I will start with a story about how I failed to communicate executive presence and how I fixed it. I realised that I had an executive presence problem when I and my business partner of 10 years went to visit one of the most highly respected Nigerian businessmen ; Alhaji Sayyu Dantata, founder of the MRS group of companies.
When I walked to into his office with my business partner, the first thing he said was ‘You are following XXX around’
He didn’t see us as business partners. Despite the fact that we have worked together for the past decade on multi-million dollar aircraft leases, purchases, financing and outsourcing. He saw me as someone that was ‘following him around’.
This throwaway statement changed my life, forcing me to delve into the world of executive presence and find out where I (and so many other professional women) have failed to communicate so catastrophically.
As I researched I realised I had failed in all three areas of executive prescence
- How I dressed
- How I acted
- How I spoke
This is a mistake that executive women make all over the world, but particularly in Nigeria and it affects how people view us.
1. How I dressed
Always dress slightly more formally than your male counterparts. If in doubt, always have a jacket.
Anything that is ‘over the top’ can make you look unprofessional, for example: nails that are too long or bright green, long false eyelashes or too much make-up.
I usually keep a jacket in my car for formal meetings; butbecause it was a Saturday, I left it in my car. But for certain types of people, jackets are necessary, even on Saturday’s.
Anything overtly revealing also makes one look less professional, especially in conservative countries like Nigeria. It is important to bear this in mind.
I would like to stress that this level of conformity may not suit every professional woman, some people use fashion to express themselves, this is understandable. But I think the key in the Nigerian business environment is moderation.
2. How I acted
Act professionally and an assertively, shake hands and make eye contact. At this initial meeting I didn’t do any of these things; perhaps because I didn’t want to seem to ‘forward’, perhaps because it was a weekend and I didn’t want to appear too serious.
But the truth is, if you make an effort not ‘to appear too serious’, you will probably end up looking unserious.
3. How I spoke
Speak about your qualifications and your achievements in business. Ask intelligent questions. Limit small talk.
Again I didn’t do this, he didn’t even know I was a medical doctor till many weeks afterwards. You do not communicate executive presence, by simply smiling, but by engaging intelligent and assertively in every potential business situation.
Now please don’t get me wrong. I believe that women should be able to dress however they want to and still be respected. However, I am a capitalist. Therefore, I am learning to conform-in some ways, to the Nigerian business environment in order to get where I need to be.