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How to act, sound and look like a leader

Credit: Ron Rinaldi

The economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett has written books about women leaving and re-entering the workforce, executives who work jobs with extreme hours, and the importance of finding a "sponsor" rather than a mentor. Now, just as the management style of powerful women is becoming a news topic in its own right — from Jill Abramson's firing to Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In manifesto — Hewlett is out with her own take on the intangibles of leadership.

Hewlett's new book, Executive Presence, examines the more subjective factors that go into getting a top job. While she looks at how both men and women develop such key soft skills, she gives special focus to the particular obstacles this presents women and people of color. Relying on a survey of 1200 professionals (300 of them senior leaders), dozens of focus groups and in-depth interviews, Hewlett explains how gravitas, communication style and appearance are the three things every executive must get right in order to get ahead.

In this interview Hewlett, who also leads the research firm Center for Talent Innovation, talks about the complicated nature of giving feedback on appearance, the importance of humor, and how she worked to get rid of her Welsh accent.

The conversastion below has been edited for space and clarity.

Q. What exactly do you mean when you say "executive presence"?

A. It's what you telegraph about your abilities. It's not performance. It's not whether you hit the numbers or deliver the goods. It's whether you signal to the world that you're leadership material, that you have what it takes, that you're ready for that next big opportunity.

We found that, across the country, colleagues and bosses are very clear as to what you need to show. First off there's this thing called gravitas. It's the biggest piece of the puzzle. It's essentially how you act. The second piece is communication skills, which is how you speak. And then finally, it's how you look — what is your appearance. These three things together make a huge difference in terms of whether you're given a chance.

Q. Tell me a little about how you decided to write this book.

There were a couple of background triggers. First off is my own story. When I arrived at Cambridge University as an undergraduate, what got in my way more than anything was my accent. I spoke English with a thick, working-class Welsh accent, which was very undermining. Every time I opened my mouth I felt I let myself down. That had nothing to do with whether I was a good student or not. I actually succeeded at Cambridge. I did very well. But I was a real outsider. So one thing I had to do very quickly was learn how to improve my speech. I remember listening to the BBC World Service for hours every week trying to modulate those tones, and trying to speak in a much more neutral way.

The other thing that made me want to focus on this topic is we had done a lot of work two years ago to understand why so many women and people of color stalled out of their careers in the middle levels. So many women were leaving or languishing, and not really making it into senior leadership. It seemed to have nothing to do with their performance. Their performance was undistinguishable from their white, male, straight peers. What these male peers had was they belonged to the mainstream leadership culture. They knew how to present themselves in ways that really worked in the cultures they were in.

Then when we started asking senior executives what gravitas was, they kept on saying, "I know it when I see it, but I can't describe it." It's this very woolly notion. So we set out to discover — with survey research, with focus groups, and also with a ton of interviews — exactly what this "executive presence" thing was, as well as tactics for how an individual can crack this code.

Q. I thought one of the most interesting bits of survey data was that respondents said the "sweet spot" for female leaders was between the ages of 39 to 42 years old. They didn't look too old or too young. I'd imagine the age was higher for men. Are women held to different standards when it comes to these intangibles?

A. The thing that popped out as particularly difficult for women was being seen as being tough, decisive and showing teeth — really showing that you can make a difficult decision. We found that for women, it's very hard to be forceful and tough-minded and remain likable. The "B" word gets rolled out. Women who are very forceful are oftentimes seen as difficult to deal with and they get struck off the list because of that. Just think of the recent case of Jill Abramson at the New York Times.

In some perfect world, we would not have that fight. Women should be able to be as forceful as they like. But when you think about actual situations, it's a pretty good idea to figure out how to handle it so that you don't get knocked down. There are a lot of tactics for how to manage that.

Q. Like what?

A. I did a fabulous interview with Sallie Krawcheck and she talked about how she used humor to sugarcoat her opinion when she sat on the Citi board. She remained likable although she obviously was not compromising her views. She was very good at being charming and amusing around the edges. So that's one.

Q. In the book, you discuss how it's difficult for superiors (the majority of whom are male) to give women this feedback about their appearance, their body language, how they talk. It can inevitably be a very gendered discussion. How much is that a factor in women's advancement?

A. It's a huge issue. Feedback failure makes it extremely difficult for younger, high-potential people who are different from their manager to lift their game. We find that feedback — particularly unvarnished feedback which has some honest, critical elements — just doesn't cross lines of gender or race. The senior person is either fearful he'll get sued if he gives a younger woman feedback on her appearance, or he's just embarrassed, afraid the younger person will take it personally and maybe will be emotional.

In our research we found that what works is when the younger person just says directly to her boss, "Look, I want you to give me all of the critical feedback you can think of, because I know it's a tribute to my potential that you do that. I won't take it personally. I won't over-react. And the more specific the better." Once the younger person has said that, the senior person often feels comfortable — feels safer, if you like — and the floodgates open.

Q. But many people don't think to say something like that to their boss. How should managers offer that kind of tricky feedback if they haven't been given permission?

A. If you feel that it's hard to reach the diverse talent on the team, a very good way to go is to create a list of what's appropriate and organize discussion groups around it. It's almost like creating a road map for your team. For instance, in terms of the dress, what is appropriate dress? You actually write it down. Make it piggyback off all the data out there: This is what works in this sector, this is what works in this firm. If there's an unwritten book of rules, let's make it a written book of rules. It's a massive service you can do for your younger employees.

Q. Doesn't that imply an avoidance of difficult conversations, or run the risk of just creating more rules meted out by H.R.?

A. I do prefer the first strategy, where there's an evolving conversation between the senior and junior person, and making sure the senior manager knows you want the real stuff. But this is an alternative. There's always this tension between fitting in and standing out, between authenticity and conforming. Most individuals really need very nuanced help to figure out where they come up on that continuum.

Q. If gravitas is most important, what about communication styles and appearance?

A. Communication is huge. It was listed as being most important by the second largest group of respondents. Being concise, compelling and commanding a room — those three "Cs" are incredibly important. Let go of the notes, the very long PowerPoints. Let go of the podium and make eye contact. Because there's so much information glut out there, it's as though everyone has to have their mini TED talk. This is extraordinarily important for both men and women, but oftentimes women find it harder to let go of all those security blankets.

The other issue for women is tone of voice. Margaret Thatcher famously brought her voice down an octave. I'm not saying you have to distort yourself enormously to make yourself fit the model. But if you want to really have your voice heard, these pointers are valuable. It is very gendered.

The appearance thing was only six to seven percent of the total, which I think is a relief — to know that we're being judged on more substantial stuff. But it's strange, leaders speak out of both sides of their mouths. On the one hand they say appearance doesn't matter so much. But they also say it's the first filter. It's the first impression, so it has a strange power. 

Q. Do you think people were really being honest, or just saying appearance doesn't matter much because they know that's the right thing to say? 

A. If we were just reporting survey data, you'd be right. But we literally had hundreds of people in two-hour focus groups [saying the same thing]. Here's the thing about appearance, though. It's not the precise shape of your body or the texture of your hair or the kind of designer clothing you wear. It's not that kind of stuff at all. It's about polish and grooming. It's about being appropriate.

And those things vary according to the culture. On Wall Street, it does mean the well-cut suit, the well-cut skirt, the discreet but elegant accessories. In Silicon Valley it means something very different and actually can be even more problematic. Women find casual cultures much harder than formal cultures. The nerdy hoodie thing works for Mark Zuckerberg, but it's very hard for women in that culture to figure out how to stand out as a rock star. Remember that photo of the Facebook IPO? There was a cluster of geeky young men and then there was Sheryl Sandberg looking much more formal.

Q. Are you worried some might think you're advising readers not to be authentic, even if that isn't what you're trying to say?

A. What the book is essentially saying is we need a leadership culture that is more inclusive, that figures out how to be much more generous in terms of how we see leadership and how we view potential. However, last week, this week and next week, we still have quite a lot of bias out there. And there's a whole lot of women who want to be successful this year or next year. They need ways of dealing with some of this bias while they hang on to their authenticity.

I'm most profoundly not trying to "fix" women. I'm very committed to the idea that one's identity is enormously important. But if you want to actually win a senior slot or to earn a powerful opportunity these days, you have to play by the rules to some extent. You've got to clear the bar before you can allow the strength of your special contribution to play out.

Read also:

Sallie Krawcheck in 85 Broads and the trappings of corporate life

Jill Abramson shares lessons from her Times ouster

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