“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.


And I quote…

Which is more powerful?

Abigail Adams reminded her husband John to “remember the ladies” when drafting the new nation’s Constitution.

Abigail Adams didn’t just remind her husband John to “remember the ladies” when drafting the new nation’s Constitution. She also issued a warning: “If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.”

Many people know the “remember the ladies” quotation. And it’s fine, as far as it goes. But look at the primary source (or in this case, the primary source as reprinted on a website) and you find something much more interesting. As far back as Colonial times, women were prepared to disregard laws that disregarded them! [Pardon me while I stop to imagine what history would have looked like if that rebellion had truly taken hold.]

But back to my point: Whatever you’re writing, take the time to ferret out the primary sources. That’s where the gold lies. (Click to tweet.) In the corporate world, that may just mean a 15-minute conversation with the person you’re writing for.

Gatekeepers have their place in the business world – many executives keep impossible schedules and couldn’t possibly speak to everyone who wants to claim their time. But if a speech is important enough to make it onto the speaker’s calendar, it’s important enough to have an interview with the speechwriter.

The gatekeepers may think they know exactly what the executive wants to say – and when it comes to policy and practices, they’re probably right. But they can’t supply the human touch, the personal touch that makes any communication memorable.

Gatekeepers can only guess at what the principal is thinking, They may know some relevant anecdotes but unless they shadow the exec 24/7, they won’t have them all. And the more intermediaries between speaker and writer, the weaker the story becomes. It’s like the children’s game of “Telephone,” where a phrase faithfully repeated down a chain of listeners ends up hopelessly garbled. “We won’t obey laws that don’t represent us” becomes “remember the ladies.”

Interviewing the subject up front will save everyone time on the back end (less rewriting). And the end product – whether speech or op-ed, or just a post in an internal newsletter – will be stronger for it. And you can quote me on that.