Can plastic surgery make you a better leader?

According to the author of Executive Presence, women should consider hiring an image consultant and having plastic surgery to get ahead.

by Christine Armstrong
Last Updated: 04 Jul 2014

The prologue sets up Executive Presence so engagingly with the story of the author, a clever Welsh girl from the valleys, turning up to her interview at Oxford University dressed in a clearance sale C&A fox fur - complete with beady eyes, claws and a tail - chosen by her mother to help her fit in. But then things go awry.

Let's start with the title. Do you want to be described as 'an executive'? My associations run from underappreciated assistants through grey middle management to George Clooney in Up in the Air. Just about any other word would have been better.

The book is based on a survey of 4,000 people, supported by quotes from executive focus groups and case studies. It proves that what you say, do and wear has a huge impact on your likely chances of promotion. It provides a long check list of things to do to be taken more seriously at work, broken up into three categories: gravitas, communication and appearance. It makes no apologies for this being a book about cracking the code of style over substance.

There are a couple of problems. The first is that, because it is based on a survey, it mirrors the world as it is, which means that tracts of it could have been written by your mother. Stand up straight, make eye contact, smile, keep trim, choose clothes that are 'simple but stylish', don't be tarty.

The advice ranges from the sensible but obvious through to the technically correct but hard to follow. Yes, being able to read a room, keep a cool head under fire and command an audience are invaluable. But these are cultivated through long and bitter experience, as the author describes with admirable and engaging honesty.

The second is that it seeks to make a science out of 'presence', as defined, it seems, by a largely American sample. Of respondents, 39% say that emotional intelligence matters for women, whereas 33% say it matters for men.

Managers say that the 'sweet spot' for women's executive presence is between 39 and 42 years of age. Younger and they have 'the wrong kind' of visibility; older and they 'fade into the woodwork'.

I don't know what to do with data like this, aside from try to pretend I've never read it. The disheartening implication of this approach is that, should we take the advice, the outcome would be so bland. It isn't that the book is wrong - on the contrary, I suspect it is truer than any of us wish it to be - but it seeks not to challenge the tyranny of normcore but to concede to it.

The author even calls one of the three pillars of executive presence (EP for short, of course) gravitas. A loaded word if ever there was one, it comes from the Romans: a male's gravitas determined when he would stop being a boy and become a man. Some firms have banned it from appraisals, because they believe telling people to 'demonstrate more gravitas' means 'behave more like a man'.

Hewlett celebrates those who drip with EP: the Obamas, Sheryl Sandberg, Marissa Mayer, Trevor Phillips, Christine Lagarde. Glamour is, the book proposes, the way forward. Angelina Jolie is mentioned three times more often than Angela Merkel.

With this in mind, she recommends proactive steps to get ahead. Hire an image consultant, find 'the perfect skirt', consider plastic surgery, embrace super-sculpted arms like the author ('My upper arms are pretty amazing - if I do say so myself.'), hone your voice.

By the end, I hungered to personally congratulate every inappropriately coiffed, flabby-armed success story who made it just because she is brilliant.

There is also a nuanced piece on 'Walking the tightrope', exploring the impossible challenges senior women face in getting their image right, as exemplified by Hillary Clinton: 'She is too female to be "presidential material" yet somehow seen as too masculine to appeal to voters ... Hillary just can't win.'

Similarly, the chapter on diversity and achieving a positive balance between authenticity and conformity has good stuff. I'd like to have read more about the cost minorities pay professionally when they feel they must cordon off their home lives to succeed at work.

Overall, I wish the author had asserted more of her own presence rather than leaning on a survey. Even the most pragmatic among us know it is time to stop conceding to the world as it is and to start embracing difference.

Focusing on that, and on how to carry off a twinkly-eyed fox fur, would have been a more exciting read.

- Christine Armstrong is a founding member of Jericho Chambers and author of MT's 'Power Mums' series.


Executive Presence: The missing link between merit and success

Sylvia Ann Hewlett

Harper Business, £17.99

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