Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett


Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!



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In the words of one Wall Street CEO, “I can’t describe it, but I sure know it when I see it.” Most people intuitively recognize “executive presence” (EP). It’s a rare combination of vision, charisma, drive and intelligence that marks great leaders. Workplace expert Sylvia Ann Hewlett breaks EP into its three parts – “gravitas, communication and appearance” – and reveals the secrets to attaining all three. Hewlett’s guide is chock-full of examples set by impressive leaders, and she outlines blunders to avoid and strategies to get ahead.


In this summary, you will learn

  • What the components of “executive presence” (EP) are,
  • Why EP is essential to great leadership and
  • How you can acquire the EP you need for success.


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“Executive Presence”

What makes for dynamic, engaging and effective leaders? Being able to convey that you’re in charge – just by walking into a room – requires a unique blend of self-possession, charm and authenticity. This is executive presence (EP), and great leaders, such as US president Barack Obama and the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, have it, as does actress Angelina Jolie, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Virgin’s Richard Branson and Olympic sprinter Usain Bolt. Executive presence isn’t something you’re necessarily born with, but you can develop it.

The author’s research firm, the Center for Talent Innovation, conducted several studies, including focus groups, interviews and an extensive national survey to identify the qualities that make up executive presence. The three elements of EP, while not of equal weight, remain consistent across different fields and contexts. They are:

1. “Gravitas – How You Act”

About two-thirds of the senior executives surveyed rated gravitas as the most important ingredient in EP. Every great leader has gravitas. After the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP managing director Bob Dudley projected empathy and compassion, as well as competence and confidence. He didn’t shy away from hard questions or deny culpability. His behavior contrasted sharply with that of CEO Tony Hayward, who ignited public ire when he tried to distance himself and the company from blame and complained about the relentless media spotlight.

Gravitas, as it relates to EP, has several components. It enables superior leaders to keep their composure during hard times, as exemplified by Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Iron Lady, who weathered one crisis after another with strength and resolve. Gravitas is a leader’s ability to make tough decisions when others are reluctant to expose themselves to the consequences. For example, the new CEO of Yahoo, Marissa Mayer, made the unpopular decision to require all employees to work on-site rather than telecommute. She drew harsh criticism from many people, yet she stood by her decision because she believed it was in the company’s best interest.

Strong leaders speak “truth to power.” New Jersey governor Chris Christie praised President Obama’s response to Hurricane Sandy, even though it angered Christie’s fellow Republicans. While effective leaders are decisive when necessary, they also exhibit “emotional intelligence” by showing empathy. Indiscriminately wielding authority communicates arrogance – unless it’s tempered by compassion. Executives with gravitas value their reputations, and align their actions and appearance with their “personal brand.” Living out your vision builds gravitas. Consider the late Steve Jobs, whose commitment to elegant design that served Apple users was legendary.

Like a reputation, gravitas is fragile. One serious misstep can undo years of success and derail careers. Sexual impropriety heads the list of irreparable blunders. Examples abound, including former US House representative Anthony Weiner, International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn. Other mistakes that undermine gravitas include “lack of integrity, flip-flopping and bullying.”

People seldom enter the workforce with strong, developed EP. Rather, EP is forged by circumstance and honed by intention. Know your values, set goals and align your actions with your grander vision. Bring strong, talented people onto your team. Work with colleagues who will compensate for your weak areas and buoy your strengths. Give credit where it’s due; be willing to admit your mistakes; own up to what you don’t know; and play to your strengths.

2. “Communication” – How You Share Your Message

Communication encompasses much more than the spoken word. Effective verbal and nonverbal communication skills gain commitment and earn esteem from co-workers, friends and other stakeholders. Your vocal modulation, body language, stance and expression all affect what an audience hears and remembers. This also holds true outside conference rooms and boardrooms: Leaders are “always on.”

Several traits contribute to your ability to engage and connect with listeners. The most important is “superior speaking skills.” The baseline for strong speech includes using proper grammar, and speaking with a pleasing tone and timbre. Verbal idiosyncrasies that detract from EP include a strongly regional accent, a shrill or unpleasant voice, and the frequent use of fillers such as “um” and “like.”

Women in particular must be careful to modulate their tone – a jarring, high-pitched voice is a proven EP killer. When a reporter described Thatcher’s voice as having the “hectoring tones of the housewife,” she hired a voice coach and corrected her delivery.

Individuals such as political commentator and Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and former US president Bill Clinton “command a room.” They engage their listeners, find common ground with their audiences and draw them in. Magnetic leaders use stories as vehicles for conveying messages. Former US president Ronald Reagan was “the Great Communicator” because he told relatable stories – instead of facts – to capture and sway an audience.

Society conditions women from an early age to listen rather than to assert themselves. Executives need to be forceful, yet, while assertive women can appear nasty, mean or aggressive, men acting similarly don’t draw the same negative characterizations. Counteract any potentially adverse impressions by framing your demands in terms of what’s best for the firm. Listen to others first and act respectfully, but speak up and offer solutions.

Body language is a powerful communicator. How you walk, make eye contact, shake hands, sit and stand communicates volumes. Learn to “read a room.” Talking longer than your audience can listen or relaying endless data when people want the bottom line diminishes your listeners’ perceptions of your abilities. People won’t trust you if you can’t take an accurate pulse of an audience.

Anything that detracts from your message or reduces your listeners’ attention span undercuts your EP. This includes checking your smartphone during meetings, exhibiting nervous body tics such as tapping your foot or doodling, slouching, rambling, or repeating yourself. Relying too heavily on notes or PowerPoint slides is a distraction that lessens your ability to connect and to make eye contact with your audience.

In addition to working on your voice and presentation, also learn to make small talk and to speak on a variety of subjects. Read the daily sports page, since sports are a useful common denominator. Prepare well for presentations, because feeling unprepared will undermine your confidence.

3. “Appearance – How You Look”

People do, in fact, judge a book by its cover. While your appearance isn’t the most important thing about you – and actions do speak louder than looks – people assess your façade before they weigh your gravitas or communication skills. Therefore, particularly in the short term, your appearance and presentation matter. Luckily, you don’t have to be born beautiful or handsome for others to find you attractive. Your grooming is under your control; more than one-third of survey respondents found this aspect of appearance most important.

Taking the time to look polished and professional signals to others that you care not only about yourself but about them as well. Take special care with your hair and nails, tailor your clothes to fit your form, and choose accessories carefully. Women should avoid clothes that are overtly sexy or that display their bodies. Unfortunately, an undeniable bias against obesity exists in the workplace. This doesn’t mean you have to be skinny. Rather, it’s more important that your countenance conveys good health, youthful vitality and fitness. Dress appropriately for the job you hold today and for the position you’d like to have tomorrow.

Society judges women’s looks more harshly than men’s. Common mistakes that working women make include wearing too much makeup or flashy jewelry, showing too much leg or cleavage, and having bedraggled hair. Men harm their EP if they look disheveled, wear ill-fitting clothes, have dandruff or sport an obvious hairpiece.

Finding the appropriate business look depends on your company’s culture. However, certain tactics work for everyone. To highlight your strengths, use a personal shopper or consult with an image specialist or coach. Find someone you trust to provide unvarnished feedback about your look and the image you project. Dress to reflect your position and boost your credibility. Listen to your inner voice and always remember, “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.”

Give and Take

Dispensing constructive feedback and seeking it for yourself are essential to becoming and remaining a great leader. For example, after attending her first meeting with the CEO, a young woman appreciated it when her boss told her, “When you’re nervous, you talk fast, and that can come across as junior. Take a deep breath.” Similarly, a new salesperson was grateful when his superior suggested he was wasting opportunities at events by talking only to people he knew. “I want you to come back from these gatherings with a stack of business cards,” she instructed.

Even feedback that is difficult can be constructive if it addresses an issue, explains why the issue is a problem and offers an appropriate solution. Everyone benefits from feedback, and you’re no exception. Keep an emotional distance so you can take criticism without breaking down. Find colleagues, friends and mentors you trust who will honestly tell you what works for you and what doesn’t.

When providing feedback, keep your anger at bay and focus on the behavior. Point out the positives and identify the conduct the person needs to change. Suggest ways how the individual might correct a behavior or bad habit. Reassure people that your comments are made in their best interests and those of the company. Notice when someone makes the right choice, and reinforce his or her performance with a compliment.

Women and Minorities: A Special Challenge

People continue to base leadership stereotypes on white males, regardless of the diversity in today’s workplace. Research shows that people associate leadership attributes with masculine traits, such as being aggressive, forceful, ruthless and competitive. People view feminine characteristics as “less,” as in “less self-confident, less analytical and less emotionally stable.” When women exhibit traits associated with male behavior, they pay a price; co-workers view them as “catty” or “bitchy.”

Working women walk a “fine line” between too much and too little. For example, when they self-promote, often they’re accused of being “self-aggrandizing”; if they give credit to others, they’re criticized for being “self-deprecating.” People will perceive women as being either “too aggressive” or “not assertive enough,” “too mean” or “too nice,” or even remote or overemotional.

People of color, as well as members of the LGBT community, struggle to conform while remaining true to themselves. Attaining EP sometimes requires them to forgo fundamental aspects of their identity. The metaphor “bleached-out professionals” refers to this dilemma of having to abandon “ethnic, religious, racial, socioeconomic and educational identifiers” in order to look and act like a stereotypical professional. The effort required of non-Caucasians and LGBT professionals to hide elements of their lives and their personalities takes a heavy toll. It causes many people to disengage, become alienated, act falsely or fade into the background.

While fitting in at work is important, acting authentically is even more so. Finding the right balance between judicious accommodation and selling out is an individual determination. To make it easier, begin by identifying your “nonnegotiables,” actions you’re unwilling to take or cultures to which you don’t want to belong. Celebrate what makes you different and understand how it increases your worth, including your value as a leader with gravitas, communication skills and a professional appearance.[/text_block]

About the Author

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an expert in gender and workplace issues, founded the Center for Talent Innovation think tank and wrote Off Ramps and On Ramps and Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets.[/text_block]
[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]Get key insights from 15,000+ non-fiction books at GetAbstract.com.[/text_block]