Want to Lead? Be Well Spoken and Well Dressed

Author and economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett emphasizes the important role "executive presence" plays as you climb the career ladder.

Sylvia Hewlett: Executive presence or EP is simply what you signal to the world, what you telegraph to the world. In terms of first, your gravitas. Do you really know your stuff cold? Do you give the impression that you're three questions deep in your field of expertise? Perhaps do you have intellectual horsepower? How do you signal that? That's the gravitas piece. Secondly, do you have really serious communication skills? Can you get your ideas across? I mean can you be heard, because no matter how profound your gravitas, if you can't somehow get it across it becomes dead in the water. And then finally presentation of self; the way you dress; your body movement; the way you stand and walk. All of this is incredibly critical in allowing your gravitas again to get across.

So the great thing about this piece of work, we went out to 4000 professionals around the U.S. in all kinds of different sectors and 300 leaders. It was a representative sample so we do know what our colleagues and what our bosses are really looking for on this front. And it's fascinating because it turns out there really is almost a check list out there that we can work with and much of it is very learnable.

There were two reasons why I wrote this book. First off at my think tank we had discovered three years ago that the main reason that women aren't making it into top jobs is that they don't get sponsors. They have a ton of mentors but they don't have this senior advocate who really goes out on a limb for them. So why are they not chosen as potential protégés and groomed for leadership? And we found that many, many male leaders around the country saw women as lacking executive presence. Somehow they weren't signaling that they were leadership material or they weren't ready for the big opportunity. So, we wanted to look at executive presence to see what in fact this was and how we can all crack it.

But I think the other root of this book is much more personal. I grew up in the South Wales coal mining valleys. I was one of six girls in an industrial valley which was really rather neglected in the 1960s and 1970s. The unemployment rate was 38 percent and I remember really understanding how bleak, how few opportunities this environment really was. And so when I was 13 my father, who was trying to do something with his girls despite the fact that he was very much a working-class bloke, took me by bus to Cambridge University and kind of fired me up about the possibilities of perhaps going to this amazingly beautiful campus, which was one of the best universities in Europe.

And he was a very audacious. He turned around to me and said, "girl," he tended to get our names mixed up so he called a lot of us girl. He said, "If you work hard you can go here." And I went back to Wales to my really rather mediocre school and did work incredibly hard and did get in. But when I got to Cambridge at age 18 I was really like a fish out of water. And the main thing that got in the way, I mean I was a good student; I was good at passing exams. But every time I opened my mouth I let myself down. It was so hard to feel like a success story at Cambridge, or I suspected any place else if you spoke English the way I did. I had a very thick working-class Welsh accent. I dropped my h's. I mispronounced a lot of words. And my tutor at Cambridge said that I simply sounded uncouth. The word still sticks in my mind.

And I realized I had to up my game on the communication front otherwise I would get nowhere. So I spent two years listening to the BBC World Service trying to get those modulated vowels down and also fix my grammar, and it made a massive difference. I felt that I could then get my ideas across. I could get my voice heard. And so I think that experience made me very interested in this whole field signaling that you're the real deal. It is about how you act, how you speak, how you look. It's about gravitas, it's about communication and it's about appearance. And often times we underrate these qualities because these things do not seem to be about performance, they do not seem to be about whether we achieve the goals that we are tasked with in the workplace, but they make a huge difference in terms of whether you're the person who's chosen for that next job or that next big opportunity.

Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton

Sylvia Ann Hewlett discusses the importance of personal presentation -- executive presence, as she calls it -- if you're aiming for leadership roles. Hewlett is an economist and the author of Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success.


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