7 ways to be a more authentic leader (review of Executive Presence)

Looking for your organization’s next generation of great leaders?

They’re already working for you on the frontlines.

That homegrown talent has the potential to someday become your strongest leaders. That’s my hypothesis based on a quarter century of watching and working with senior executives at a hospital, steelmaker, college and university.

The best of the best – the ones who were the most connected, respected and effective – got their start delivering care at the bedside, working in the plant or teaching in classrooms.

They’d been with the same organization since day one or joined early in their careers. They didn’t have to convince anyone that they’d always harbored a passion for healthcare, manufacturing or education. And they didn’t have to fend off questions or suspicions about whether this was just a brief layover before their next move to a bigger paycheque at another organization.

These homegrown leaders stepped into senior positions with the advantage of already knowing the organization’s history, culture and values because they’d helped make it, define it and live it. They hadn’t just walked in the shoes of the people they were now leading; they’d worn out the heels of those same shoes.

They had built a loyal and large fan club while working their way up the leadership ranks. Promotions and appointments were met with more cheers than jeers because colleagues knew them to be genuine, decent and real people. After all, it’s all but impossible to be a jerk or sociopath for 20-plus years in the same organization without being called out and forced out.

exec presence (2)That authenticity is critical to your success as a leader, says Executive Presence author Harrison Monarth, who’s worked with more than 60 Fortune 500 CEOs and thousands of senior leaders over the past two decades. “For others to feel a connection and trust us, we must strive to be more authentic.”

You can’t fake it once you’ve made it. So if you’re looking to better connect with the people whose buy-in will ultimately decide whether you succeed or fail, Monarth has a seven-point authenticity checklist for aspiring and emerging leaders.

  1. “Have honest conversations with others about issues that matter to you deeply.” What keeps you awake at night? What gets you out of bed Monday morning?
  2. “Build real relationships and practice empathy by having honest and heartfelt conversations with others about issues that matter deeply to them.” We won’t care what you know until we know that you care about us.
  3. “Admit when you’re wrong and apologize when you should.” Passing the buck is not a good look for a leader nor is pretending everything’s coming up roses even while everything’s going off the rails.
  4. “Forgive others and move on for the sake of the relationship.” Be the grown-up in the room and stay on the high ground.
  5. “Ask for help and offer it to others who may be reluctant to ask.”
  6. “Take risks by showing your strengths – and weaknesses – in a public forum. Demonstrating vulnerability can prompt others to respect you.”
  7. “Show your unique sides to others and watch them become curious about you.”

Monarth has distilled his perspectives on executive presence into five categories with distinct and interdependent traits.

  1. Communication: mastering difficult conversations, engaging others, telling strategic stories, inspiring and persuading
  2. Competence: having intellect and expertise, delivering results, acting decisively
  3. Personal brand: having status and reputation, projecting calm under pressure, possessing a compelling physical appearance, projecting confidence, having interpersonal integrity
  4. Courage: holding people accountable, speaking truth to power
  5. Political savvy: networking and building alliances, managing up, generating buy-in and support

You can take Monarth’s free online Executive Presence Indicator self-assessment to identify how well you currently measure up on the five categories and where there’s room for improvement.

“Executive presence isn’t simply one characteristic that you’re either blessed with or lack in spades,” says Monarth. “It’s rather a mix of mindset, skills, and behaviors that you can learn, acquire and hone and then wield to boost your impact beyond any formal authority you may have.”

Monarth has revised and updated his book and added new chapters. He offers science-backed strategies and proven techniques to help you influence how you’re perceived by others. This is a book worth giving to anyone on the frontlines of your organization who’s showing early flashes of leadership potential.

Authentic product

This review first ran in the Aug. 3 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for the Faculty of Science at McMaster University, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.


Review: Executive Presence – The Missing Link Between Merit & Success by Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Executive Presence (1)This review was first published in the Aug. 11 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success

By Sylvia Ann Hewlett

HarperCollins Publishers


Put away your smartphone the next time someone’s in the boardroom making a presentation.

Not only is scrolling through emails, watching your Twitter feed and playing games bad manners. Your divided attention could also cost you a shot at the corner office or cut short your stay at the top.

More than 4,000 college-educated professionals were asked to identify what makes or breaks a bid to join the senior leadership ranks within their organizations.

Lose your smartphone or lose your executive presence was a recurring theme.

“Tuning out to consult your smartphone elicited some of the most heated discourse in our focus groups and interviews,” says Slyvia Ann Hewlett, president of the Center for Talent Innovation and author of Executive Presence.

One of the professionals interviewed by Hewett’s team said she’s annoyed with fellow managers who stare at their smartphones and believe their time is more important than anyone else’s.  As the interview subject put it, “How can you trust a leader to keep his eye on the big picture if he can’t keep his eye off his iPhone?”

So how do you show the people in a position to promote you that you’re leadership material? And how do you convince everyone else to follow you?

You need to develop your executive presence. “No man or woman attains a top job, lands an extraordinary deal or develops a significant following without this heady combination of confidence, pose and authenticity that convinces the rest of us we’re in the presence of someone who’s the real deal,” says Hewlett. “ It’s an amalgam of qualities that telegraphs that you are in charge or deserve to be.”

Based on her research, Hewlett says executive presence is built on the three pillars of gravitas, communication skills and appearance.

Of the three, gravitas is far and away the most important.  “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.”

According to senior leaders, the top aspects of gravitas include confidence and grace under fire, decisiveness, integrity, emotional intelligence, vision and charisma.  Hewlett says we want leaders who keep their promises, keep their cool and show compassion and courage in making the tough calls.

Top communication traits include superior speaking skills, the ability to read and command a room, forcefulness and assertiveness, a sense of humour and a gift for small talk. “It’s the conversation before the meeting that establishes whether or not you’re worth listening to in the meeting,” said a senior executive interviewed by Hewlett.

And when it comes to appearance, being polished and groomed tops the list.  “In interview after interview, senior leaders told me that failure to come through on the grooming front signals either poor judgment or lack of discipline. Neither is good.”

Anyone with corner office aspirations needs to read Hewlett’s book.  She says what most of us can’t or won’t say to our colleagues. She catalogues career-limiting blunders and offers career-advancing solutions. There are also chapters specifically for women, minorities and members of the LGBT community.

“Cracking the executive presence code will close the gap between merit and success, between where you are right now and where you could be if you unleashed your full potential and allowed it to fly and soar,” says Hewlett.

So if you want to unleash your full potential, put away your smartphone and give your next presenter your full and undivided attention.