June 16, 2015

Book Review: Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Since my company’s fiscal year runs from July to June, this is the time of year that everyone gets nervous about promotions and performance reviews. I’m not up for promotion this year, since I received a big promotion last year and am still developing at my current level. However, I obviously still want to get good news when I have my performance review conversation this week, and I’ve worked hard this year to make sure that will happen.

This year, though, I think I’ve grown a lot – maybe even more than in years past. There were a lot of years where I just focused on providing the best client service possible, reasoning with myself that if I was doing great client work, rewards and recognition should come. But that’s not the only thing that matters in consulting – extracurriculars are just as important as client service, and it’s important to make sure that the extracurriculars that you work on are ones that have a big impact on the firm. So this year, I made a conscious decision to focus a lot more on activities that would grow our Rockies market and build a new book of business – even if I wasn’t the one who’d be doing the actual work when we eventually sold it. (Too many projects, too little time!) At my new level, I’ve tried to start building myself more as a leader than as a doer, and it was while reading my office’s Women’s Book Club book for June, Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, that I realized how far I’ve come.

Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Hewlett defines Executive Presence (EP) as spanning three areas: gravitas, communication, and appearance. Over the course of my career, I’ve received developmental feedback in all of these areas. I look too young, I don’t dress stylishly enough, sometimes I’m not assertive enough, and I’m frequently too nice. Most of the feedback never came in official form, but more in small comments here and there – some of which I didn’t take seriously. Why should it matter how young I look, or what brand name I’m wearing? And of course I want to be known as nice – I don’t want to be a bitch! (Ahhh, the conundrum of being a woman in management.) But the reality is that all of those things affect EP quite a bit – and I will never make partner unless I start working on them.

I wouldn’t say that I have the best EP in the world now, but I’ve definitely come a long way, and I’m starting to get recognized for that at my job. One of my current projects involves interviewing thirty C-suite executives across the state of Colorado, and it’s definitely elevating my game to have the opportunity to meet with such respected senior leadership. I’m also quite excited about training this summer to take on the orchestrator role for my firm’s senior associate development program. In that role, I’ll be delivering an entire week’s worth of presentations to an auditorium full of 400+ people, and I think it will be great training to ensure I have the gravitas to command a room… and in particular, a room full of recent promotes who might rather be partying and celebrating their accomplishment than hearing what I have to say 🙂 I’m so excited!

Speaking in front of a room of about 200 people at a training session this year.

All in all, I really loved Executive Presence, and it gave me a lot of food for thought. In particular, a chapter toward the end about biases toward women and people of color brought up an interesting concept that I’d like to start thinking about more. It was the idea that you have to “bleach out” aspects of your personality to fit the workplace, so that you aren’t perceived as different or out-of-line, and that you are sometimes a different person at work than you are at home or in other environments. I definitely could relate to that idea!

Years ago when I was in a bad relationship, there were days when I let it affect my attitude at the office – to the point where I assume it was quite noticeable to my coworkers. At my next job after that, I vowed to never tell anyone anything about my personal life – I would keep work at work and home at home. But particularly when working on a travel client, where you’re eating three meals a day with and going to the gym with and going “home” to the same hotel as your coworkers, there is a very thin line between personal life and professional life. When you’re with coworkers sixteen hours a day, chances are they know all about how your camping trip went that weekend, that your air conditioner at home needs repair, and that you’re trying to lose a bit of weight. I found that it wasn’t really possible to keep my personal life and professional life separate, and really, it was pointless to even try. I eventually started sharing some of my personal life with my coworkers, but honestly, I still struggle sometimes with sharing my personal life with clients, for fear of seeming unprofessional. I’ve even gotten feedback from several partners I trust that I should work on lightening up in client situations, and not be afraid of being a little less formal and professional! That’s a big challenge for me to keep working on.

I’ve also always been kind of afraid of sharing my blog with coworkers (and definitely clients), even though it’s something I’m really passionate about. When I first started blogging, it was mostly anonymous; when I got close to breaking the world record and started doing interviews where they quoted my full name, it was a lot less so. These days, I know that I have coworkers who read my blog, but I’m still a little bit afraid to bring it up or overtly discuss it “in real life”! However, I’ve started trying to look at my blog as an asset to my brand as a consultant. It’s taught me a lot of digital media skills that are actually helpful for my career. In fact, I was recently invited to work on a social media marketing project in large part because a director was impressed with the links I regularly post on LinkedIn!

I think a big part of developing strong EP is being comfortable with who you are – and then developing the ability to authentically share what makes you different, while still being professional. I thought that Executive Presence provided great food for thought about what things are “authentically you” vs what you may want to tweak in order to be your best self at work. Although you definitely need to get live feedback from people who see your working style in order to maximize its effectiveness, Hewlett did a great job of providing specific issues and ways to work on them in order to improve your EP. Highly recommend this book!


8 thoughts on “Book Review: Executive Presence by Sylvia Ann Hewlett”

  1. I’m going to take a WAG (wild ass guess) here; you really enjoyed writing this review, right?

    Here’s some feedback you can take to the bank. This is the authenticity, energy, and engagement you were talking about in your 2015 goals. The ability to draw me in, engage me, create a desire for me to want to know more – this was (in my opinion) your top 5 posts of the year.

    Here’s my challenge/question for you: can a person deliberately, on a regular basis, channel this energy? What would it take to focus that energy as part of a consistent routine?

    1. Danny, thank you kindly – your comment means so much to me! I wonder if it has to do with me telling more about my work than I normally would? (Although I would guess that what drew you in was the fact that I was still intentionally circumspect about some things because I didn’t want to go into details!) I find it to be a really challenging balance to figure out how much of my work life and personal life I should share on my blog, where it can be publicly read by everyone. I know it’s less authentic if I keep things to myself, and I don’t want to do that, but there is also definitely an oversharing line that I don’t want to cross.

      As far as the writing style, I think the key for me was that it was that I really wanted to write about this but only had fifteen minutes, so I banged it out without thinking. Of course, I came back a few hours later to edit my draft before posting, but maybe I need to do more of that “on the fly” writing instead of sitting down for an hour to write something?

    2. Here’s my guess. It is not really work life related. My guess is this: our physical body is given to us, by our parents and Creator -if that is our cup of tea- the day we are born, but our spiritual body takes a lifetime to become. Every day, month, year we get a greater and greater sense of what it is – but we never know what we are really becoming until we have become. My guess is that as you continue to ‘become’ the Laura that your parents brought into this world (excuse the cheesiness) two things will happen: one, you won’t have to necessarily talk about your work/personal life to write engagingly; and two it’ll just get easier. But, what do I know? 🙂

  2. Love this review and I will definitely need to check out this book! Your comments about being “too nice” truly resonate with me. Such a fine line when you’re a woman in the professional world (especially in a male-dominated field). Thanks for the insights and keep on rockin’! You’re doing great and a wonderful role model!

    1. Aww thanks Lindy! If you haven’t read it by the next time I come to Dallas, I’m happy to bring my copy to share 🙂

  3. Executive presence is a skill for sure. Something that must be learned, practiced, and perfected. I’m certain your work interviewing CEOs certainly gave you practice in doing that – but moreso in your current client role being the team lead. The buck stops with you….something that will breed EP organically.

    Additionally, I’m sure that your experience facilitating 500+ people will also give you the repetition and confidence that you can not only lead a room full of 500 people, but also lead a room full of 10 “experts” – by far the harder task.

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