Mastering The Skill You Lack To Get The Promotion You Deserve

Leaders have a natural authority called gravitas–when they speak, others listen. You can also harness this trait on your rise to the top.

Mastering The Skill You Lack To Get The Promotion You Deserve
[Image: Flickr user @sage_solar]

You’re making your numbers. Your reviews are good. So what stands between you and your next promotion?


The answer might be gravitas, according to economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s new book, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success. “It’s the ability to signal to the world, and to telegraph to your colleagues and bosses that you have intellectual horsepower–that you have what it takes,” she says. “This is really about being seen as being ready for a big opportunity.”

Unfortunately, some people have preconceived notions of what leaders look like; the word “gravitas” is more quickly conferred on tall, white men than others. However, according to research Hewlett did as part of leading the Center for Talent Innovation, many aspects of gravitas are accessible to others. By knowing what people value, you can bridge the space between performance and success.

Be Unflappable

The world is challenging, and business conditions change quickly. Hewlett’s research found that being a force that can ride out a storm is pretty important–for men and women. Indeed, Hewlett’s survey of senior executives found that “grace under fire” was the most mentioned aspect of gravitas for both male and female leaders. People want to follow those who seem in control. Being able to absorb and act on disappointing results without flying off the handle shows you can be trusted with bigger problems.

Be tough–in a way people can take

Hewlett found that people valued “showing teeth” in both male and female leaders. The problem is that women exhibiting the same “tough” behavior as men are often perceived as unlikeable, and are rated poorly as a result. One solution? Hewlett recommends studying Sallie Krawcheck, past head of Merrill Lynch and Smith Barney, and current head of the Ellevate Network–formerly called 85 Broads. “She sugar coated her toughness with humor,” she says. “It made her strong opinions better heard, because she didn’t put people’s backs up.” You don’t need to change the message itself, but being careful about delivery increases the chances that people listen.

Speak Truth to Power

Many people go along to get along. Being willing to challenge those with authority makes you stand out. Always be respectful, and back your assertions up, Hewlett says, but showing you think for yourself is another way to show you might be worth following.

Showcase Your Emotional Intelligence

There is good news for women trying to show gravitas. “Fierce command-and-control is no longer so popular in the global context,” Hewlett says. Traditional alpha-male characteristics are falling out of favor, as emotional intelligence has climbed up the list of traits people value in leaders. That means “being accessible, being welcoming, smiling in fact–talking about some of your personal journey,” Hewlett says. “People feel they’re getting to know you.”


Good leaders are increasingly good listeners, Hewlett says. “Showing your ability to welcome other people’s views, other people’s insights, and showing that you understand the power of difference.”

Master the Banter

Part of emotional intelligence is being comfortable in your own skin, and being able to put other people at ease. “There is this line between being a total fake and acquiring the social skills that allow you to interact with a new client in ways that set the stage for an impressive meeting and presentation,” Hewlett says.

But small talk doesn’t have to be about football, she says. “I think that’s overdone a bit.” Instead, she suggests thoroughly research people you’ll be meeting, and find out about their interests, such as nonprofit boards they sit on. Then be ready to talk about that and “be ready with some intersection” to your own interests, says Hewlett. “That’s just being thoroughly prepared.” (Need help? See “How To Master The Fine Art Of Small Talk.”)

Ditch Security Blankets

Yes, PowerPoint slides and notes are helpful, but overuse of these crutches “gives the impression that you don’t know your stuff cold,” says Hewlett. Watch TED talks to see how master communicators create compelling and concise speeches. Then practice talking about any of the topics you’re usually asked about. You want to “beat it into your brain beforehand so you’re not scrambling around trying to find the right page,” she says. “Leaders are good speakers. There is no way around this.”

Look the Part

Dressing inappropriately is a career killer, but you already know that. A more unexpected insight Hewlett came across in her research was “the importance of appearing fit,” she says. Not model thin, but toned. Her explanation is that executive jobs are tough, and “you’ve got to look as though you’re up for that.”

“In a way this is good news because we can actually control this,” says Hewlett. Anyone can find 30 minutes a day to exercise.


Hewlett has long been a swimmer. “I try to find hotels that have some kind of pool,” she says. Hewlett wears a swim cap to keep her hair dry. She hops in the pool at strange hours if necessary, and 20 minutes later she’s done. “You can find ways of exercising that do not consume huge amounts of time,” she says, “because no one has that.”


About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at