Monday, 4 February 2019


A friend of mine with a big job in a multinational company told me about his appraisal. It was glowing, all the KPIs were “smashed out of the park”. But there was just one thing - almost an afterthought. He was told he needed to do something about his “executive presence”. As it was just after Christmas I assumed he was being criticised for the quality of the gifts he’d given his colleagues at Christmas. No he said “executive presence” not “executive presents”.

And he thought it was a problem. I’ve been thinking about it ever since. About why people judge others primarily by their noisiness, by the way they laugh or the way they dress. Years ago another friend – a senior civil servant who’d successfully  led a tricky  project that required great diplomatic skills, intelligence and courage got a review that focused on his clothes -  “this man should get a new tailor”. Save the nation? Pah! Creases in his trousers not sharp enough.

The solution to this, of course, is to learn how to play the game. And there are four immediate things to do.

1. Speak much louder. Clare Foges, the Times columnist and one time No. 10 speechwriter noticed the public school boys around David Cameron all had very loud voices and loud laughs. Apparently you could hear Dave from two rooms away. Clare herself upped her vocal decibels.

2. Not just a  firm handshake - a challenging vice like grip whilst staring into your victims eyes and getting close to them. Behave as though there is no one else in the room, that they’re important like you.

3. Think tall. Straighten your back imagine you’re a foot taller than you are and don’t walk confidently. No. Swagger.

4. Always look as though you have a lot of time and that what you’re doing is easy, almost beneath you and deeply amusing.  Nothing but nothing can ruffle you. Rich Hall (my extremely funny American comedian/musician namesake when asked if he ever got nervous said “no because I don’t care what they think”… that’s executive presence.)

Years ago Jim Collins wrote a book called “From Good to Great”. In it he celebrates low-key CEOs who coach their people and take an avuncular back seat. More Clement Attlee than Winston Churchill. His thesis is the rock star leaders like Jack Welch was belong to a different more combative era.
If, as it seems, business and politics has become a game then it isn’t that hard to be coached to look and behave a bit more like Gwyneth Paltrow than the late Victoria Wood or George Clooney than Mark Rylance. Polish and make up are cheap. Talent and integrity less so.

We could do with a bit less flash look-at-me and a bit more thinking. A bit less Mourinho a bit more Solskjær. It’s time to place our bets on intelligence not alpha male or female braggadocio.


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