01 jul 2017 / Geral

Appearance in Executive Presence: Why Looking the Part Might Get You The Part

7 Minutos de Leitura


“A leader is someone who knows the way, shows the way and goes the way.”

- John C. Maxwell


Executive Presence is for the executive world what the x-factor is for the entertainment world. An often elusive, vague concept, hard to put into words but easy to identify when we stumble upon it.


It’s a set of traits that powerfully signal strength, poise and emotional intelligence. An ability to handle any and every situation that comes with the job. Not to be confused with performance. Before performance even comes into play, others have to believe that you have what it takes to get the results, and EP is what conveys that message.


It’s  made of 3 different elements:



The Center for Talent Innovation by Sylvia Ann Hewlett asked senior executives what matters most in terms of Executive Presence. It turns out, even in different demographics (Hispanic, Asian and African-American), Gravitas is widely considered the most important aspect of EP. Communication came second, and Appearance ranked third.


To crack the Executive Presence puzzle we have to address an often controversial and sensitive topic. Appearance is a largely misunderstood element of EP and one definitely worth diving into.


The Weight of An Unconscious Bias 


Like it or not, we make snap judgments of people and the first element we scrutinize for is appearance. In the long-term, we might consider more heavily someone’s conduct and values, their performance, and integrity but in the short-run, it’s incredibly important.


Only 5% of the senior executives surveyed stated that appearance was at the core of EP. But, what researchers found was that appearance was the filter through which they evaluated other aspects of EP (Gravitas and Communication). Which, just means that if you get the looks wrong, you won’t even make it to the list of candidates for that next promotion.


One thing that bears to mind is that the responses of these executives were reflected upon. But appearance comes into play, often times, unconsciously. We unconsciously associate beauty and key physical attributes with success.


Alex Todorov, professor of Psychology at Princeton University, studied the biological roots of rapid judgment. His research found that on about 70% of the races for senator, congressman, and governor, the winner of the election was the candidate whose face won the higher ratings in terms of competence. Also in the US, 60% of CEOs are over 6 feet tall (1,80m), even though only 15% of the population reaches this height. 


Which goes to show, that whether conscious of it or not, we do have some biases in terms of how leaders should look like. 


It’s Not What You Look It’s How You Look

When asked to rate the top components of appearance, executives claimed being polished and groomed as the most relevant factor. Followed by being physically attractive, fit and slim.

Being polished and groomed translates into being seen as someone who values and takes care of him or herself. Someone who puts time and energy so they can look and feel their best, which comes across as respect and consideration for the people with whom they interact. The message is clear, if you matter enough, I’ll try hard enough. And that’s really the bottom line here, trying hard is what counts.

“As one leader put it in an interview: You’ve got to look as though you tried, that you pulled yourself together.” (Hewlett, 2015).

But it’s not just trying to look good, it’s dressing appropriately for your environment, complying with the codes of the organization or event while remaining true to yourself. It’s a combination of understanding the rules and staying true to yourself within them. If you want to take it a step further, don’t dress for your current role, dress for the role you want and own it.

About Being Fit

There is substantial data backing up the “pretty advantage”. Attractive people get hired more often and even fare better in a court of law when compared to unattractive people.

But in terms of Executive Presence, it’s not about looking like a model. Looking groomed and polished counts more than standard looks. It’s what you do with what you have that establishes your credibility and trustworthiness.

So the most important thing about being fit is that you signal wellness and health. It’s interpreted as a sign of the resilience and strength you’ll need to take on the demands of leadership.

“Being physically fit gives people the confidence that you will take care of what you are asked to do, because you are taking care of yourself,” notes GE executive Deb Elam.” (Hewlett, 2015).

Look the Part To Get The Part

If you think of appearance as nothing else than a distraction, derailing from performance, then you definitely want to reconsider this. Appearance can help build or undermine your Executive Presence. Regardless of your track record, if your looks aren’t aligned with the role you’re aiming for, it will most certainly prevent you from getting it.

Dressing for the part you want is what allows others to focus on performance and release any worry about potential mishaps. If you look the part and feel the part, others will pick up on those clues and assume you’re capable of looking out for yourself and others. It’s a vital aspect of Executive Presence and one worth investing on.


Wrapping it up


Even though we're biased towards attractive people. When it comes to EP what counts is that you look groomed and polished and that you present yourself as someone in good shape, someone who takes great care of their health and understands it signals resilience and wellness. It’s not about obsessing about your size, but about feeling and looking healthy and comfortable in your own skin.  

There’s more to appearance than what the eye meets. Looking your best has an impact on how you feel and makes a powerful statement of being effective and in control. And we want our leaders to look like they have it together. 


Executive Presence Workshop 


For more information on Executive Presence training, contact us at info@sofiacalheiros.com | +351 215 892 109.


Our Executive Presence Workshop, is a 2-day practical program that involves both physical (based on Taekwondo Songahm) and behavioral training that will allow you to:


  • Establish your boundaries and reply in an effective manner when you're under fire,
  • Share your opinions and perspectives even if it goes against the majority, and deal with the criticism you might face,
  • Identify the values that will guide your behavior and decision-making process,
  • Identify the external factors that inhibit these behaviors,
  • Identify the internal factors that undermine courage,
  • Develop your emotional intelligence, resilience, and courage in the situations that matter the most to you. 




Hewlett, Sylvia Ann. (2015).Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit And Success. Kennett Square, PA: Soundview Executive Book Summaries.


Kahneman, D. (2015). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.


Social Talent. (2017) 9 Types of Unconscious Bias and the Shocking Ways They Affect Your Recruiting Efforts. Retrieved here


Sofia Calheiros / Leadership & Coaching