Cynthia Marshall, Lisa Garcia Quiroz and Linda Verba are senior women executives who have built successful careers in corporate America. In a recent panel discussion they explained how your authentic self enhances your executive presence at work.
“Executive presence is what I’d call leadership presence,” said Verba, Executive Vice President of Retail Operations and Service Recognition at TD Bank. “I think it’s about character, I think it’s about leadership, it’s about communication. It is absolutely something we can teach each and every one of our employees, particularly those that are in unrepresented groups.”
Marshall is Senior Vice President of Human Resources and Chief Diversity Officer at AT&T. She agrees with Verba.
“There is a model for leadership,” said the former Chair of the North Carolina Chamber. She was the first Black person in the position. “And I think it’s around professionalism, it definitely is around character – that’s at the center of our extraordinary leadership model at our company.”
Marshall said AT&T, and most companies now, understand the importance of bringing your authentic self to work. However, you must keep in mind professionalism and company culture.
She shared a story from early in her career when she wore red sandals to the office.
“I remember my first week in the company, I was a 21-year-old,” she explained. “I had a boss who told me, literally, ‘Take off those red hooker shoes, and take your braids out.’ You know what I did? I went home and took my braids out all night. The sisters in the audience know what I’m talking about.”
Marshall grew up in a housing project in Richmond, Calif., and said education propelled her out of poverty. She had to call someone to bring her a pair of shoes because she didn’t have any other shoes, besides the sandals, to wear to work.
She believes the person who gave her those instructions had good intentions and wanted her to fit into the company culture. But times have changed since then.
“First of all, a company would not tell me that now,” said Marshall who has been at AT&T for 33 years. “And secondly, I wouldn’t have responded to it.”
Quiroz is Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Vice President of Cultural Investments at Time Warner, and President of the Time Warner Foundation. During her career, she conceived Time for Kids and People en Español. She offered that executive presence can vary from company to company.
“A person with executive presence has to have supreme empathy and understanding of the culture which they’re navigating,” said Quiroz. “Owing your power — this is a phrase I’ve been using more and more around the office, especially with some of the women in the office.”
She brings her authentic self to work, though admits that as a Latina there are certain stereotypes she tries to avoid in terms of dress, especially since she and her staff reside on the same floor as the CEO. She strongly encourages them to dress up for work.
“I don’t look the part of someone when you say ‘American CEO,’ even someone in the C-suite,” Quiroz said. “So I am extremely conscious of what I wear and how I look.”
Wearing an outfit with “TD Bank green,” Verba explained that appropriate work attire depends on the situation.
“I am wearing what are sometimes known as power flats because I was walking around New York,” she said. “But I will tell you from an executive presence standpoint,” she said, as she stepped into high heel shoes, “look at how my height has changed. I know when to wear ‘big-girl’ shoes and when not to.”
Quiroz added, “And I’m only 5-feet-tall so I wear my ‘big girl shoes’ probably most of the time.”
The panel discussion was a part of the 2015 DiversityInc Top Companies for Diversity event on April 23 in New York City.