On gravitas

photo-161I 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.”

8 thoughts on “On gravitas

  1. On being prepared for your meetings — it’s really interesting how much it matters. When I’m about to meet with someone for the first time, I pubmed them to see what they’ve published recently. Being able to ask or comment upon something specific about their research makes A HUGE difference. It is extra work, but well worth it.

    1. @oldmdgirl – what’s interesting to me is that it really isn’t *that* much more work to see what someone’s been up to, so you’d think more people would do it. But they don’t!

      I’ve gotten feedback in the past that I score goodwill in interviews with authors by asking about something on like page 200 of their books. A lot of interviewers never make it past the first chapter. Or the blurb on the back of the book.

      1. It’s true! I’d also recommend taking the time to actually read a recent manuscript in greater detail — one that you’re actually interested — because you’re right, most people don’t read anything more than summary. The best opening line I had with anyone was, “You’re [famous person]? I based my entire grant on that paper you wrote on XYZ!” Win.

        1. I think though that this kind of thing can also back-fire just like talking about football when you’re not really interested.
          I would have done a LOT better on the job market if I’d realized I didn’t have to be up on everybody’s work (even the macroeconomists) and I could just ask about research.

  2. Very interesting, Laura– I look forward to reading more on this!

    I assume that Hewlett’s book addresses this, but I wonder about the differences in how important these elements might be for men and for women, both in general and at different life stages for both groups.

    While women may be at a disadvantage compared to (tall, white, straight) males overall, I would guess that women get a bigger bump in gravitas than equally confident, attractive, fit men in their later working years. Anecdotally I see many examples that seem to support this in business and politics, but I wonder if it is indeed true?

    Not that it would be encouraging to confirm that women have to be post-menopausal to get closer to a level playing field, but I suppose it would be something to look forward to at least!

  3. I think not just knowing what you’re presenting but being able to anticipate and respond to questions intelligently goes a long way to displaying gravitas.

    It’s so annoying to be at a presentation at a conference where the researcher (usually junior, but sadly not always) responds (in a soft, mumble-ey voice) to every question with some variation of “I don’t know” or “I’m going to let my senior author respond”.

  4. Great article! A must-read — even for tall white men like me (OK, I’m not that tall actually, but you got my point)

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