Need 'executive presence'? Act, sound, look like a leader

Economist and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett offers her take on the intangibles of leadership.
Economist and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett.
Economist and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

The economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett has written books about women leaving and re-entering the workforce, executives who work jobs with extreme hours and the importance of finding a "sponsor" rather than a mentor. Now she offers her take on the intangibles of leadership.

Hewlett's new book, Executive Presence, examines the more subjective factors that go into getting a top job. Hewlett also talks about the complicated nature of giving feedback on appearance, the importance of humour and how she worked to get rid of her Welsh accent. This conversation was edited for length.

Q: What do you mean when you say "executive presence"?

A: It's not performance. It's not whether you hit the numbers or deliver the goods. It's whether you signal to the world that you have what it takes.

We found that colleagues and bosses are clear as to what you need to show. First there's gravitas. It's essentially how you act.

The second piece is communication skills, which is how you speak. And finally, it's how you look. These three things together make a huge difference in terms of whether you're given a chance.

Q: How did you decide to write this book?

A: When I arrived at Cambridge University as an undergraduate, what got in my way more than anything was my accent. I spoke English with a thick, working-class Welsh accent, which was very undermining.

Every time I opened my mouth I felt I let myself down. That had nothing to do with whether I was a good student. I actually succeeded at Cambridge. But I was a real outsider.

So one thing I had to do quickly was learn how to improve my speech. I remember listening to the BBC World Service for hours every week trying to modulate those tones, and trying to speak in a much more neutral way.

The other thing is we had done a lot of work to understand why so many women and people of colour stalled out of their careers in the middle levels. Their performance was indistinguishable from their white, male, straight peers. What these male peers had was they belonged to the mainstream leadership culture.

Then when we started asking senior executives what gravitas was, they kept on saying, "I know it when I see it, but I can't describe it." It's this very woolly notion. So we set out to discover exactly what this "executive presence" thing was, as well as tactics for how an individual can crack this code.

Read also: Fashion site CEO Sophia Amoruso - being a female boss in the tech world

Q: Respondents said the "sweet spot" for female leaders was 39 to 42 years old. I'd imagine the age was higher for men. Are women held to different standards when it comes to these intangibles?

A: The thing that popped out as difficult for women was being seen as being tough, decisive and showing teeth - really showing that you can make a difficult decision. We found that for women, it's very hard to be forceful and tough-minded and remain likable. The "B" word gets rolled out.

In some perfect world, we would not have that fight. It's good to figure out how to handle it so that you don't get knocked down. There are tactics to manage that.

Q: Like what?

A: Sallie Krawcheck talked about how she used humour to sugarcoat her opinion when she sat on the Citi board. She remained likable although she obviously was not compromising her views. She was very good at being charming and amusing around the edges. So that's one.

Q: You discuss how it's difficult for superiors (mostly male) to give women feedback about their appearance, their body language, how they talk.

A: It's a huge issue. We find that feedback - particularly unvarnished feedback which has some honest, critical elements - just doesn't cross lines of gender or race. The senior person is fearful he'll get sued if he gives a younger woman feedback on appearance, or he's embarrassed, afraid the younger person will take it personally and maybe will be emotional.

Q: How should managers offer that kind of tricky feedback?

A: If you feel that it's hard to reach the diverse talent on the team, a good way to go is to create a list of what's appropriate and organise discussion groups around it. It's almost like creating a road map for your team. For instance, what is appropriate dress? If there's an unwritten book of rules, let's make it a written book. It's a massive service for younger employees.

Q: What about communication and appearance?

A: Communication is huge. Being concise, compelling and commanding a room - those three "C's" are incredibly important. Let go of the notes, the very long PowerPoints. Let go of the podium and make eye contact.

The other issue for women is tone of voice. Margaret Thatcher famously brought her voice down an octave. I'm not saying you have to distort yourself enormously to make yourself fit the model. But if you want to really have your voice heard, these pointers are valuable.

Here's the thing about appearance. It's not the shape of your body or the texture of your hair or the kind of designer clothing you wear. It's about polish and grooming. It's about being appropriate.

And those things vary according to the culture. On Wall Street, it does mean the well-cut suit, the well-cut skirt, the discreet but elegant accessories. In Silicon Valley it means something different. Women find casual cultures much harder than formal cultures.

The nerdy hoodie thing works for Mark Zuckerberg, but it's very hard for women in that culture to figure out how to stand out as a rock star. Remember that photo of the Facebook IPO? There was a cluster of geeky young men, and then there was Sheryl Sandberg.

- Washington Post

- Washington Post

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