Building Power as a Female Executive

The topic of power came up during a Women’s CEO Summit I facilitated in December. Female executives often have a complicated relationship with power, and this group was no different. We discussed the interlocking social and internal reasons this is true. “In the end it doesn’t matter,” I told them. “Cultivating power is an essential skill of a CEO. And as a woman, you have to be even more mindful of building your power base.”

Every single woman in the room nodded her head. They got it. But how do you overcome whatever obstacles you have to achieve this?

First, consider the definition of power: Power is the ability to direct the behavior of others. CEOs are low- or high-power. Low-power CEOs get their power almost exclusively from their spot at the top of the organization chart. High-power CEOs use a sophisticated set of skills that take into account their mindset, network and personal presence. Like any others, these skills must be learned and practiced.

A high-power CEO gets more done. She can get opinionated senior executives to fall in line with her decisions more quickly and eliminate behind-her-back chatter and passive aggressive behavior. A high-power CEO knows what’s going on through her own inside channels, can dampen toxic politics and destructive infighting while encouraging healthy conflict, can influence the nomination and selection of board members and can drive transparency and high ethical standards. She will improve the status of the company she helms in the industry and in the eyes of Wall Street and the public.

Increasing Power

The first step in strategically increasing power is an internal shift: Recognize that building power and having power is a natural state of leaders. Women executives sometimes view power as selfish and authoritarian and equate power with force—their leadership style is naturally more collaborative than men’s.

The best way to change your mindset is to realize that the tendency to collaborate is a strength. Having real power is not about being a dictator nor forcing compliance from others—if that’s how you lead, you’re relying on hierarchy rather than leading using personal power.

So use your strength. Think about your purpose: Where are you trying to bring people? What are your aspirations for your company and your employees? How will building your power base advance those goals? Questions like that remind you that you can and will use your power to advance team success, not just your own success.

Surrounding Yourself with Powerful People

The next key to building power is to surround yourself with powerful people—your network is your power. Senior executives have busy lives. They travel often and deal with complicated customer situations. Added to this: Women often take responsibility for making sure the kids have child care when they are sick and there is enough food in the house. It’s easy to stop devoting time to the so-called “discretionary tasks” like increasing and maintaining your network. However, the time you spend on this has an exponential impact on your status and power.

Strategic networking creates a virtuous cycle: Your more powerful network increases your visibility; this visibility increases your power and status, which in turn increases your ability to build and maintain the right kind of relationships and get more done through them.

Women executives in particular have to make the most out of your time and make sure that your networking effort yields the highest value results. Your efforts should be on strategically building relationships with powerful people. Create a list of five to 10 people that you don’t know but would like to meet and add to your network. These can be fellow executives in your community, other business luminaries or thought leaders and authors known in the industry.

An excellent way to meet these people is to ask your existing network for introductions. You can also look into conferences or panels that they will be attending. If you plan, you might even be able to get your own speaking opportunity at this same panel. This leverages your time even more because you will likely meet the person and other luminaries and receive some external exposure.

Developing Personal Presence

The last area to examine is your personal presence—the way you come across. We make an impression on others instantly, and that gets reinforced the more time you spend with them. People form their impressions based on your nonverbal communication: the way you hold yourself, your voice and your tone. It’s important to be aware of how you come across and to be able to adjust it.

Here’s an example: Powerful people are expansive in their body language. They take up space and signal that they have the status in the room. That’s why the classic posture of a man putting his feet up on his desk is so accurate—he is taking up a lot of space.

Women, however, are often socialized to contract their bodies—to make themselves smaller. This is exactly the opposite of how to come across with power. And yet women don’t have access to the range of power postures that men traditionally use—can you imagine a woman in an elegant skirt and heels putting her feet up on her desk and leaning back with her arms folded?

Find a posture that will allow you spread your wings more comfortably. Put your hands on the armrest, or even ensure there is an empty chair next to you and extend your arm around it. When you are standing widen your stand to shoulder distance and put one foot slightly in front of the other. And ensure that you sit or stand straight, shoulders back, chest slightly upright. These small changes are subtle, but they convey your presence to others as well as give you more confidence. This confidence in turn builds your personal presence.

Your mandate as a senior leader is to have and use your power. Getting comfortable with that and learning the tools is your first step to building a solid foundation.

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