Scrum master working with project team members

At the age of 25, my career in cybersecurity started to take off. However, the farther I went up the leadership ladder, the fewer women I saw in the room. And the more men tried to advise me on what leadership looked like – sometimes literally.

I was repeatedly told to work on my “executive presence,” which proved to be a rather elusive concept. It began when my male supervisor told me that I needed to cut my hair. He thought it looked messy. So, I cut it. (Though, I should mention, I made him pay for it.) I also got my nails done and exclusively wore dresses and skirts, paired with high heels. I was counseled not to smile too much or too little. I was told not to be either “too emotional” or “too frigid.” Try navigating that confusing landscape!

The male leaders around me said that adopting these changes were essential to cultivating executive presence, and without doing so, my career could only advance so far. While I can’t go back and ignore this advice, I can share what I now know to be true about the traditional definition of executive presence: it’s outdated and just plain untrue.

It’s time to redefine executive presence and recognize that there is no universal recipe for how leaders should talk, act, or look. It’s certainly not about physical appearance. However, certain qualities undoubtedly make good leaders, all of which are learnable and admirable. Here is my practical, inclusive guide to how you can combat workplace biases against upcoming leaders and develop the type of executive presence that actually matters.

Debunking the “Seat at the Table” Fallacy

Despite the social progress we’ve made, women still continue to grapple with bias in the workplace. Much of it takes place in subtle ways, often making it difficult to name and address. We’ve fallen under the illusion that getting a “seat at the table” is enough to create a truly equitable workplace. But that’s not the case.

Research has shown that women, regardless of their seniority or which tables they sit at, shoulder the majority of “office housework” and low-value assignments, spending about 200 more hours on this non-promotable work each year than men. Additionally, women are disproportionately interrupted by their male counterparts in meetings, are more likely to be cast as “emotional” instead of passionate, and are typically viewed as less influential than male colleagues with comparable expertise.

If we want to avoid falling victim to these subtle yet detrimental biases, we have to first clearly identify the behavior. Ask yourself: Who’s sitting around the table? Who’s usually talking? Is someone consistently being spoken over? Reflect on the dynamics within your team.

Identify those who dominate conversations and address them in private. Challenge biased statements by making people think more deeply about their comments. For instance, someone says, “She was really emotional on that call.” Ask them, “What do you think makes her emotional? What did she specifically say? Is showing emotion always a negative?”

Proactively ask other team members to share their thoughts. Rotate administrative or low-value tasks, and don’t assign them to the same person by default. In other words, don’t simply pull up a seat at the table—invite people into the conversation and establish guardrails to ensure the equitable distribution of work.

The Power of Emotional Intelligence

Identifying and addressing such behaviors are examples of emotional intelligence (EQ). In my experience, demonstrating EQ is critical for effective leadership. And the data supports my observation: emotional intelligence sets 90% of top performers apart from everyone else. You can have all the technical skills in the world, but if you can’t have positive interactions with coworkers, manage your own emotions, or consider other people’s feelings, it will be incredibly difficult to excel in a leadership role.

Most importantly, EQ is not an elusive “it factor”; you can develop and practice it over time. So, what exactly is it? Emotional intelligence is defined as the ability to perceive, interpret, demonstrate, control, evaluate, and use emotions to communicate with and relate to others effectively and constructively. In simpler terms, it’s reading the room, communicating with empathy, and regulating your own emotions.

Reading the room: If you want to get better at understanding other people, you need to listen to them. Take time to consider what people are saying—both with their words and their body language—before inserting your opinions. You can also ask managers, colleagues, or friends for feedback on your emotional intelligence. If you do, it’s important that you (once again) listen to them and avoid being defensive. Understanding EQ blindspots might be an uncomfortable process, but it’s essential to improving them.

Communicating with empathy: An uncomfortable (but necessary) part of leadership is delivering tough news and leading through crises. While we can’t control all of what happens to us or our organizations, we can certainly control how we react and communicate about it. It’s okay if communicating empathetically doesn’t come naturally to you; it can be learned. My first tip is to acknowledge how your employees feel before talking about difficult things. For instance, start with something like, “I know this economic uncertainty feels stressful and anxiety-inducing,” before talking through budgeting plans.

Regulating your own emotions: Nobody wants to work for people who yell, roll their eyes, or are otherwise hostile in the face of adversity. That’s why it’s critical for leaders to keep their cool and react to situations with a level head. A simple but effective way to achieve this is to train yourself to think before you react. If you find yourself in an emotionally charged situation, take a breath. Allow time for your strong emotions to subside and assess the situation in a logical state of mind. It’s helpful to look at situations as if you were a fly on the wall to gain an objective, practical perspective on how to navigate them.

Additionally, be sure to check your own biases while interpreting how others react to difficult situations. Assertiveness is a common and acceptable trait for leaders to exude. However, women are more likely to be labeled as “aggressive” or “unlikable” when asserting themselves in professional scenarios. This perception can ultimately limit women’s success and unfairly penalize them for enforcing boundaries at work.

Spreading Positive Change

These are just some of the many ways to increase your EQ. That’s definitely a leadership move that you can and should start making, no matter where you are in your career. It not only sets you up for leadership opportunities, but it makes you a better human being. And it changes the culture around you as coworkers see you model emotional intelligence. This is true for men as well as women, and both are needed to help overcome the outmoded notions of what “executive presence” means.

By Kayla Williams is CISO at Devo.