Embrace what makes you different to become a leader

Sylvia Ann Hewlett: economist, academic and the author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success
Sylvia Ann Hewlett: economist, academic and the author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success

Some are born with "executive presence", but the good news is that you can learn to stand out from the crowd, writes Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

Two years ago, my research team at the Center for Talent Innovation set out to crack the "executive presence" code, conducting focus groups, a national survey of 4000 professionals, and interviews with various CEOs to find out what co-workers and bosses look for when they evaluate an employee’s executive presence (EP) – whether they signal to others that they are star leadership material.

We learned that EP rests on three pillars: how you act (gravitas); how you speak (communication) and how you look (appearance).

While the specifics vary depending on context (what works on Wall Street might not in Silicon Valley), these three pillars of EP are universal. They are also interactive: if your communication skills ensure you can "command a room", your gravitas grows; if your presentation is rambling and timid, it suffers a blow.

These pillars are not equally important. Gravitas is the core characteristic. Some 67% of the 268 senior executives we surveyed said that gravitas is what matters. Signalling that "you know your stuff cold" is more salient than communication (28% of the vote) or appearance (5%).

Projecting intellectual horsepower underpins gravitas, but it’s more than that. It’s signalling that you have depth and heft, but also the confidence and credibility to get your point across and create buy-in when the going gets rough, when your enterprise is under pressure. Projecting confidence and "grace under fire" was the most important quality for the executives polled.

You let people know you have gravitas by communicating a leader’s authority through your speaking skills and ability to command a room. Indeed, these communication traits were considered the two most important in our survey. Tone of voice, bearing and body language add to your ability to hold people’s attention, whether presenting to a small team or addressing a large conference.

Appearance is critical

In our survey, senior executives told us that appearance is inconsequential: only 5% identified it as the most important aspect of EP. This is deceptive. Appearance is a critical first filter. While senior execs (and co-workers) see it as unimportant, it is an initial hurdle.

If a young female director turns up at a client meeting wearing a tight blouse and a miniskirt, she may not be invited back, no matter how qualified and prepared she is. Blunders on the appearance front can get you into serious trouble and get you knocked off the list of those in contention for key roles, no matter how brilliant you are.

The good news is that "grooming and polish" were chosen by more senior excutives in the survey than "physical attractiveness" or "body type" (whether you are slim or well-built, tall or short) as a key contributor to EP. Grooming and polish can be learned and acquired, so it’s a huge relief to know that cracking the code on the appearance front isn’t a function of what you were born with – it’s a function of what you do with what you have.

While cracking the EP code can be onerous, this work and these struggles allow you to flourish. Once you’ve demonstrated that you know how to stand out from the crowd, you get to strut your stuff and stand apart. Becoming a leader and doing something amazing with your life hinge on what makes you different, not on what makes you the same as everyone else.

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