What Is Executive Presence (and Are You Getting Feedback to Acquire it)?

Sep 5, 2013

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett

President Obama has it. Jamie Dimon has it. Steve Jobs had it in spades. So did Margaret Thatcher.

No man or woman attains power or exerts influence without it — executive presence (EP), that aura of confidence and competence that convinces others that you deserve to be in charge.

But what is executive presence? Do you have it? If not, are you getting the feedback you need to acquire it?

The 3 pillars of executive presence

The Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) delved down into these questions in 2012, fielding a nationwide survey and conducting a ton of focus groups. We found that executive presence comprises three universal dimensions.

Whether you work on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley, how you act (gravitas), how you speak (communication), and how you look (appearance) count for a lot in determining your leadership presence.

These three pillars of EP do not stand independent of each other. For example, if your communication skills enable you to command a room, your gravitas or aura of authority grows exponentially. Conversely, if your presentation is rambling and your manner is diffident or timid, your gravitas suffers.

While all three pillars contribute to EP, they don’t contribute equally. Gravitas provides the real heft, according to 67 percent of the 268 senior executives we surveyed, more salient than either communication (28 percent) or appearance (5 percent). To uncover this elusive quality we conducted focus groups and interviews with senior executives.

The most important of these, we discovered, is the first. — “Grace under fire.” This amounts to keeping your cool no matter how much heat you’re subjected to.

Appearance? Absolutely essential to EP

JPMorgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon displayed considerable poise, for example, when Congress grilled him in June 2012 for failing to forestall some $5.8 billion in trading losses — a performance that won him investor confidence even as the losses in question drove down the stock. Exuding confidence is something any good actor can manage, but projecting credibility as well as confidence as you’re riding out a crisis is truly the mark of a leader, our research confirms.

Because your communication skills help project gravitas, they’re the next most critical aspect of EP. But great speaking skills are not enough. You’ve got to be attuned to use them at just the right moment and know when to turn up the warmth and humor and when to unleash the pit bull.

One executive (who is also a PhD) at a $20 billion food and facilities management firm describes how she used to deliver presentations steeped in data, models, and academic research, slowly building to her point — and quickly losing her audience. Now she presents the business case first, laced with key facts and short stories.

She offers detailed data only when asked. “My strength today as a leader is my communication,” she notes. “I’ve gotten good at reading my audience quickly and adjusting my style or tailoring my message accordingly.”

While seen as far less important than gravitas and communication, appearance turns out to be absolutely essential to EP as a bar to hurdle first in order to be assessed in other, more substantive areas.

Kalinda, the real-estate analyst, remembers her first meeting with the woman who would eventually sponsor her: “She told me, ‘Go get your nails done. Wear some makeup. Figure out a hairstyle. You need a makeover, because you look like a little kid, and I am not going to trust a little kid to do a grownup’s job.’”

Feedback failure

Kalinda, who prided herself on her grasp of intricate financial data and her preparedness, was taken aback. This was what she needed to do to break through to the next level? But she took her superior’s advice and polished her look.

Less than three months later, she was given a managerial role. “Part of it was timing,” Kalinda says, “but definitely senior leaders’ percep¬tion of me changed. They already knew I could handle more responsibility; it’s just that now they could see I was ready for the next step.”

Knowing what gives rise to executive presence (or destroys it) is half the challenge. The other half is in knowing how to apply the lessons to your role in your workplace. That’s where a sponsor comes in.

Sponsors, unlike mentors, will level with you, giving you unvarnished feedback on your executive presence because you’re walking around with their brand on. The degree to which you’re seen as having what it takes directly impinges on your sponsor’s reputation as a leader.

But either because most women and people of color lack sponsors, or because their sponsors aren’t living up to their duties, they’re not getting this critical feedback. That was the disturbing finding of CTI’s research.

Women get more scrutiny for appearance

A partner at one of the Big Four accounting firms told us about a young woman on his UK team whose appearance — she was curvy, blonde, and provocatively dressed — communicated something other than gravitas. Indeed, one client found her look so distracting that he asked that she be removed from the team. “It doesn’t help to have the trolley-dolly image,” the client admonished the team’s leader.

The leader, vexed at her and his own inability to confront her about her appearance, took her off the account. But he did ask someone in HR to enroll her in a course on presentation skills and client interaction. To her credit, the young woman made the connection between image and impact and transformed her look.

“She’s a different person now, a real rising star on the team,” this partner commented. “I should have had the courage to give her feedback before.”

This story shows not only how honest feedback can make a career-changing difference, but also how leaders struggle to impart this advice, particularly if the would-be Pygmalion leader is male and the object of his concern is female.

Women are much more highly scrutinized for how they look and dress than their male peers but are 32 percent less likely, according to CTI research, to get any feedback from male superiors. Men, we’ve learned, will readily toss off correctives to guys they barely know — as in, “Your breath’s a bit off; you might want to have a mint” — but will avoid confronting a female with much-needed guidance even if she’s an important member of their team.

Staying on the edge is difficult

There are reasons for this reluctance, of course. Male executives don’t wish to make comments about a wom­an’s appearance for fear those comments will be misconstrued as sexual harassment. It’s wiser to ignore a hiked-up skirt than be sued for commenting on it.

Yet senior females, our research shows, are no better than senior men at being forthcoming: only 39 percent of female survey respondents told us they’d ever gotten EP advice from a same-sex supervisor.

When women do get feedback, it’s often distressingly con­tradictory, with criticism leveled from all sides. Unkempt nails detract from female EP, survey respondents told us. But they also found “overly done” nails to be unleader-like. Too much makeup undermines a woman’s credibility, but respondents also faulted women for wearing too little or no makeup and looking like they’re not trying.

Being too asser­tive (and seen as a bitch) was problematic for women, but so was not being assertive enough (and being seen as a shrink­ing violet). The contradictions went on and on: being “too bossy” undermines a woman’s EP, but so does being “too passive”; “tooting her own horn” detracts, but so does “self-deprecating” behavior. It’s little wonder that 81 percent of women who do receive feedback tell us they have trouble finding the sweet spot.

Staying on that knife-edge between too little and too much seems to be extremely difficult.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Forget a Mentor, Find a Sponsor: The New Way to Fast-Track Your Career, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.