Joe Stringer, a partner at EY in London, still remembers how uncomfortable he felt when a client told him that the appearance of one of the female members of his project team was causing concern. Her "trolley-dolly" low-cut blouses and short skirts, as the client dubbed her attire, didn't exude the professionalism the client expected. But Stringer couldn't bring himself to confront her. "I couldn't think of a way to point out what was wrong without sounding like I was noticing all the wrong things about her," he said.

Like Stringer, most managers can correct their reports when they blow a statistical analysis, aren't clear when writing a contract or leave out an important step in a process. They can handle the nuts and bolts of the hard skills required to do a job. But what about the soft stuff--how an employee looks or presents himself, how she is perceived by colleagues and other managers?

The problem, as I explain in my new book, Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success, is that many bosses feel uncomfortable giving unvarnished, concrete feedback on appearance, communications skills and gravitas--the three pillars of executive presence (EP).

This is especially true for managers giving feedback to women (if they're male) or to people of color (if they're not). Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that when women do receive direct feedback on their executive presence, it is often too vague to be helpful: 81 percent of female respondents say that they're not clear about how to effectively act on it.

People of color don't fare much better. CTI data found that 79 percent say they are confused about how to act on feedback comments, with Asians (84 percent) and Hispanics (80 percent) particularly unclear about how to course-correct. Fearing discomfort as well as discrimination litigation, senior executives I interviewed confessed that they would sooner pass over multicultural professionals lacking executive presence than confront them about their shortcomings.

But the fact is, this kind of feedback is intrinsically difficult to give no matter who is on the receiving end. Criticizing someone's appearance, for example, or how they speak is emotionally fraught. "You're taking issue with their self-expression," Rohini Anand, global diversity officer for Sodexo, points out. "How can that not be taken personally?"

Yet giving advice on these sensitive subjects is a vitally important element in developing and retaining talent within an organization. No company can afford to discard diamonds in the rough, especially when managers can learn to transform them into polished gems.

Giving actionable EP feedback marks you as a great leader. From our interviews, consensus emerged on what constitutes truly constructive criticism:

  • Strike while the iron is hot. Deliver the feedback when your employee is most receptive to receiving it: either right before he might blunder or right after he did. For example, upon returning from a conference, Tara, a new addition to Anand's team, got this direction on how to better represent the company in the future: "Look, this job requires a lot of networking. I see, when I take you to events, that you're not mingling except with people on your team. I want you to come back from these gatherings with a stack of business cards. I want you to forge at leave five new relationships and follow up on each of them, because as a member of this team, it's important that potential clients know you personally."
  • Focus on one discrete behavior. Rather than presenting your report with a litany of shortcomings, highlight one or two behaviors he can fix. For example, soon after Christopher was promoted, he was asked to be part of a team presenting directly to the CEO. His boss asked him to stop by before the meeting. "Your extensive knowledge of the business will earn you credibility," she said reassuringly. "But I notice that you talk quickly when you're nervous, and that can come across as junior and insecure. Take a deep breath. Take a moment to adjust to your audience. Don't be afraid to create some silence."
  • Explicitly point out course-correcting actions. Equally important, frame them within the context of the business outcome and explain why they're necessary. "With this particular leader, you've got to cut a very different image or you're going to get cut from his team," one chief learning officer recalls hearing from his boss when he was a new hire at a financial services corporation. "This leader values precision and attention to detail, and your manner and style of dress are not convincing him that you, too, value these things. Be on time for meetings, not five minutes late. Put in more effort and energy preparing your presentation. And your wardrobe has to be a cut above. The suit you're wearing is inappropriate and you need better shirts and shoes. If you'd like, I can recommend three places to find them."
  • Discuss EP issues in the context of personal branding. Help your employee identify their brand, then you can point out how their personal style may support or detract from that image. For example, you might say, "You're known for your analytical skills and your ability to see the trend behind the numbers." Then stress how every verbal and nonverbal message they send, including their overall appearance and communication style, should serve to reinforce that image.

The insistent theme of our focus groups and interviews demonstrates that feedback is widely desired and sorely needed. The gap in adequate EP feedback, especially for women and multiculturals, means there is enormous opportunity for organizations and managers to give  guidance on executive presence, ultimately ensuring that stars can continue to rise and enabling the progress of talented but stalled men and women so that their valuable contributions can be realized.

Published on: Jul 3, 2014
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