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C-Suite Access – Redefining Executive Presence For Women Leaders

Written by: Karin Wellbrock, Senior Level Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

Executive Contributor Karin Wellbrock

Executive Presence (EP) is evolving globally, allowing women to advance in leadership. Instead of traditional gravitas, this new approach values inclusivity, diversity, and authenticity. This is the opportunity for Japanese women to shine by leveraging their respectful communication as a leadership strength. The shift celebrates varied leadership styles and emphasizes authenticity. This change empowers women aiming for top roles and aligns leadership with our diverse global community.

Businesswoman stands to address meeting around board table

Redefining leadership across cultures

From my coaching experience, the term "Executive Presence" often becomes a barrier for women, especially Japanese women in multinational corporations (MNCs), who aspire to leadership roles involving regional or global responsibilities. Common critiques like "lacks gravitas," "not assertive enough," or being labeled as "wallpaper" are not just comments on an individual's demeanor but reflections of a broader cultural gap in understanding leadership qualities.

Navigating cross-cultural perceptions

Japanese professionals, particularly women, face unique challenges when their leadership presence is assessed through a global lens. The international business arena frequently misinterprets the reserved and contemplative communication style inherent in Japanese corporate culture as indecisiveness or passivity. This misunderstanding stems from a fundamental difference in cultural values: where Japanese professionals prioritize respect, active listening, and thoughtful response, Western counterparts might equate assertiveness with effective leadership. ¹

Bridging the cultural divide

This disparity necessitates a shift towards more empathetic and inclusive evaluations of leadership potential. Recognizing and valuing diverse communication styles not only fosters a more global mindset within teams but also ensures the recognition of every professional's true capabilities. Creating an environment that appreciates these differences is crucial for leveraging global talent and encouraging a more varied leadership landscape.

Towards a more inclusive understanding of leadership

Recent research suggests a changing perspective on what constitutes executive presence, signaling a move towards inclusivity and diversity in leadership roles. By challenging traditional definitions and embracing a broader range of leadership qualities, there's an opportunity to dismantle barriers and open the door for leaders who bring diverse perspectives and approaches. This evolution in understanding executive presence is not just beneficial for women but enriches the entire spectrum of leadership, making it more reflective of our global community.


The evolution of leadership qualities: From traditional to inclusive

The foundations of executive presence revisited

The concept of Executive Presence (EP) as presented by by Sylvia Ann Hewlett ² based on 2012 research in the US, has traditionally been built on a foundation of three core attributes: gravitas, which conveys a leader's depth and seriousness; effective communication skills, crucial for articulating vision and influencing others; and a professional appearance, underscoring the importance of a leader's visual presentation. These elements combined to form the quintessential leader, one who commands respect and exudes authority.

A paradigm shift in leadership attributes

However, the landscape of leadership is undergoing a significant transformation, as highlighted in Sylvia Ann Hewlett's refresh of her EP study a decade later. ³ This research marks a pivotal shift in the perception of leadership traits, notably in the realm of Executive Presence. While the importance of confidence and decisiveness remains unchanged, there's an increasing appreciation for the role of inclusiveness in leadership. This shift reflects the rising prominence of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the strategic frameworks of modern businesses.

Embracing a more holistic approach to leadership

This refined understanding of EP introduces a more holistic set of expectations for leaders. It's no longer sufficient to merely project confidence and maintain a commanding presence; today's leaders are also expected to embrace and champion inclusivity, actively acknowledging and valuing diverse viewpoints. This expanded perspective on leadership qualities opens new avenues for a broader spectrum of leaders, potentially leveling the playing field. It specifically offers a beacon of hope for Japanese women leaders, whose distinct attributes and skills are gaining recognition for their value on the global stage. This shift towards a more inclusive and nuanced view of leadership not only promises greater diversity at the helm of organizations but also enriches the very essence of what it means to lead in today's interconnected world.


The new era of executive presence: A lighter look

Revisiting the core of EP 2012 vs 2022

Once upon a time, in the world of leadership, gravitas was king. Picture a leader with an aura of authority, confidently navigating through challenges with a 'command-and-control' style. That was the epitome of leadership presence, with a big emphasis on standing out.

Fast forward to the present, and there's a shift in the air. Leadership now comes with a side of inclusiveness. It's not just about being the loudest voice in the room but also about creating a space where everyone's voice matters. The modern leader's mantra? "Let's make this a team effort." It's about blending the classic leadership traits with a genuine embrace of diversity, making everyone feel included and respected.

Communication: From monologues to dialogues

Back in the day, leadership communication was all about powerful speeches and persuasive talks. Cut to now, and the script includes respect, authenticity, and a real two-way conversation. It's less about talking at people and more about talking with them, bridging gaps with understanding and empathy.

Dressing the part: Then and now

Remember when the leader's uniform was a sharp suit and a power tie? Times have changed. Now, it's about expressing your authentic self, dressing in a way that's true to you while keeping it professional. Leaders like Sundar Pichai are showing us how it's done, mixing approachability with professionalism, and setting the tone for the 'new normal' in workplace attire.

Adapting to the digital age

In 2012, leadership was all about face-to-face charisma. Today, with the digital world taking center stage, savvy with online platforms is the new must-have. It's about making your presence felt through screens, mastering the art of virtual communication, and connecting genuinely, even if it's through a webcam.

Looking ahead: The future of leadership

As we dive deeper into this new decade, the transformation of EP, fueled by DEI, continues to redefine leadership. It's an open invitation for leaders, especially women, to redefine what leadership looks and feels like. This evolution is not just about breaking old molds but also about celebrating the unique qualities each leader brings to the table.

Eager to explore how you can redefine your leadership style in this changing landscape? Come along with me on this exciting journey. Drop a note to, and start a conversation that could be the key to unlocking your leadership potential.

Follow me on LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info! Read more from Karin!

Brainz Magazine Karin Wellbrock

Karin Wellbrock, Senior Level Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

In addition to being a co-founder of Kay Group K.K in Japan, Karin Wellbrock is an executive coach and leadership consultant with over 30 years of global experience. A passionate advocate of human-centered, inclusive leadership, she creates exceptional results. To bring innovation to the workplace, she is conducting research in Japan and Europe to increase female representation in leadership roles. Her program "Leader-by-Design" demonstrates this. Dedicated to systemic change, Karin is a member of an all-women-led angel investment club in Asia Pacific, and mentors startup and NGO leaders and game changers in Asia and Europe. It is her mission to elevate 100 women to the C-suite.





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