Early Career

Cultivating Executive Presence with Sylvia Ann Hewlett

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Sylvia-Ann-HewlettRecently, Sylvia Ann Hewlett led a Women Lead session for more than 300 participants on executive presence. Hewlett kicked off with a memorable personal story: she was 18, attending Cambridge, having placed a high value on education as “the only way out” of the poverty and economic depression she had grown up with in a coal-mining area of the southwest Wales.

“Every time I opened my mouth, I let myself down,” she recalled. “I spoke English with a very working-class accent, which was the kiss of death in English society; my grammar was poor, I mispronounced words. It was a disaster every time I tried to put across my ideas.”

In short, she lacked executive presence: a quality she defines as “projecting potential and being seen as leadership material.”

What are the traits of someone possessing executive presence? “Confidence, grace under fire, decisiveness, showing teeth, integrity, emotional intelligence, vision, charisma, and an ability to speak truth to power,” she recounts.

Today, Hewlett is a noted economist and consultant, author of twelve books, and the co-director of the Women’s Leadership Program at Columbia Business School. Hewlett focused her presentation on three aspects of executive presence: gravitas, communication, and appearance.

Gravitas she described as an elusive quality defined by the ability to project confidence. Excellent leaders also possess vision, she noted—the ability to see possibilities and communicate them to others.

On the communication front, Hewlett emphasized a clear, concise speaking style, one that doesn’t depend on props like PowerPoint. “Make eye contact, lower your voice, develop an ability to banter,” she counseled.

And she hit the appearance issue head-on. “Appearance matters. Grooming and polish is number one. It’s about what you do with what you’ve got, not being the best-looking person in the room.”

She acknowledged that appearance can be a minefield, particularly for young women. “Casual cultures are the most tricky,” Hewlett shared. “It’s not clear that informal Fridays are a gift to women. In places like Silicon Valley, the nerdy casual look cultivated by young men does not necessarily work for women. Women are scrutinized more than men.” She cited Sheryl Sandberg, who typically dresses in professional attire in a culture known for trainers and hoodies, as an example.

In general, Hewlett didn’t shy away from the problem of sexism in the workplace. “Women have less latitude than men,” she said. “It’s easy to be seen as too bossy; too loud; too quiet; too retiring; too provocative; too dowdy; too pushy; too self-deprecating; too young; too old.”

What can you do about that? Cultivate executive presence, and seek meaningful feedback at every opportunity.

“Women tend to get less feedback than men,” Hewlett observed. “Give your boss an opportunity: ask them to provide feedback and tell them you won’t take it personally. Present an actual example. Perhaps you’ll be in a meeting together, one in which you will be making a short presentation. Let your boss know that there is a particular element of executive presence, which you’d like feedback, an area where you hope to cultivate more depth. Ask them to listen with that in mind and give you feedback afterwards. Doing so can create a path for personal development.”

Lisa Smith at Bank of America was among the participants in the webinar. Lisa appreciated Hewlett’s coaching on effective public speaking, noting, “Anything that detracts from my message or reduces my listener’s attention undercuts my effectiveness.” Lisa participated in the webinar “to better understand how to capture my best self in ways that beneficially demonstrate my value add, wherever I am.”

For more on executive presence and cultivating leadership potential, follow @SAHewlett and visit If you are a Forté member, watch the full webinar on-demand.

Be sure to join us for our next Women Lead webinar, Thanks for the Feedback. The workshop, featuring leadership expert Ann Garrido, is open to Access Pass members only. The event takes place on February 18 from noon- 1:00 p.m Eastern.

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