What Is Executive Presence?
President Obama has it. So does Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. It’s embodied by people as varied as Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, celebrated Burmese parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi, and actress Angelina Jolie, especially since she made public her courageous decision to tackle her heritage of breast cancer. Nelson Mandela exuded it—when he donned the Springboks’ jersey and shook the hand of the captain of the winning all-white national rugby team the world knew that South Africa had found a leader intent on reconciliation.
It is executive presence—and no man or woman attains a top job, lands an extraordinary deal, or develops a significant following without this heady combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we’re in the presence of someone who’s the real deal. It’s an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be.
Gravitas is that je ne sais quoi quality (a quality that cannot be described or named easily) that some people have that makes other people judge them born leaders.
But born leaders are made, oftentimes through their own systematic efforts. They live intentionally, guided by a set of values or a vision for their lives that compels them to seize every chance to put their convictions into practice. We gravitate to them because they telegraph that they know where they’re going—a rare and intoxicating certainty that most of us lack. That is the real font of their gravitas.
You can be one of them. Here are some quick wins and inspirational stories to get you started:
Surround yourself with people who are better than you.
“Best piece of advice I ever got,” says James Charrington, chairman of Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) at BlackRock. “Recognize your own weaknesses, and hire people who will complement your strengths by addressing your weaknesses. Those I’ve seen struggle to move forward invariably are those who have trouble recognizing their shortcomings. When you talk about what you’re not good at, it helps others see what you really are good at—and your gravitas grows for admitting it.”
Be generous with credit.
As Deb Elam, head of diversity at GE, observes, nothing undermines followership faster than a boss who hogs all the credit for him or herself. Shining a light on those who helped you score a win underscores your integrity and sense of fairness, which in turn inspires others to give even more of themselves.
Stick to what you know.
Do not shoot from the hip; do not claim to know more than you do or possibly could know. Credit Suisse’s Michelle Gadsden-Williams learned this back when she worked for a pharmaceutical firm and asserted to the executive committee that the playing field for black employees wasn’t level. But she was careful to back up her assertion by offering concrete examples culled strictly from her own experience—and couched them as such. That way, she says, her insights were received as firsthand testimony and not a generalized indictment.
Nothing signals you’re emotionally attuned more than your own willingness to admit mistakes and own up to failings and shortcomings. BlackRock’s Charrington doesn’t hesitate to point out that he lacks a college degree, a very disarming revelation in this age of resume inflation and hyperbolic CVs. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg likewise disarms detractors by volunteering embarrassing details of her seemingly flawless life, owning up to her seventy-pound weight gain during her first pregnancy, her failed first marriage and even her fear of being number two in her children’s eyes.
This was advice Mellody Hobson received some twenty years ago from one of Motorola’s most senior women. At the time, eager to demonstrate her toughness as a female on her way up, she was flabbergasted at the suggestion. Now she spreads the word. “Smiling a lot projects happiness and likability, and people want to work with those who they like and those who are happy,” Hobson says. “There are energy givers, and energy takers. Who do you want to spend time with? Who are the people you run to the phone when they call and who are the ones you let go to voice mail? I want people to want to take my call.”
Snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Steve Jobs did it when he reclaimed his role at Apple after an eleven-year hiatus during which his successor nearly ran the company into the ground. But perhaps the most notable exemplar of this is Al Gore, who was, for a few days in 2000, president-elect of the United States before the Supreme Court snatched away his victory. Ten years later Gore secured himself a Nobel Prize, and a place in history, that the presidency might not have conferred: as a prophet willing to speak an inconvenient truth, and as a visionary whom we entrust not only to show us the future but also to guide us safely through it. In so doing, he utterly transformed his image from a wooden lifelong public servant into a Saturday Night Live host with a devilish sense of humor as well as a disarming sense of humility. He is, as New York magazine put it, the ultimate Davos man, a leader whose credibility and gravitas are held in global esteem
Say what you will about Arianna Huffington’s politics, but she knows how to command attention—whether her audience is a room full of left-leaning movie moguls or a voting bloc of religious conservatives. With the Huffington Post, she commands a readership of some 5.7 million devotees per day
Powerful people as well as the hoi polloi hang on her every word. What exactly is it about Arianna that makes her such a commanding presence?
It comes down to this: Arianna is never boring. And if you aspire to lead, you, too, must mesmerize your audience—or, to use the language of our survey research, “command a room,” whether that room be a TV studio, a concert hall, or the team hang-out space. Nearly half of our respondents said it enhances a woman’s executive presence, and more than half said it enhances a man’s.
So: How do you grab and keep an audience?
Ditch the verbal crutches.
Fillers such as “um,” “like,” and “you know” get in the way of and undermine your message. Tape yourself. Allow yourself to pause when you’re giving thought to something mid-sentence. Moments of silence give greater import to the words that precede and follow them.
Broaden your small talk.
Kalinda, a real-estate analyst at a financial-services company, affirms the usefulness of being able to contribute to casual conversations: “One of best things ever to happen to me was managing the NFL budget,” she says, referring to a former job. “I didn’t know a thing about American football when I got there, but I recognized I needed to, if I was ever going to be considered one of the guys. So I read Sports Business Daily every day. The teams, the games, the analysts—I could talk about all of it with anyone. Even now, if I hear football being discussed, I insert myself in that conversation, because I have something to add. For the same reason, I picked up golf a couple of years ago. I’m not good at it, but I can talk about it, and that opens a door with my managers.”
Get control of your voice.
Lord Bell, the advertising guru and PR maestro who masterminded the British Conservative Party’s 1978 campaign, helped tone down the Iron Lady’s speaking voice with a simple concoction: water tinctured with honey and lemon. “Because she did so much talking, her vocal cords got stressed and it made her sound shrill,” he says. “We found that if she drank some hot water with lemon and honey it lowered her pitch and took the strain out of her voice.”
Sallie Krawcheck makes sure she breathes, consciously and deeply, before taking the stage, to eradicate any shakiness in her voice. Kerrie Peraino sips water to relax her throat muscles, as tight muscles can produce a squeaky, raspy, or breathy tone.
Barbara Adachi finds that by dint of careful preparation, she can overcome her inclination not to speak unless spoken to. “I used to go to meetings and just not say a word,” she recalls. “People wondered why I was even there. Unless asked to comment, I wouldn’t volunteer. Speaking up was so hard for me. And I still need to push myself in new situations. But if I go in well-prepared and knowing I know more than I need to, I find it easier to speak up and not go back into my cocoon.”
Less can be more.
Jane Shaw, former chairman of Intel’s board, affirms that you can’t afford to be a wallflower at meetings. But she cautions against speaking up just for the sake of it. “Inject a comment when you have something fresh to add. If you’re asked for an update, stick to new items. Invite others to add their opinion rather than babble on. If someone has not weighed in, you might throw it to them when you finish,” she advises.
Invoke your vertical.
Anne Erni, who today heads up human resources at Bloomberg, describes an incident early in her career on Wall Street where her body language helped her pull off an unpopular decision with a hostile crowd. “The other executives were ganging up on me, literally yelling and cursing. Meanwhile, forty people were waiting for us to come forth with a decision. I had to focus on getting to that goal. I sat there and, with every ounce of energy, just kept pushing my feet into the floor, sitting tall, and making my spine and head straight. Then I leaned forward and spoke. It not only got me through that awful moment, but I won their confidence, and we moved forward.”
Lose the props.
It bears repeating: You will exude executive presence if you establish and maintain a direct connection with your audience, whether you’re addressing two or two hundred. Learn to present without props.
Do not allow challenges to your authority to go unanswered.
Hecklers are looking to rob you of your command of the room by getting under your skin. Don’t let them. Parrying with humor is your best defense, as it demonstrates that your confidence can’t be shaken and makes the heckler look petty for trying. You can also declaw a barb by acknowledging a germ of truth in it—and then annihilating that germ with counterevidence. Sometimes, however, it’s important to reassert your authority by going full frontal. Dwight Robinson, chief of diversity at Freddie Mac, describes how his first sponsor chose him as his deputy to run the state housing authority committee. Robinson knew he was utterly qualified to win the position, but as both he and his sponsor were African-American, he knew the decision would come under fire. Indeed it did. But Robinson’s sponsor did not flinch. To the builders, the developers, and the mayor who questioned his choice, he countered, “You’ve got twenty-seven other departments with two people of the same race in charge. They’ve solved their problems, so how does it signal something negative when two white people are running twenty-seven agencies and two black people are running one?” Robinson says it was a “life lesson” for him in exercising courage and asserting authority.
It’s something of a final frontier, this business of appearance—not because others haven’t probed it, but because so very few have offered guidelines that might apply across the spectrum of workplace environments. There is, of course, no one “right” look. You must determine, by paying close attention to office culture cues and studying the leaders around you, what signals EP in your environment.
That said, deep tranche of qualitative research from individual managers across occupations and industries prompts you to become conscious and therefore much more intentional about your appearance—a critical move toward acing it.
SHOWCASE YOUR STRENGTHS
The stunning actress Olivia Wilde describes how, early in her career, she headed out for an audition wearing a huge cashmere turtleneck sweater over pants. Her boss stopped her at the door. “Olivia, what are you doing?” she cried. “You can’t wear that! You have to wear something tight and sexy!” Wilde was taken aback: As a serious actress, confident in her craft, she wanted to focus her audience on her performance, not her physique. Her boss listened patiently, nodding in understanding, and then cut her off. “While I can appreciate you’re not eager to sell yourself on pure sex appeal,” she explained to Wilde, “it’s ridiculous for someone with your curves to go into an audition hiding them. It signals a lack of awareness, even an immaturity on your part: This is a business that makes money by showcasing such assets.” Wilde got it. She also won the audition
SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
Go to a department store makeup counter and consult with the cosmetician. Hire a personal shopper. Consider hiring an image consultant. Paying for advice up front can save you a lot of money—and spare you some costly blunders.
IT’S NOT HOW GOOD YOU LOOK, IT’S HOW APPROPRIATE YOU LOOK FOR YOUR AUDIENCE
A drug representative for Bristol-Myers Squibb described having to send home a member of her team who showed up for a presentation at a Princeton, New Jersey, hospital wearing a sundress and open-toed shoes. “We’re meeting with people who are making life-and-death decisions in there,” the rep told this young woman. “You can’t hope to persuade them that you grasp the gravity of their mission if you look like you’re headed to a picnic.” Reflecting on this incident and others like it, this rep told me, “Too often, I find, people just aren’t thinking beyond themselves.”
IF IT DOESN’T FEEL RIGHT, IT PROBABLY ISN’T
American Express’s Kerrie Peraino advises women to listen to “that little voice of anxiety” when it comes to vetting wardrobe choices for work. “If I’m tugging at the back of my blouse all day to keep the neckline from showing too much cleavage, then clearly I’m not comfortable in that blouse—and won’t derive a lot of confidence from wearing it,” she explains. She adds, “Your work attire is your armor. It should make you feel invincible, not add to your insecurities.”
STAY IN COSTUME TO STAY IN CHARACTER
A colleague of mine describes how her boss leaves a suit jacket hanging on the back of his door in the event he’s suddenly obliged to impress a client or superior. That’s a flawed strategy, and here’s why. First, you can’t always know who among the people you encounter is worth impressing, nor can you always anticipate when and where you’ll run into them. Second, gravitas isn’t something you hang on the back of the door and wear at will
polished, well-put-together look is what communicates you’re a person who is both respectful of colleagues and clients and is yourself worthy of respect. Throwing on a jacket isn’t likely to fool anyone. To do and be your best, you must strive to look your best, and that look depends on forethought and attention to detail. It’s not an act so much as a mindset. Wear it when you walk in the office door and don’t take it off until you’re back home
DON’T LET YOUR BANGLES AND BLING STEAL YOUR THUNDER
Clanging, banging jewelry is not the best if you’re giving a presentation, Linda Huber told me in an interview. “Anything that calls attention to itself rather than the message you’re giving is not the best.”
BUY YOURSELF GREATER LATITUDE
Executive presence is all about inspiring trust and confidence in others. Once you’ve done that and are successfully “over the bar,” you can start to play with the dress code; ultimately you get to set the dress code. Steve Jobs, let it be said, didn’t start out with fifty black turtlenecks: That signature look (thinking different, dressing different) evolved in lockstep with his extraordinary success. In the battle between conformity and authenticity, you will eventually prevail—not, perhaps, as a brand-new hire but down the road when you have some seniority. Get over the bar. Establish your bona fides. Win everyone’s faith and confidence. Then make your own rules.
It must be said that some kinds of feedback are intrinsically difficult to give no matter who is on the receiving end. Criticizing someone’s appearance, for example, turns out to be emotionally fraught, even woman-to-woman. “You’re taking issue with their self-expression,” Rohini Anand, global diversity officer for Sodexo, points out. “How can that not be taken personally?”
Correcting someone on how they speak is also dicey terrain, even when that speech pattern is affecting business outcomes and limiting personal career trajectories. That’s because, like appearance, taking issue with grammar, accent, or diction goes straight to ethnic, cultural, or socioeconomic differences.
If giving EP feedback marks you as a leader, then giving actionable EP feedback marks you as a great one.
- You’ll be clear on what the problem is.
- You’ll understand why it must be addressed.
- You’ll know precisely what you need to do to course-correct.
It should also be framed in the context of the business outcome, whether that outcome is your personal success (for example, exuding gravitas at an important meeting with a superior) or the success of your team (for example, holding on to key clients)
TACTICS: HOW TO GET THE EP FEEDBACK YOU NEED
- Recognize you need it
- Develop a thicker skin
- Routinely ask for specific, timely, prescriptive feedback
- If you can’t get from your superiors, ask for a coach
- Create a circle of peers with whom you can share feedback
- Turn to mentors
- Listen for the ring of truth
- Demonstrate you’ll act on the feedback you receive
- When you’ve given vague criticism, get clarity
- Never burn a bridge
TACTICS: HOW TO GIVE EP FEEDBACK LIKE A TRUE LEADER
- Give frequent, discrete points rather than semi-annual ones
- Don’t give it when you’re angry
- Put the good things out there first
- Embed correctives in your feedback
- Catch people getting it right
- Preface feedback with assurance that you have their best interests at heart
- Discuss appearance in the context of personal branding (For example, talk about their skills and passions, and discuss what distinctive value they add to the team, as in ‘You’re known for your analytical skills, and your ability to see the trend behind the numbers.’ Then stress how every interaction, every verbal and nonverbal message they send, including their clothing and overall appearance, should serve to reinforce that image.”)
EP Can Be Learned
Ordinary mortals can crack the EP code. These skills are eminently learnable. You don’t have to be a born actor or be endowed with a James Earl Jones voice.
If EP is learnable it’s also doable. You don’t have to be some kind of genius and ace all top picks across the three categories of gravitas, communication, and appearance. No need for straight A’s. Not even Barack Obama is that good—and neither is Angelina Jolie.
Figure out what is negotiable—and what is not. In your drive to crack the EP code, don’t compromise your authenticity to such an extent that it puts your soul in play. It will make you miserable and will also backfire, because in the end gravitas rests centrally on your true identity.
A Final Word
Commit to the work involved and embrace your EP journey. It will be enormously empowering. Of course it will require a ton of energy. Learning how to command a room or read a client, figuring out how to use silence to punctuate a speech, finding the perfect skirt or suit to complement your body type—none of this is easy and it will require hours of painstaking effort. But you can count on the results being transformative. Cracking the EP code will close the gap between merit and success, between where you are right now, and where you could be if you unleashed your full potential and allowed it to fly and soar. And it will make you feel quite wonderful.