I interviewed economist and frequent commentator Sylvia Ann Hewlett yesterday. She has a new book out called Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, and it deals with this question: what makes people look like leadership material? The obvious answer is “you are a tall white man,” but the rest of us, alas, cannot become tall white men, so we’re going to have to figure out something else. She offers tips on figuring out that something else, and I’ll cover a lot of those tips in a forthcoming Fast Company post.
But here are a few advance tidbits. First, confidence is an obvious marker of executive presence. One way to demonstrate that? Not relying much on notes or PowerPoint slides. Watch TED talks and see how the best are delivered. This is what a lot of people think of as gravitas — knowing your stuff cold and delivering it in a way that engages people.
Second, how you look matters. Elegance and glamour are great, but just as important is looking fit. Not necessarily model thin, Hewlett notes, but fit. Executive jobs are perceived as hard and stressful, and decision makers want to know that you’re up to the rigors of the job. Of course, a reasonable question is when you’re supposed to exercise if you’re pursuing a top job, but Hewlett says you’ll just have to figure that out. She swims in hotel pools. She has a tight fitting swim cap with purple petals on it that keeps her hair completely dry and “20 minutes later I’m done for the day.”
Third, you often win people over in the meeting before the meeting — that is, the unofficial banter that is the appetizer to any business relationship. “It doesn’t have to be football,” she told me. “I think that’s overdone a bit,” and if you don’t actually like football or other common tall, white, male interests, you come across as inauthentic. A better approach is to research as much as possible about the people you’re meeting — the non-profit boards they serve on, for instance, which you can often find via LinkedIn. Be prepared to talk about these interests or commonalities. “That’s just being thoroughly prepared.”
Another note: Hewlett starts her book with a personal story of trying to resurrect her brand. Years ago she wrote a book called Creating a Life, which got a ton of attention for finding, among other things, that about half of corporate women earning over $100,000 a year were childless in their 40s (meaning that situation was unlikely to change). There are some more encouraging data points out there, and long-time blog readers know my next book will cover women who earn $100,000 and have kids, but anyway, her book came out and something interesting happened. A front page New York Times story discussed how “The Talk of the Book World Still Can’t Sell.” As Hewlett writes in Executive Presence, “Halfway through the first sentence my blood ran cold — the subject of the article was my book.” The problem of your book being trashed on the front page of the New York Times “is that everyone is in the know. It’s like being stripped in public. My entire circle of friends and colleagues read this piece.” When she met with her agent to propose another book, her agent basically told her there wouldn’t be a next book.
But of course there was — eventually. She took day jobs teaching at universities, continued her research, and tried to be more careful about being published in high-end places so her message couldn’t be as easily caricatured. This took a lot of time and patience. “Resurrecting my brand after the disastrous launch of Creating a Life took about six years,” she writes. “I didn’t breathe easy until my body of new work had spawned my fifth Harvard Business Review article. At that point I knew I had reestablished my gravitas.”