RULE #1 KEEP YOUR KNEES TOGETHER: What Women Who Lead Can Learn About Executive Presence from Kellyanne Conway

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It was the picture that went round the world in a blink of the shutter….

Kellyanne Conway, senior advisor to The President, kneeling on a couch in the Oval Office. Around her stood dozens of Presidents of the HBCAU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) who were gathered round The President in what appeared to be a photo opp.

From what I can see from the photo, Kellyanne is the lone white woman in the room. (Yes, it is indeed relevant, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

The picture sparked a Social Media Storm:
• Why was she kneeling on the couch that way?
• Wasn’t she being disrespectful?
• What’s the big deal?
• Weren’t the liberals hypocrites for making something of this when Obama took off his jacket and put his feet on the desk?
• What was on her phone that was so important?

And it went on…and on… and on

Busy at work when I first saw the photo, I did a double-take, and then another.
I examined the photo over and over, thinking it must have been Photo shopped; I was certain that no woman worth her Spanx would be caught dead in that pose.

There was Kellyanne on a couch in the Oval Office, casually sitting on her calves, dress hiked up to her thighs, legs parted, on her telephone, surrounded by a predominantly male crowd. What?!

I soon discovered the photo is, indeed, real and so are the issues it raises.

Through my lens, which is the advancement of women, this photo is a big deal. Really big.

But before we move forward I have a disclaimer:
      My commentary is unrelated to partisan issues.
      What it is, is a hard look at women and their place in leadership.

Soon after the release of this photo, The Washington Post headlined, The “’Kellyanne Conway on the couch’ controversy is so incredibly dumb.”

The Washington Post is wrong about that. In fact, they missed the message by a mile.

While in the global scheme of things this photo may appear to be a dumb distraction, for women who aspire to lead it visually articulates the single most critical skill necessary to gain access to a leadership position.


Executive Presence is exactly what it sounds like. It’s how you show up to others in your work world. Like quality it’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

I would guestimate that 90% of the time I’m contacted by an executive leader in search of a coach for one of his female employees, it is because she lacks Executive Presence.

Again and again I hear, “She’s my ‘go-to’ person for all problems big and small. I can always count on her! Her direct reports think she rocks as a manager. She has so much talent and can go so far but, frankly, she lacks Executive Presence and I can’t promote her to the level that she’s worthy of until she changes that up.”

Not only is it not incredibly dumb to pay attention to this photo but you, my high potential female friends, would benefit greatly from not making the counselor’s same mistakes.

The photo pictures the senior advisor as remarkably absent of Executive Presence and while Kellyanne may, ultimately, get away with it (though it doesn’t look like she did) you will not.

Here’s why….

Were you to appear to the people who make a difference to your career, as Kellyanne does in this photo, there will be buzz about you. It will not be positive buzz. If they don’t actually talk about you, these influencers will think about you, but not in the most esteemed way.

Their thoughts will often be louder than their words, and their actions (Read: your promotion) will be born of those thoughts.

These influencers will say that you don’t have the necessary decorum or appropriate behavior to lead from the front of the room. They fear you will embarrass them. They will be right.

They will say that you have the talent, the qualifications and the experience but you don’t have the “Je ne said quoi” that makes you promotable.

They will say you lack Executive Presence. They will right about this too.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success breaks Executive Presence down into these three components.

• Appearance (How you look)
• Communication (How you speak)
• Gravitas (How you act)

The one that’s captivated the world with this photo is….


A picture is worth a thousand words; this photo and its ensuing uproar exemplifies why. In the case of this photo, the ‘scandal’ was based almost entirely on appearance.

You see, it does not matter what Kellyanne was actually doing when this photo was taken. It does not even matter if The President, himself, asked her to kneel on the couch and take a photo of the group.

The only thing that matters is how it looks,
and what she appears to be doing.
That’s it and it’s everything.

Emphasis on the word “appears.”

How something ‘appears’ to you is based on who you are, what values you embody, and the lens with which you choose to see the world.

This same rule applies to your work life. How you appear to others, your Executive Presence, will make or break your next career move. Click To Tweet.

In the blink of a shutter, Kellyanne violated every guideline for Executive Presence. Perhaps no one advised her, which begs the question, “Where were her people?”

Kellyanne was sloppy with her power and she was sloppy with her position. Don’t you be.

A photo is an impression. It is a glimpse of life in a nanosecond in time. There may be a caption accompanying the photo but, regardless, people will still rely on their own impressions.

Research overwhelmingly indicates that we are culture of skimmers. A goldfish has a longer attention span than we do.

We cling to bullet points, sound bites and, well, photos. We think these things give us the whole picture, that they sum it up, but they don’t.

Life cannot be richly experienced in Cliff Notes.

Human nature is to take that glimpse, run it through our filters, values, political, personal and professional beliefs and, voila, we form an opinion.

That opinion gets stored with the tens of millions of other opinions we’ve formed over the course of our lifetime. For the most part, these opinions are unconscious, and unconscious is largely how they stay.

When it comes time for calibration meetings or reviews, and the executive team is gauging your promotability, you can count on their unconscious opinions weighing heavily on the outcome of your career.


Would the same brouhaha have been caused by a man doing the identical thing as Kellyanne?

Probably not.

The rules are different for men. Especially white men.

Were we to see a man in this photo posed exactly as Kellyanne is captured, our impression of him would be vastly differently. Most of us would automatically assume that he was a ‘very busy person,’ ‘important,’ or ‘confident enough not to need to be included in the photo op.’ Or something along those lines.

That’s how it goes. Not always, of course. But enough of the time that we call this generalization an unconscious cultural bias.

Here’s the BIG RUB, my HiPo female friends– merely because you are a woman, your behavior, dress, communication and so on will be scrutinized in a way that is astoundingly different, and far more stringent, than it is for men.

• You will have to work much harder and longer for the same recognition.
• You will likely be paid less for doing the same job as the men in your org.
• You will have to earn your way to the top, inch by inch.
• The positions you acquire and the promotions you earn will be based on your proven accomplishments, while your male counterpart’s will be based on their potential.

Congratulations if this hasn’t been your experience. Seriously. It means that you’re in a single digit minority, and that cause for celebration.


We women want our place at the table. We want our place at the top, or wherever we choose to be. We want to be taken seriously as executive leaders, business owners, and role models for women around the globe.

There are, however, some ground rules we must follow that are consistent with that responsibility. Again, men are not necessarily required to follow the same rules.

But this is about you, not them.

If these rules are standing in the way of you advancing your career, then you must work diligently to get over it. No, not ignore it, but work with it. I’ll leave that for another article.

It’s lonely for women here at the top, and it will be for a long while. Yes, you’ve earned the right to be here, but you’re going to have to work harder and prove more to not only get here but stay here. Consider it a fact of life (and keep working to change it).

“You’ve got to stay in the game to change the rules.”
–Solomonism #273

You don’t have to like this (I don’t) and you don’t have to agree with it (ditto), but you must know the rules so when you break them you can be accountable. There’s no excuse for ignorance, but you know that, don’t you?

You may be thinking, “this is just reinforcing stereotypes.” I’ll beg to differ.

I am simply pointing out the rules: unspoken, unwritten, and ironclad. I didn’t write them but I have respect for them because to do otherwise, to dismiss these cultural cues, is to take an unhealthy risk with your career- the price of which is not worth paying.

Yes, we can revisit these rules when you’re a multi-billionaire business owner. We can revisit these rules when you are the President of the United States. We can even revisit these rules when you’re the one writing them. To do so before that time, is to waste your energy and resources on things you cannot change. Yet.

Hoping these rules don’t apply to you is called magical thinking.

And, yes, to be honest there are those women (and men) for whom these rules don’t actually apply. But do you really want to roll those dice and hope you get the ‘exception card’?

Were I coaching you in Executive Presence, here’s what I’d tell you:
• “Get your feet off the damn couch.”
Where are your manners?

• “Keep your knees together when you’re wearing a dress or skirt.”
There are certain things that we don’t need to know about you.

• During a photo opportunity with prominent people, in a meeting with your managers and colleagues, wherever your attention may be needed,
put your phone away so you don’t appear to be rude.

• Act like you’re engaged or, better yet, be engaged!

• If someone asks you to take that position on the couch so you can take a photo (or do anything else), politely decline.

Did this controversial photo really signal disrespect? It depends upon who you ask.

It’s my opinion that Kellyanne disrespected herself more than she did the office of The President. A sign the at the Woman’s March on Washington read,

” PRIVILEGE is when you think something is not a PROBLEM
because it’s not a PROBLEM to you PERSONALLY.”

That about sums it up.

If you want to honestly evaluate your own Executive Presence, ask yourself these questions:
• Would a stranger, just by being in the same room with you, know that you were a leader in your company?
• Would your body language communicate your personal power?
• Would your communication be confident?
• Would your manner of dress align with the values of your organization?

Regardless of what you do in your work and in your life, you’ll have an impact. The salient question is this: what kind of impact do you want to have?


I’d love to hear from you, so please comment in the section below.
What was your reaction to the Kellyanne photo? Did you think it was a big deal? Or were people just making it that way?
Have you ever been told to pay attention your Executive Presence?

Please send us some love ❤️  LIKE. SHARE. COMMENT. Thanks so much!

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6 thoughts on “RULE #1 KEEP YOUR KNEES TOGETHER: What Women Who Lead Can Learn About Executive Presence from Kellyanne Conway

  1. Well Ms. Solomon you have once again reminded us what we need to hear (not necessarily what we want or desire to hear). It is good to be reminded of this when you are not the object of the discussion. Thanks again!

  2. Thank you, Nancy. Your article pinpoints the importance of emotional intelligence – without an awareness of our own behavior AND how it impacts others we cannot lead effectively.

  3. No, your commentary was certainly not unrelated to partisan issues. Too many partisan talking points belie that fact.

    As someone who also focuses on helping people with executive presence and professional image, I think you jumped to a conclusion, and your biases are clear! After all, if you’re about helping women, what kind of message does it say that a woman must always be prepared for any out-of-context photograph of her performing ACTUAL HANDS-ON work?! Do you wish to be judged from any one still photograph taken from performing a physical activity, like bending over, kneeling, or a thousand other undignified poses that we COULD capture of you if your daily work was under constant video surveillance?

    The reality is that any woman, or man, can be made to look undignified by taking one still from a physical activity. If you don’t know that. . . well, what expertise do you have, exactly? (For the record, I think you DO know that, and this post is the unfortunate result of what happens when you use your professional credentials as cover for your political opinions.)

  4. Jared, thank you for taking the time to write. I would now suggest two things: 1. Go back and reread my article for content and through a non-partisan, but gender-focused lens and 2. read the definition of mansplaining.

    Jared, if you read the dozens of comments that I’ve received on this article from women, then you’ll see that no one, except you, read politics into this post. That is because it’s not related to partisanship.

    It seems to me that I struck a nerve with you, and I make no apologies for that- this is an open discussion. Apparently you think that I was attacking Kellyanne Conway, which I most definitely was not. As a white male you have no experience remotely similar to the issues I’ve raised here. You can’t weigh in on them because they have nothing to do with your personal experience, any more than I know what it’s like to be a man or black or Muslim (and so on).

    What troubles me about your response is that you went on the attack; you made me wrong, you were condescending and you questioned my integrity. In the future, if you don’t find my insight valuable, if you’re unwilling to learn something new about something you know nothing about, then please don’t read me. If you’d like to take this conversation off-line, I’d be delighted. My contact info is on my profile.

  5. I think a man would look equally silly in that posture on the couch. I’m also thinking, “Where are her shoes?” If she’s sitting there barefoot in the oval office, that’s a bit disrespectful of the Oval Office and the people being honored there. Her appearance is indeed unprofessional.

  6. Pingback: You Don’t Have the Time, You Make the Time! | Nancy D. Solomon

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