Success is a matter of signaling.
To Sylvia Ann Hewlett, that signaling is a matter of “Executive Presence,” which is the title of her new book. Hewlett says executive presence is a matter of “communicating that you have what it takes.”
It’s that it quality that draws people — and job offers, promotions, and opportunities — toward you. But getting it wrong can repel people.
In an earlier post we looked at those positive signals, which were identified by Hewlett and her team at the Center for Talent Innovation in their survey of 4,000 professionals in the U.S.
Here are a few of the behaviors to avoid.
1. Not having emotional intelligence.
If you want to lose an election, be tone-deaf toward people’s emotional lives.
Cut to: Mitt Romney.
“That he could say things like ‘binders full of women,’ that 43% of the population are losers — it gave a real sense of a man in a bubble who was clueless to how real people live,” Hewlett says. “Obviously that did him no good in the election.”
Such an ire-drawing insensitivity can find its way into the workplace, like with racist or sexist language. Hewlett’s research finds that those are reliable ways to look like you’re not to be trusted with responsibility.
2. Checking your phone incessantly.
Projecting capability requires you to look like you’re actually in the room — not sucked into your phone.
“We found that constant device checking was a huge piece of resentment amongst bosses and a big black mark for up and comers who did not have the courtesy to focus,” Hewlett says.
It’s not enough to know your facts, she says; you have to have the body language of being present. Since body language is one of the strongest forms of communication, being alert and attentive to your colleagues is one of the easiest ways to evidence your ability to get things done.
3. Looking physically sluggish.
“There’s a real premium on fitness and looking as though you exercised recently,” Hewlett says, “and that is much more important than the size of your waist.”
Again, she says, it’s a matter of signaling: showing that you can take care of your body demonstrates that you can take care of whatever responsibility might be headed your way. It goes for men and women equally, whether they’re 28 or 40. Hewlett says we’re all under scrutiny to look physically able.
4. Getting into sex scandals.
If people are going to trust you with power, you need to appear trustworthy. For this reason, Hewlett says that “sexual impropriety takes some kind of prize as a career killer.”
For a few examples, notice the word “former” for all these one-time headliners:
- former congressman Anthony Weiner,
- former New York governor Eliot Spitzer,
- former CIA director David Petraeus,
- former International Monetary Fund head Dominique Strauss-Kahn,
- former Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn.
Extramarital, intra-organizational dalliances are such career killers since they call into questions people’s judgment, Hewlett says, and their very ability to lead.
5. Not having spontaneity.
To signal that you’re able, you need to show that you have a deep knowledge of your subject area. For example, notice how Elon Musk and Marissa Mayer drill into any pitches that come their way. To Hewlett, spontaneity is a natural outgrowth of that understanding.
“When my first big book came out I was overwhelmingly boring,” Hewlett says. She had been a college professor for years, she said, which trained her in not telling stories, hiding behind podiums, and generally going over “like a lead balloon” in public settings.
The solution is to be overwhelmingly prepared — so you can improvise when you’re overwhelmed, like the best TED speakers do.
“You have to know the arc of what you want to say so that it comes out even when you’re super nervous,” Hewlett says.
The takeaway: signaling that your capable — showing that you have executive presence — is a lot like a duck gliding across the water. Above the surface it looks relaxed, but take a look underneath, and those feet are pedaling hard.