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 my business partner of 10 years and I visited one of the most highly respected Nigerian businessmen – Alhaji Sayyu Dantata. He is the Founder of the MRS Group of companies.
When I walked into his office with my business partner, the first thing he said to me was “You are following XXX around”
He didn’t see us as business partners. This despite the fact that we have both worked together for more than a decade, on multi-million dollar aircraft leases, purchases, financing and outsourcing. He saw me as someone who 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 presence:
- 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 perceive us.
1. How I dressed
Always dress slightly more formally than your male counterparts. And when in doubt of your dressing, ensure to always have a jacket.
It is important to bear in mind that anything that is ‘over the top’ can make you look unprofessional. Take for example: nails that are too long or brightly-coloured, long, false eyelashes, or even too much make-up. All of these can make you come across as unserious.
Now back to my story; I usually keep a jacket in my car for formal meetings. But because the meeting took place on a Saturday, I left the jacket 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.
However, I would like to stress that this level of conformity may not suit every professional woman. Some people use fashion to express themselves, and this is understandable. But I think the key in the Nigerian business environment is moderation.
2. How I acted
Act professionally and assertively when in a corporate environment. You must shake hands firmly and make eye contact when conversing with people. I was guilty of all not doing any of these. At this initial meeting, I didn’t do any of these things; perhaps because I didn’t want to seem too ‘forward’, or 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. And then, proceed to ask intelligent questions. You must limit small talk.
Again, I didn’t do this. The man my partner and I went to meet didn’t even know I was a medical doctor till many weeks afterwards.
Note that you do not communicate executive presence by simply smiling, but by engaging intelligently 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.
I hope these three tips help you to develop your executive presence as you build your career in Nigeria.
This article was written by Dr Ola Brown Orekurin. She is the Founder of Flying Doctors Nigeria and a Director at Greentree Investment Company.