a year ago, I started noticing an odd trend at work. People would ask for my advice on how to move ahead on a project; I would give them my advice; and then they would hurry off to get a second opinion, as if they didn’t trust what I had to say. Once I realize that this kept happening, I got a little annoyed. On the one hand, I see the value in getting a second opinion, but if you are constantly re-confirming what I’m telling you then stop wasting my time and just get your first opinion from someone else, you know? Obviously, that is not the right attitude to have when you don’t think you’re being taken seriously at work.
Many, like me, will experience situations where it seems that our competence is being questioned. When we’re new to the profession, we seek out lots of advice and guidance, but suddenly three, four years pass by and people start coming to you for that advice. In order for your career to continue to progress, you have to make everyone understand that you are capable of providing the support and legal acuity needed to create a successful legal practice. Unfortunately, often gender and our ethnicity impacts how we are perceived and thus we have to work twice as hard to be accepted as a guiding force within our job.
Knowing that respect won’t always be easily (or rightfully) given, it can be really helpful if we actively work on our “executive presence.” This article from Marie Claire does a fantastic job of describing what executive presence requires. Executive presence assesses three things: how you look; how you speak; and how you behave.
How you behave is linked to your Gravitas–this is a hallowed principal in the professional world. Gravitas is a defined as seriousness, but really in a professional setting, Gravitas is how people determine the respect they should give you. There are many elements to Gravitas and each must be honed as you grow into your profession. They include having grace under pressure; decisiveness; integrity; emotional intelligence; authenticity; a stellar reputation; leadership, and projecting a vision.
It’s hard to know which areas need improvement and what to focus on–I doubt many supervisors will mark on a review that you should work on your gravitas. Instead, you should make an effort to improve on all these areas to allow yourself to grow to your full potential. A worthwhile exercise is to pick one of these qualities and actively work to improve it. Once you feel secure in that area, move on to another one.
You also need to hone these skills to fit your environment. For example, I work at a very casual legal aid. It would be a waste of my time and resources to focus on how I look when that is not the skill set that I need to showcase at this point in time.
Instead, when I started feeling like coworkers were questioning the solid advice I was giving them I began to assess myself. Instead of telling them to just stop bothering me since they weren’t willing to listen (which is what I wanted to do)–I focused on how I was delivering my message.
The first thing I stopped doing was offering my opinion at every opportunity. I took on a WAIT approach during meetings. WAIT* meaning, Why Am I Talking? and talking only when I knew I was providing solid advice on strategy or giving valid legal information. This cut down my participation in meetings, but added real quality when I did contribute.
Additionally, I remembered that my word alone wouldn’t always be sufficient for certain people. Instead, when I would give advice, I would try to include some source as to where I came up with my suggestions. This not only alleviated coworkers concerns, but from their perspective, it strengthened the value of my advice because I came equipped with other sources on which they could rely.
Since implementing these changes, I’ve had less pushback from coworkers questioning my guidance. Of course, this doesn’t mean I always exude “executive presence”–I’ve still a long way to go, and there will always be coworkers that are overly cautious and require multiple opinions before they make a move. However, instead of being annoyed by their behavior, I’m making the effort to work on myself knowing that any progress on my executive presence will help gain the respect of my coworkers, and propel me to the next level.
How do you improve your executive presence?
*I read about the WAIT method from some online source and I’m very sorry I can’t find it! I definitely did not create it, but it’s proven super useful to me.