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Executive Presence and Immigrant Women Leaders

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

While I was in law school at Harvard, one of our professors invited staff and students to a reception at his home. We had wine, hors d’oeuvres, and great conversation. We got around to speaking about Nigeria. He shared with me that he’d noticed a trend in applications from women from Nigeria seeking to join the Masters in Law program. In the majority of the cases, the recommending law professors from Nigeria noted (in addition to attributes that pointed to academic excellence) that the student was “quiet, obedient, respectful and very nice,” or some variation of those.

I was struck that the Harvard professor didn’t observe the same trend in relation to male applicants from Nigeria. Why did professors think it was relevant to highlight those attributes in women but not in men?

We were in agreement that the quiet and obedient aspects were especially inapplicable in law school. We also had a good laugh over how frequently law students are required to engage in healthy debate and dialogue, challenging both professors and fellow students. 

Moving Seamlessly Through Cultures

In the workforce, much of how individuals are perceived as leaders is tied to the way they communicate. Effective communication takes on increased prominence as women advance and seek to lead in industries in which women may be underrepresented at the most senior levels. Effective communication helps women leaders distinguish themselves.

As India-born Indra Nooyi stated during a 2016 LinkedIn interview, “If you want to be a leader and you can’t communicate effectively, forget it.”

Excelling as immigrant women in the U.S. calls for us to move seamlessly through cultures and bring the best of each world to the other. We do this in part by possessing high versatility as leaders – the ability to adjust one’s leadership or communication style based on the context or situation. We simultaneously navigate several cultural contexts, some of them oceans apart.

We also balance cultural perceptions and expectations (such as those captured by the well-meaning recommending Nigerian professors) with the perceptions and expectations in the U.S. as well as within our various professional contexts.

Enter Executive Presence

In the realm of effective communication, executive presence is especially important for senior leaders. People often refer to executive presence as the “it” factor or “gravitas,” or they point to examples of the greats, all of which can be rather mystifying.

My definition of executive presence is “the art of presenting one’s self in a manner that is professional, competent and confident and commands the highest levels of respect and engagement.” It is about communicating the value you bring, while connecting with the audience. It’s an art because there is no single formula that works for everyone, and because it should be personalized, practiced and refined over time.

Lessons in Executive Presence

While a lot has been written about executive presence, the six lessons in executive presence I have found most valuable are:

1) Embrace Your Unique Value. Your mindset matters. Going into meetings prepared, confident and knowing the value you bring to the conversation all help increase your effectiveness. Understand what excellence in your industry looks like and then create your unique brand. Also embrace your unique perspective and experience. Your unrepeatable story, as an immigrant female for example, helps you view the world from a distinct perspective. Consider it an asset and a treasure to be mined and incorporated into your brand.

2) Be Self-Aware. Body language often conveys more than words do. Be aware of your posture. Be poised and upright. Make eye contact with your audience. Use hand gestures deliberately to underscore key points, but use them sparingly so as not to distract from your message.

3) Look the Part. Your attire should be appropriate for the context and industry. It should communicate credibility and confidence and convey your unique, personal style.

4) Manage Your Speed. If you grew up in a fast-speaking culture, take time to ensure that you’re well understood. Be deliberate in your communication and don’t hurry to deliver the message. Choose your words carefully. Conversely, if you’re a slow speaker, be aware of this and know when to pick up the pace for increased engagement. 

5) Breathe. Taking deep breaths before and during your presentation helps relax you and also increases your poise. Appropriately timed pauses also take up room in a conversation and bring about added attention and engagement. 

6) Use Your Voice Effectively. Be clear on your message, and use inflections in your voice to communicate why your message and vision matter. Because effective communication goes beyond one-sided delivery, find ways to convey to your audience that they matter, and find ways to gather feedback from the audience – whether verbally or by reading their body language.

The golden thread that runs through each of these tools is you. Your brand sits at the core of your ability to communicate effectively, so continually nurture and refine your professional brand and then bring the best of you to your conversations.


Chinwe Esimai is Managing Director and Chief Anti-Bribery Officer at Citigroup, where she overseas the firm’s global anti-bribery program. She was born in Nigeria and is passionate about inspiring immigrant women leaders. She shares leadership insights for immigrant women at

This article originally appeared at Forbes.

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