Executive Presence: How it Can Make (or Break) Your Career
When it comes to succeeding at work, mastering the skills needed to do your job effectively is just one piece of the puzzle.
You also need to project a polished image—one that says you’ve got what it takes—to rise through the ranks and be a leader.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, PhD, knows a thing or two about getting noticed. These days, the economist, business consultant and 20-year veteran of the talent management industry is garnering a lot of attention for her new book, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, in which she explains exactly what you need to do to showcase your leadership abilities front and center.
So, if you’re ready to take charge at your company, listen up! We chatted with Hewlett to learn more about executive presence—and how you can start cultivating this workplace X factor today.
What exactly does it mean to have executive presence, and what difference can it make in your career?
Executive presence (EP) is a measure of image—a dynamic mix of gravitas, communication, and appearance. Gravitas is the core characteristic, signaling that you know your stuff cold. You can communicate this with the authority of a leader through your speaking skills and your ability to command a room.
If you’re able to crack the EP code, you’ll be first in line for the next plum assignment. But if you’re not, you’ll have a harder time getting to your dream job.
The third characteristic you mentioned was appearance. How does that factor into the EP equation?
Appearance is extremely important because it is the first filter through which gravitas and communication skills are evaluated. That explains why high-performing junior employees oftentimes get knocked out of contention for key roles and promotions: They simply don’t look the part. No one bothers to assess your communication skills or thought leadership capabilities if your appearance telegraphs that you’re clueless.
I mention in my book that executives like Steve Jobs and Margaret Thatcher exude great executive presence. Philosopher and media personality Cornel West—with his distinctive Afro, three-piece suits, and fearsome oratory—never fails to make a powerful and lasting impression.
Each person must find a signature look that is authentic but appropriate for the environment in which they work.
What happens if you ignore the appearance portion of EP?
I can use myself as an example. When I joined the Barnard College faculty as assistant professor of economics, I assumed that since I was working on a college campus (and not Wall Street), it was okay to be young and fun. So I wore my hair waist-long, and my closet was full of long, flowing skirts.
I failed to understand that looking as though I was on my way to Woodstock got in the way of establishing authority on the job. Given my age—I was 27—it was a stretch to convince anyone that I was a professor and not just another student.
Plus, I made the classic mistake of assuming that success was all about doing my job extraordinarily well. If I put my head down and worked as hard as I knew how, my value to the organization would be self-evident, and, of course, I would be recognized and promoted.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. I wasn’t promoted. In fact, I was denied tenure: My department supported me unanimously, but the university-wide committee shot me down in a three-to-two vote. It turned out I had no advocates at this critical, final level. No one even knew me—or if they did, it was because I stood out from other tenure-seeking assistant professors because of my unconventional wardrobe.
What’s the greatest change you’ve made to achieve EP?
A big change I made was stripping myself of my accent and losing the class markers that set me apart from my peers. I grew up in the coal-mining valleys of England, and I felt that I had to lose my South Wales accent because it indicated that I was from the lower echelons of society.
Looking back, I have mixed feelings about that decision because, in some ways, I feel like I betrayed myself. For this reason, I added a chapter in the book on authenticity because you should never feel like you are betraying yourself when developing your executive presence.
How can you cultivate EP in a way that seems authentic?
Leverage your background and what makes you different.
One example is Ripa Rashid, director of research and curriculum for the Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Ripa was born in Bangladesh and grew up in Australia before coming to the United States to earn her bachelor’s in astrophysics from Harvard.
Her global upbringing became uniquely valuable: At every job, Ripa has capitalized on her multicultural background, capturing insights that colleagues who didn’t have those stripes of having lived and worked all over the world might have missed.
So think about how you can provide an insight or capture a market opportunity. However, keep in mind that in order to succeed in any organizational culture, you need to make accommodations to that culture. It’s important to ask: What’s “playing the game,” as opposed to “selling out?” What constitutes a compromise to your authenticity, as opposed to just a compromise?
You say that in order to prove you are a leader, you need to show the “three C’s”: Be compelling, credible, and concise. What happens if you’re missing one of the three?
A big part of gravitas is being able to convey tremendous amounts of knowledge and give people the impression that you could go six questions deep on the subject you’re talking about—which, in a way, means being both concise and credible.
Attention spans are so short now that, whether it’s in a speech or meeting, you have to show how you can add value in a way that’s compelling and brief. So it’s important to learn how to use the three C’s to your advantage to have true executive presence.
The good news is that you can learn how to develop these skills through practice, practice, and practice. Delivering a painstakingly prepared message, while seeming to talk off the top of your head, doesn’t come naturally—even if it looks that way.
What’s the biggest mistake people make when trying to cultivate EP?
Not asking for the feedback you need to improve your executive presence. Receiving feedback can feel like undergoing root canal surgery, but it’s key to finding out where your weaknesses and strengths are—and how you can improve.
It’s essential to consult your sponsor or someone who has a vested interest in your career growth and who has already cracked the EP code. Ask that person for feedback on your attire, hairstyle, and grooming. And then dig deep to ensure you understand how to correct your gaffes.
You mention in the book that women, in particular, often rely too much on reading notes and using PowerPoint. How does this work against projecting powerful EP?
When my organization studied focus groups, we found that constantly reading notes and shuffling through papers or flip charts are all actions that detract from your gravitas because they prevent you from commanding a room. Know your material cold so you needn’t rely on notes.
An executive in my book mentions a story about a colleague who would always whip out a long list and meticulously consult it. Instead of looking you in the eye and talking compellingly about her team’s wins and losses, she’d have her head in notes or some dreary PowerPoint. The executive felt that the woman presented herself as someone who didn’t trust herself to remember the thrust of her presentation.
A big part of leadership is making tough decisions and giving uncomfortable feedback. How do you show your teeth, while remaining likable?
Use humor. Sallie Krawcheck, the former head of Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney, is a classic example. However brutal her message, Krawcheck’s reliance on humor endears her to listeners, who then become open to some inconvenient truths.
Of course, every situation is different, so use humor only when it’s appropriate. Before making a presentation or going into a professional setting, learn who your audience is and analyze whether it’s appropriate to use humor or not.
At what point in your career is the best time to focus on EP?
Exuding executive presence is critical throughout one’s career—whether you’re working toward a promotion to account executive, chief executive officer, or commander-in-chief.
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