Direct Report Needs to Work on Executive Presence? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I am director of client services for a global financial consulting group. I have a direct report who has a lot going for her. She is a hard worker, always organized and prepared, and a top performer. She is ambitious and has lofty goals.

But she lacks gravitas.

Like her, I am a woman who looks much younger than I am, and I know from experience that people like me must almost overcompensate by being very serious. This is especially true when seeking to establish “trusted partner” status with customers.

This person has a hard time receiving negative feedback. When I have mentioned this issue to her in the past, she was not open to hearing it. I just received survey results from members of our team, members of other cross-functional teams, and some customers that made it clear that I’m not the only one who sees the need for change.

How do I approach this with my team member? I don’t want to demotivate her, but I am 100% certain that she will not achieve her goals if she doesn’t pay attention to this issue and do something soon. I feel I will be doing her a disservice if I don’t say something. What would you advise?

A Little Stumped


Dear A Little Stumped,

It seems like you care about your team member, and you really do have her best interests at heart. She probably has no idea how lucky she is to have you in her corner. And I agree that if you don’t tell her now, it will only get harder for her to understand why she isn’t advancing the way she thinks she should be.

There are two important parts to helping your team member:

First, help her permanently shift her relationship to feedback. Being open to hearing feedback, thoughtfully considering feedback, and finding a way to make feedback useful are critical skills for anyone who has ambitious career goals. This may be harder than anything else, but it is kind of a precursor to the gravitas piece. Foundational.

I once read a study showing that some people come wired with an openness to feedback, and you must hire for it because it can’t be taught. The study wasn’t replicated, so I am not 100% convinced, but it did stick with me—especially when I am hiring. And it hasn’t stopped me from trying to help people shift. The thing about working as a professional coach, however, is that people who sign up for it are de facto willing to hear feedback and open to change.

How might you help her shift? Possibly by using a coach approach and asking questions like these. (Note: These are just ideas—hopefully your experience with your person will help you to pinpoint a few that might work)

  • I have noticed you have a bit of a hard time with feedback. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
  • What do you think might be contributing to your reaction?
  • What is your understanding of the purpose of feedback in professional growth?
  • What do you think are the potential benefits of being open to feedback, even if it makes you a little uncomfortable at first?
  • Have you ever had a situation where feedback led to a positive outcome? How might that experience be useful now?
  • Have you noticed any patterns or recurring themes in feedback you receive? Is there something useful to consider there?
  • What might it take for you to be more open to receiving feedback?
  • Can you envision a future version of yourself who is more open and receptive to feedback? How could you move closer to that vision?
  • What advice might you give to a friend who struggles with feedback?
  • Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you to hear feedback from me? And conversely, is there anything I do that makes it hard for you to hear feedback from me?

Getting this person to make the shift to seeking and using feedback will help her for the rest of her working life. You would be doing her an enormous service. I personally had a crossroads moment with a teacher who helped me with this exact issue, and I am grateful to this day.

Now the gravitas part:

It is tricky, right? Because the risk is that we are saying we want you to be authentic—but not that authentic.

Here is a past blog I wrote on this topic that might be useful. The biggest issue with a concept like gravitas is that it is a combination of a couple of very specific things that contribute to the effect of not having it.

There are so many little micro behaviors, often habitual, that conspire together: tone of voice, volume, affect, use of language, energy management (too much/too little depending on mood), lack of discipline with interrupting others, allowing others to interrupt. It goes on and on. With women especially, a common habit that diminishes presence is touching the face and/or hair. It is so unconscious, almost no one I have worked with had any idea they were doing it. 

I am guessing you can identify a few of the little things she does that diminish the impression that she is a reliable person with authority. The key is to choose the behaviors that are most egregious and help her to notice those.

The first step is always to just pay attention and notice. 

Then, have her consider what she might do differently. If it is a behavior that needs to be stopped, it can be helpful to brainstorm what she can do instead. For example: “Instead of touching my face, I should always have a pen in my hand and a notebook, and never take my hands off of those items.”

The other angle to gravitas is dress and grooming. This is so hard because it is so personal, but if someone doesn’t tell you, you won’t ever know. If that is the issue, you can share pictures of appropriate clothes for executive women. People can get a little cranky when you tell them that they can’t wear crocs to client meetings, or that shaving one side of their head doesn’t send the right message in their chosen industry. As people rise in organizations there has to be a certain level of being willing to wear a “costume” to signal who you are to others. It may feel disingenuous or shallow, but it is simply human nature.

Start with the crux of the matter: learning to deal with feedback is non-negotiable. Then tackle the gravitas concern. She may become demotivated. She may blame you. She may take it so personally that she can’t recover. If that’s the case, she does not have what it takes to achieve her goals, and that won’t be on you.

Be direct but kind. Tell the truth as you see it, including that fact that you are motivated to tell her these hard things because she does have so much going for her, and you would hate to see her held back for any reason.

 You will have done your best to help. The rest will be up to her.

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a Master Certified Coach and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. She is coauthor of Blanchard’s Coaching Essentials training program, and several books including Leverage Your Best, Ditch the Rest, Coaching in Organizations, and Coaching for Leadership.

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