Sthitipragnya Dash

Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success

Sthitipragnya Dash

Book Review - Web

Executive Presence is a combination of qualities that communicate what one is in charge of or deserves to be. It isn’t about how one performs but is a measure of image: how much one is able to signal to others that he/she is a star material. Sylvia Hewlett’s book “Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success” outlines how one can build a personal brand that makes a compelling impact. From the findings of a Center for Talent (CTI) study she led, involving 4,000 college-educated professionals and 268 senior executives from 14 different sectors in the USA, Hewlett concludes that to excel one needs gravitas (how you act), communication (how you speak), and your appearance (how you look). These three combined constitute your Executive Presence.

Though we are brilliant at achieving targets, we fail to recognise the power of Executive Presence which accounts for 30% of the reasons why we get a job or a promotion. Hewlett’s findings suggest that women ascribe more importance to performance at the cost of the image, which often hinders them from being considered as leadership material. This is despite examples of great women leaders like Christane Lagarde, Indira Gandhi, Hillary Clinton, Benazeer Bhutto, Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) and Angelina Jolie, who command tremendous Executive Presence.

She argues that making brilliant presentations, meeting deadlines or achieving targets are just not enough. Executive Presence is needed for one to get ahead no matter which profession they belong to, whether she is a musician, an economist, a CEO, a politician or an actor. It can help convert hard earned merit into rewards and career progression.

The book is populated with a plethora of anecdotes and true stories and imparts practical advice. Hewlett has tabulated the blunders that might hamper one’s Executive Presence and has suggested practical doable tactics to help one succeed.


Out of the three universal dimensions of Executive Presence, gravitas is the most important aspect. Hewlett writes, “Without it, you simply won’t be perceived as a leader, no matter what your title or level of authority, no matter how well you dress or speak. Gravitas is what signals to the world you’re made of the right stuff and can be entrusted with serious responsibility”. The top six aspects of gravitas picked by senior executives in the survey are:

  • Confidence, poise  and grace under fire

Hewlett defines it as self-confidence which enables you to stay calm in high-pressure situations, an attribute that is highly valued by leaders. This allows you to maintain your credibility under high pressure situations.

  • Being forceful and tough/ Showing  decisiveness/ Showing teeth

This is being assertive with your decisions, not bending down, being forceful and stern, and making bold decisions.

  • Integrity and speaking the truth

Having the ability to speak the truth and maintain high levels of honesty is highly valued amongst leaders.

  • Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence has become an increasingly valuable trait since businesses are becoming global and diverse. Working with diverse set of customers, motivating and inspiring them can only be done by stepping in their shoes, making Emotional Intelligence vital.

  • Reputation and standing

Holding a good reputation and commanding respect by virtue of one’s presence and performance is an integral and important part of your gravitas.

  • Vision and charisma

A vision which can be substantiated with a lot of data, in other words a measured vision is what people are looking for.

The topmost pick is confidence and grace under fire, handling extreme pressure. Definitely not an easy trait to learn but Hewlett argues, “You can fake it until you make it.” Hewlett says we want leaders who can keep their promises, keep their cool, show compassion and courage in making the tough calls and can handle high pressure situations.

During her study, most respondents felt Nelson Mandela was one world leader with immense levels of gravitas. He was seen as the one with extraordinary force of vision and in his journey, he had earned an amazing ability to understand the power of symbolism, which helped him connect with others on a very personal level. His retaining of the white Afrikaners employed by the previous apartheid regime is an example of such symbolism. It was the first step to turn South Africa into a rainbow nation.

Results of Hewlett’s study indicated that women are at a disadvantage while showing teeth or authority. A man may be considered to be a strong leader while doing so but when a woman does the same, she is seen as either too bossy or a bitch. Hewlett says that women often deal very well with this disadvantage by sugar coating their toughness. She advises that women should not respond to this disadvantage by muting their opinions but deal with it by using their charm, warmth and even humor.

The newly prized trait, as Hewlett calls it, is the Emotional Intelligence where men fall behind women.

Hewlett gives a list of blunders which goes completely against one’s gravitas.

  • – Sexual impropriety is one blunder that would get you written off.
  • – Being distant in a bubble or being profoundly insensitive to people around will definitely damages your gravitas.
  • – Having an inflated ego and being a bully gets you out.
  • – Making fun of one’s color or racial insensitivity jokes is a big gravitas killer.
  • – Lying and covering up will also destroy your gravitas.

Hewlett suggests that showing humility and confidence and surrounding yourself by people whose skills you don’t possess, will help you enhance your gravitas.


Hewlett argues that no matter whether you’re a junior or a senior, you are always in the process of presenting and performing. She says communication is often times the ice breaker. It is the way in. In order to be heard in this fast moving world where attention spans are short, it is very important to be brisk with our communication. She says, “Whether it’s a quick email to your boss or a casual comment you make to a colleague in the hallway, you’re conveying who you are and what authority is your due.” The ability to discard notes and speak as if it were a mini TED talk enhances the impact of what you have to say. Communicating in an extemporaneous way, adding elements of being concise and compelling also add great value.

The study results suggest that women find it harder to be extemporaneous as compared to men.  But women are great in the manner of telling stories, revealing a part of their own vulnerabilities which impacts greatly as they connect much better to their audiences.

The top communication traits identified by the senior executives in the study are as follows:

  • Concise, compelling speaking style

With short attention spans, the ability to speak extemporaneously and being to the point is a must.

  • Ability to command a room by establishing an eye contact with the people

Commanding a room or a space can be achieved by being attentive and through eye contact with every single individual in the room.

  • Ensuring forcefulness and assertiveness

Knowing the arch of what you are saying, using the method of story-telling and revealing a part of yourself so as to help others relate with you is a great way of communicating.

  • Sense of humor

Ability to banter to captivate the attention spans of the audiences is valuable too.

  • Body language and posture

It is the background of what you speak. A stooped shoulder and shabby body language will hamper the way one communicates.

She also recommends being conscious of how you express yourself: rid yourself of the Australian question intonation where you end declarative sentences on a higher note and avoid verbal tics like saying ’you know’.  She cites her own example of how she swapped her Welsh accent for a BBC world service style voice. She advocates voice modulation techniques to control the shrillness of tone. Her research shows that women and men with optimally pleasing voices win over best jobs and earn best salaries. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is an example of how to communicate effectively in her TED talk which is one of the most watched TED talks. Sharing personal examples, relatable stories exuded a sense of connect with the audiences.

Following are the communication blunders one needs to guard against:

  • – Constant device checking, whether phones or gadgets is considered to be extremely discourteous.
  • – Breathlessness and trembling while speaking is considered to be very negative.
  • – Crying, rambling and being redundant is something that makes your communication banal.
  • – Lack of voice modulations and high pitched shrill voices upset the audience. Keeping an obvious control on the voice is very important to be heard.
  • – Over reliance on notes and props creates a barrier between you and the audience while communicating.
  • – Foot tapping and doodling or fidgeting is seen as a very negative trait.
  • – Failure to establish proper eye contact is a big blunder while communicating.

Hewlett suggests that being extemporaneous, doing away with power point slides and notes, establishing eye contact and using stories will grab the attention of the audience. “Stories, not bullet points, are what grab and hold an audience… They give a human face to the hard facts,” she says.


Hewlett in her research finds that appearance is valued a lot less by professionals as compared to gravitas and communication. From their responses, something that stood out was that they look out for how fit one looks. In this new age culture of long working hours and demanding scenes, the ability to withstand stress and climb  stairs without puffing and panting is valued greatly.

The top Appearance traits are as follows:

  • Grooming and polished

Being appropriate in the way you appear by sensing the culture in the organisation is essential as it creates an impression of the image that you carry.

  • Toned and fit

 To look like one who can take the pressure and show resilience in this demanding work climate is valued greatly by leaders. Showing the resilience, exhibiting that you can take hardships is highly valued.

  • Sophisticated clothing and flair

Dressing in accordance to the code which the job demands and being in sync with the work environment is very essential.

  • Youthful and vigorous appearance

Being good looking and having a good appearance is important but not as much compared to the above listed traits.

Interestingly, her survey respondents listed a lot more look based blunders for the women as compared to that of men. If there is excess makeup or too little make up, bitten nails or grey roots; it all hampers their image with their bosses. For men, a toupee is a terrible thing but they still get away with being more bedraggled. Hewlett says that casual work culture is far trickier for women to navigate than the formal. “In the ad industry and Silicon Valley, everyone says they don’t care about dress codes, but it’s not true. There’s a way to look like a rock star — and it is very male,” she says. “In Silicon Valley, that look for men is like you spent 10 hours last night at a hackathon. But the nerdy, hoodie, slumpy thing doesn’t work well for women.” She points to Facebook investor meetings before its IPO, where Mark Zuckerberg wore a hoodie and Sheryl Sandberg a suit.

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