Executive Presence – The Missing Link Between Merit and Success takes a look at the gap between skills, performance, and achievement at work. While we may have the skills or particular know-how to excel in our roles at a functional level it doesn’t guarantee that we will move up the ladder. All things being equal Sylvia Ann Hewlett discusses how executive presence can make or break a career trajectory despite being deserving of it. The book’s primary focus is on helping women navigate the murky waters of perception versus reality. While a lack of executive presence impacts both men and women, it tends to hit women, especially women of color, the hardest as the rules are created by white men.
Ms. Hewlett starts off by providing us with a glimpse of how she became so focused on this particular topic. She was Welsh-born to working class parents with aspirations of attending the best universities in the United Kingdom, Oxford, and Cambridge. These being highly selective schools she worked hard to qualify but ultimately felt it was her lack of pedigree that would be her undoing during the application process. Her experience showed her the importance of exuding the right presence to the right audience very early on. She has since become an expert on the subject.
The book is organized into seven chapters that serve to break down executive presence into easy-to-understand components. She begins by explaining what executive presence is followed by expanding on each of its components in subsequent chapters. The various components of executive presence, as she describes them, are gravitas, communication, appearance, feedback failures, walking a tightrope, and authenticity versus conformity.
What Worked For Me
I liked that Ms. Hewlett writes from her personal experience. She also includes the experiences of many others throughout the book to support her point. Most importantly, in my mind, she highlights the experience of women across different races. Rather than primarily focusing on the experience of white women yet calling it the experience of all women, she is careful to point out that the experience varies depending on race. The experience being how women are judged in the workplace to be worthy of promotion. Women, in general, are held to different standards than white men, but women of color are held to nearly impossible standards due to the erroneous application of stereotypes. Additionally, men are less likely to give women the feedback they need to advance out of fear of it being misconstrued.
The breakdown of the various components of executive presence makes sense and is backed up by the survey results they conducted. Acting on the components is within our control, that’s the good news. The perception of our actions is completely out of our control, that’s the not-so-good news. However, it’s good to have an understanding on how we are judged. I was most surprised by appearance. This was more about the pride we take in our appearance rather than on the level of attractiveness. At least, that’s what the survey reveals. I do think there is a general belief that attractive people get more opportunities than “unattractive” people. One has only to look at pharmaceutical and medical device sales reps to know that attractiveness plays a part in addition to skill and knowledge.
There is discussion throughout about the importance of having a sponsor. Having mentors is important but sponsorship can make a career. A sponsor can provide air cover and use their political capital to get you the precise assignments you need for your career. An extra bonus of a sponsor is it signals to others you are not to be messed with. There are several examples of this throughout the book.
What Didn’t Work For Me
There wasn’t anything earth-shattering contained in the book. A lot of it was common sense for people who have been in the workplace for at least seven years. If someone with more experience than that was asked by a manager or colleague to read the book, it was for a reason. Advice such as listening, making eye contact and having a professional appearance are, for the most part, common sense. I didn’t walk away from the book with new information, but rather a different perspective of what goes into executive presence.
There is a quiz at the end of the book to assess one’s executive presence. The answer choices seem fairly obvious but that may just be my bias. What I mean is, there are some answers that seem blatantly wrong in an effort to get you to choose the answer that shows you possess executive presence.
I recommend the book. I especially recommend the book for those in their early career. Additionally, I highly recommend it for white leaders, both men and women who manage diverse teams, but also if your team is not diverse. When I started reading the book I truly did believe it would again be from the perspective of a white woman speaking for all womanhood at work. Pleasantly, it is not. Sylvia Ann Hewlett does a solid job of pointing out that there is overlap between the experiences of white women and women of color while accurately conveying the degrees to which it varies. Black women have the hardest time because they rarely seem able to escape the cloud of angry black woman enough to have true conversations and lead.
The discussion on feedback, giving and receiving, is very important. If you just read that chapter you would be doing yourself a huge favor. Why? Because the majority of what is holding people back is highly fixable. The problem is they don’t know what it is because no one will tell them. Not only is it important to know how to give effective feedback you have to know how to receive it in such a way that people feel comfortable giving it. White men especially feel awkward or afraid to give feedback to women. If it’s about inappropriate attire it could be construed as harassment. If it’s to a black woman it might be interpreted as racism. Now, in some cases, it may very well be coming from a place of bias. So be it. You don’t have to act on the feedback. Just take it in and make note. Take a beat to assess if it’s truly offensive. You don’t have to dispute it then and there or at all. It’s information, what you do with it is up to you.
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