Coaching as a Catalyst to Build Executive Presence in the DEI Space

By Dr. Linda A. Liang,
Organizational Resources, LLC

I was 26 years old, one year in my job as a statistician at a non-profit in downtown Chicago. Relatively new to the professional world, I was promoted to the Manager of the exam unit, now leading a team of 9 employees, with two degreed professionals. My promotion was a surprise tome, even though I had recommended myself for the job. I asked the Director why I was promoted, and she said, “you look like a manager.” Another way to describe what she said is “executive presence”(e.g.,neat, professional clothing, and well-spoken)

After coaching more than 300 leaders, including over 100 leaders from diverse backgrounds, I find that Individuals often seek coaching to increase their career opportunities, executive presence, power, and visibility at work. Performance is comprised of two major components: How you are perceived and what you produce. We tend to focus on what we produce, but research shows(Hewlett, 2014) that to be considered for positions of authority you have to display executive presence, in other words how other people perceive us, e.g., the ability to command a room, be noticed and attract others. Make no mistake, performance matters.

Executive presence is comprised of three components: gravitas(how you engage others),communication(how you speak)and appearance(how you look).How you look is comprised of being polished and groomed, physically attractive, simple stylish clothes such as those needed for the next level up, being tall, and displaying energy. Of course, the workplace norms also playa part of what is expected in terms of physical appearance. For women, Hewlett’s research study indicates that having visible, but not too much makeup is associated with being a leader and having moderate makeup is associated with being trustworthy (Hewlett,2014).One must wear clothing that is neat in appearance, pressed and appropriate for the audience. Note that this may vary depending on the individual, and usually our instincts are our best guides.

Coaching is a powerful tool in which you and a coach “co-create” your path and progress. The coach is there to guide you, you are there to do the work. The coach provides a safe sounding board, to take risks, try on new ideas, so that you can be completely honest with yourself and focus completely on yourself and your priorities. Coaching helps you to identify your leadership strengths and blind spots, to enable you to fully utilize your gifts and talents. In the diverse workplace, we need to attend to ourselves and the individuals with whom we engage. Following is an example, based on a composite of my coaching clients, of how coaching can empower you to be more visible and present.

I was coaching an African-American leader who had been selected to be a representative of her organization on a national committee. She did not recognize her leadership strengths, and felt unqualified, and reluctant to attend the committee meeting. She completed a 360-degree review of her strengths and was surprised to learn that she had many leadership skills,(e.g., teamwork, empathy, strategic thinking, etc). She decided to attend and just listen. She feared that her ideas would be different, and that she did not really know how the committee worked–who were the power players and what were the expectations. By discussing with me all the “what ifs”, why she had been selected, what her strengths were, and what, perhaps, she might be able to contribute, she realized that she had a place there, and could contribute to the results of the meeting. She attended, spoke up and was soon tagged as a “leader” for her different point of view and diplomatic way of leading the conversation. She was soon asked to chair a more highly visible and powerful committee. If she had been quiet, as she had planned, her talents and contributions would have been lost. Note that this example is a composite example of individuals I have coached. One of the lessons learned is that a coach can guide you to address self-doubt and affirm your capabilities. This guidance can be a catalyst to strengthen your executive presence and opportunities.


Hewlett, S.A., Allwood, N., Sumberg, K.,2014.Cracking the Code: Executive Presenceand Multicultural Professionals. Center for Talent Innovation.

Hewlett, S.A.(2014).Executive Presence.New York, NY:Harper Collins Books

Dr. Linda Liang is a leadership expert and executive coach, (certified by the International CoachFederation). She has spoken often on Building Power and Executive Presence, and Power andInfluence. She holds a Ph.D. In Industrial/Organizational Psychologyand coaches leaders forpresence, power, passion, and prosperity. She is the President of Organizational Resources,LLC. To continue the discussion, contact her at