What sets the winners of the world apart?
That’s the question that author and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, the founder and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation, sets about answering with her new book “Executive Presence,” a no-nonsense, eye-opening analysis which will have you rethinking your posture, ditching the PowerPoint, and heading to the nearest department store.
According to Hewlett, whose research team surveyed nearly 4,000 college-educated professionals to help solve the executive presence riddle, the answer lies in three crucial factors: how you act (otherwise known as gravitas, the most important quality), how you communicate, and how you look.
In short, the elusive, all-important “EP,” has surprisingly little to do with diligence and performance, and a whole lot to do with why you’re not sat in the corner office.
And if you’re thinking that this trio of subjective attributes might make things a little more complicated for the working women of the world, Hewlett would not disagree.
“The fact is women are more scrutinized and they have to clear not just a higher bar, but a more complicated one,” says Hewlett who, in the course of the book, delves into the tools and tactics female executives have deployed as they’ve scaled the corporate ranks.
Here, Hewlett discusses white male privilege, talks Jill Abramson and the challenges women face, and reveals what may have cost Mitt Romney the election.
The book is for men and women, but you point out that women have the tougher road. As leaders, women can’t be concerned with likability yet their toughness is judged more harshly. The recent firing of Jill Abramson put a spotlight on this issue. Why is this particular dynamic so prevalent?
The idea that being forceful and having strong opinions makes you unlikable has been with us for a long time and it’s certainly born out of traditional role-playing and how well-brought up girls are supposed to be. I find I’m torn between saying, “Hey, guys. Let’s create a more inclusive leadership culture so women are allowed to be as strong and as audacious as men,” women like Jill Abramson who did some amazing things in terms of her courage and her audacity with what the New York Times did in China for instance. But then one also has to realize that this week, and next week, this is the way the leadership culture is, and if you want to be successful, you have to deal with it.
At one point you write, “Men don’t see the double standard even as they apply it.” Can you talk about that?
There was this very famous article some twenty years ago called “The Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh, and what the invisible knapsack was was essentially this collection of free passes and privileges that white men from the right background live with all their lives. They don’t even know that other people don’t have the same habits of mind and don’t have that kind of easy acceptance because they’re not part of the dominant group. I think they don’t even know what it feels like on the other side of the divide, they’ve never been the “other.” But obviously they’ve made a whole bunch of assumptions, which is what hidden bias is all about, which goes along with their experience, and they can’t understand that it’s picked up in a very different way, and picked up in a way that creates barriers.
What is the most common mistake you see men and women make in terms of mastering their executive presence?
For men, I think it’s underestimating the power of emotional intelligence. We found that this was one of the top picks in the Gravitas bucket, which is the most important way in which one is judged. In focus groups and one-on-ones, we found that this is a quality that’s leaping up the charts, because these days, whatever sector we’re in, we are working with global teams, we have hugely diverse markets and clients. Men can really have a tin ear on this front, which increasingly is thought to be a really bad idea. The ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, someone who is quite different, is a much more readily accessible strength for women than men.
One great example, which I use in the book, is that it’s probably why Mitt Romney lost the last election. He famously told the world that he was in such a bubble that he was clueless as to how the rest of the world lived. He blithely told an audience in Detroit that his wife had “a couple of Cadillacs” as though everyone’s wife had a couple of Cadillacs, and then of course there was that comment in Boston about looking at “binders full of women.” He was seen as a man with no emotional intelligence, no ability to be inside the shoes of someone who was different, particularly someone less privileged. That is a huge problem for a lot of in-the-bubble kind of men.
I think where women oftentimes go wrong, is failing to understand how important this kind of symbolic power is. Women like to believe that it’s all about how hard you work and how well you perform. Women indeed do very well on the sheer performance numbers but then oftentimes they don’t get promoted. I think one of the big, breakthrough thoughts of the book, is that this executive presence stuff is incredibly important. It’s what you signal, what you’re telegraphing in terms of your body language, how you dress, how you speak, how you communicate your heft and your weight in this world. It’s 30% of what makes a difference, and I think women in general like to downplay this because it is easier, and perhaps less risky, to invest one’s belief in the idea that it’s a meritocracy, or it should be a meritocracy, and therefore it’s all about how you’re performing and how hard you work.
One point you raise, is that women, LGBT employees, and employees of color, often get less guidance because managers are concerned about the legalities of discussing their appearance or manner of speech. How pervasive is that and what can be done about it?
It’s a massive problem. I call it the “feedback failure.” Honest feedback, unvarnished feedback, specific feedback, simply doesn’t cross lines of gender and race. And it’s not just because a senior man thinks he’s going to get sued if he makes any kind of corrections or critical statements about a younger woman. They also find it a very uncomfortable and embarrassing thing to do, because she might burst into tears, or if it’s a young person of color he or she might suspect them of being racist or not being politically correct enough.
In some perfect world you should be able to get the senior person to be a little more courageous. But as an interim tactic, we find that what really allows this advice to flow, is for the younger person to essentially give permission to the manager, the boss, or whoever it is, and say, “Look, I want the real deal, I want the real stuff, and I understand it’s a tribute to my potential if you do give me unvarnished feedback.” Once that permission is given, the senior person then feels much more willing to take some risks and to open up about what really might be the key things that would make a difference.
You address the conflict between conformity and authenticity: how personal reinvention for career advantage can sometimes feel like a betrayal of self. How do you think that tension is best reconciled?
One of the examples I start with is my own example. I felt under such extraordinary pressure when I got to Cambridge to lose my Welsh accent because every time I opened my mouth it was clear to the world that not only could I not speak English very well -- I made a lot of grammatical mistakes -- but I spoke it with this disastrous, in the eyes of the English, accent. It screamed at the world that I was from “the wrong background,” as they put it. And I think I overcorrected. I mean I spent years listening to the BBC World Service figuring out how to crack that particular code, because I knew I needed to survive in this new world, and it was hard enough being a female economist in an age when we were only 7% of the total, let alone dealing with this too.
But I don’t think you need to do that nowadays. I mean, it’s an incredibly good idea to get your grammar straight and to learn to have very coherent opinions about all kinds of things. But there’s no need to lose your accent, that is giving up a piece of your identity. Part of me wishes I hadn’t done that.
It’s figuring out how to clear the bar enough to be seen as a contender, as a player, but then hanging on to as much of your individuality as possible, because you can’t be a fake. You have to bring your authentic strength to bear.
We’ve done a lot of research at my organization recently which links diversity to innovation and growth. It’s obviously tremendously valuable to able to bring the full depth of your difference to the table. There’s power in that, and there’s also a way of feeding competitive strength that comes out of that, so the last thing you should do is lose it. But there is this tension, because clearly you have to hit a certain standard in terms of your grammar, you have to hit a certain standard in terms of the appropriateness of your dress, and clearly in terms of your gravitas you do need to display an impressive knowledge of some domain or other. You can’t just fake it.
Some women feel conflicted about this kind of advice and frustrated that the onus seems to be placed on all the hoops they need to jump through rather than adjusting underlying attitudes.
Let me give you an example of how the two come together. We published a report last week called “Harnessing The Power of the Purse.” This study is about the female investor in the US, UK, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, China, and essentially what it does is take a look at what well-heeled women in those markets really want to do with their money, and it turns out that they want to do some very different things from men.
They want to align their financial assets with the meaning and purpose of their life, they are much more long run, they are much more about having their resources fuel their dreams as well as their actual ROI. So, guess what? It’s the women in the financial services industry who are most able to understand this, most able to bring their gender smarts to bear and actually access this new market. The last thing you want is a bunch of women on the inside of the financial sector who have totally lost anything that identifies them with the female sex. I mean the idea that they are more ready, more inspired, better equipped to create the products and the services that reach this female marketplace is what this research is about. So, what we’re saying in this is don’t lose what makes you different, you’re going to need that, not only to be a fulfilled person and a fulfilled professional, but it’s important in the marketplace that we are able to deploy professionals who wear their identities and their differences on their sleeves. But clearly when you’re 25, 29, you’ve got to earn your spurs, you’ve got to clear a few hurdles. One of the most interesting things about this work on executive presence, is that as you become more senior, you can grow into your individuality and your specific power more obviously. You’re allowed to stand out more because you’ve earned it.
This interview has been edited.
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