“Executive Potential” and my dream job

I had a job interview, one of those massive ones where you’re meeting the whole team at once. I needed to dress to impress. Fortunately, I’d just bought a designer suit with a jacket so sharply tailored you could cut yourself. I strode into the interview knowing I looked like a million bucks, with my fancy new suit jacket and…jeans?

Don’t ask me where that anxiety dream came from—it’s new to my repertoire, which usually involves having to read a phone book-sized 19th century French novel the night before the final exam. (Ce n’est pas bon.)

The good news (in my dream world): I managed to explain away the half-casual look. The better news (in the real world): appearance doesn’t play much of a role when people evaluate “executive potential.”

At least that’s the conclusion Sylvia Ann Hewlett reached in her book Executive Presence. She identified three essential qualities for executives, and appearance came in a distant third—comprising just 5% of your score on the midterm of life. Just check out this photo of legendary financier J. P. Morgan illustrating a Forbes article about Hewlett’s research. It’s one of the few photos that clearly shows his large, bulbous nose covered with nodules. The senior Morgan hated having his picture taken (I feel ya, J.P.) and commanded most photographers to use early 20th century Photoshop techniques to hide the flaw. (Compare the candid photo in the link above to this portrait by Edward Steichen.) Still, the schnozz clearly didn’t hold the guy back; the financial empire he founded is still going strong today.

What Morgan lacked in attractiveness, he more than made up in the top two qualities Hewlett identified: gravitas and communication skills.

Hearing that made me even happier than landing that dream job. First, because it validates everything I’ve been telling my writing clients for over 25 years. And second, because that’s exactly the reason I’m opening my practice to up-and-coming executives. I know the communication skills they need because I’ve been deploying them on behalf of my executive clients. If they’re ready to break out from the pack and improve their communication skills, I can teach them.

I’ll write more about this tomorrow. In the meantime, check out Ron Chernow’s fascinating biography The House of Morgan.

  • speeches
  • working with consultant