Magazine article Management Today

Books: The 'Science' of Looking the Part

Magazine article Management Today

Books: The 'Science' of Looking the Part

Article excerpt

While the author may sound a bit like your mum at times, she does make some good points about succeeding as a woman, says Christine Armstrong.

Executive Presence: The missing link between merit and success

Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Harper Business, pounds 17.99

The prologue sets up Executive Presence so engagingly with the story of the author, a clever Welsh girl from the valleys, turning up to her interview at Oxford University dressed in a clearance sale C&A fox fur - complete with beady eyes, claws and a tail - chosen by her mother to help her fit in. But then things go awry.

Let's start with the title. Do you want to be described as 'an executive'? My associations run from underappreciated assistants through grey middle management to George Clooney in Up in the Air. Just about any other word would have been better.

The book is based on a survey of 4,000 people, supported by quotes from executive focus groups and case studies. It proves that what you say, do and wear has a huge impact on your likely chances of promotion. It provides a long check list of things to do to be taken more seriously at work, broken up into three categories: gravitas, communication and appearance. It makes no apologies for this being a book about cracking the code of style over substance.

There are a couple of problems. The first is that, because it is based on a survey, it mirrors the world as it is, which means that tracts of it could have been written by your mother. Stand up straight, make eye contact, smile, keep trim, choose clothes that are 'simple but stylish', don't be tarty. The advice ranges from the sensible but obvious through to the technically correct but hard to follow. Yes, being able to read a room, keep a cool head under fire and command an audience are invaluable. But these are cultivated through long and bitter experience, as the author describes with admirable and engaging honesty.

The second is that it seeks to make a science out of 'presence', as defined, it seems, by a largely American sample. Of respondents, 39% say that emotional intelligence matters for women, whereas 33% say it matters for men. Managers say that the 'sweet spot' for women's executive presence is between 39 and 42 years of age. Younger and they have 'the wrong kind' of visibility; older and they 'fade into the woodwork'. I don't know what to do with data like this, aside from try to pretend I've never read it. The disheartening implication of this approach is that, should we take the advice, the outcome would be so bland. …

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