The secret to getting engineers to be more charismatic

You can’t fake charisma.
You can’t fake charisma.
Image: Getty Images/Yuli Seperi
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Olivia Fox Cabane is an executive coach with an unusual approach: She teaches her clients how to become more charismatic. It’s an odd calling for someone who is an introvert by nature. In this excerpt from “The Charisma Coach” published by Matter, writer Teresa Chin explains why Silicon Valley leaders need someone like Olivia. 

The idea that qualities like charisma or leadership can be taught is fairly new. Sixty years ago, science dictated that social skills were innate; somebody like Olivia would have been better off seeking a profession in which she could mostly avoid people.

Peter Cappelli is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school and an expert on human-resources development. He says that leadership training was first deemed necessary for success in the 1920s, when corporations like General Electric began to hire inexperienced workers straight from university. GE sent new employees on programs designed to fast-track them into tailored positions—some of the first executive-development schemes in the world. As with business-coaching tactics today, the methods were rooted in the latest scientific knowledge. But the psychology of the 1920s was rather different to today, in part because of the influence of Freud.

Freud believed there were three aspects to our personality and psyche: the id, ego and superego. The ego (conscious mind) and superego (conscience) could be shaped by society, but the id represented our biologically-ingrained instincts and motives, from which we could not easily be freed. What’s more, Freud argued that much of our behavior stems directly from the id. To business thinkers, this meant that some people were psychologically predisposed for leadership, while others lacked the necessary hardwiring. Finding a company’s future executives, in other words, was a matter of correctly identifying a person’s knack for leadership.

At GE, promising new hires entered a one-year program, during which their leadership potential was assessed by both superiors and peers. The company also ran what would now be called an executive retreat–effectively a test of employees’ ability to socialize. Lower-level managers and executives would spend a week in the summer camping on a company-owned island in Lake Ontario. One can see the appeal of the approach, or at least appreciate why it made sense at the time. But it imposed an artificial ceiling on those deemed to be lacking social skills. This was bad news for introverts.

Over the next few decades, however, businesses like GE began letting each section of the company develop its own leaders. Some executives pushed back against the separation of social and technical skills, and started considering engineers for management roles. Other companies made similar changes. A 1953 study found that one-third of large corporations were led by executives with engineering backgrounds. While this might have been meritocratic, it wasn’t always effective. According to Cappelli, the engineers were “frequently bewildered” by executive positions, which were fundamentally about overseeing people.

Different companies sought out different solutions. Some hired psychologists to act as consultants for newly minted managers. (Thomas Gordon’s Leader Effectiveness Training, which emphasized active listening and no-lose conflict resolution and was popular at the time, was later adapted into a popular parenting technique in the 1970s). Others, like Lockheed, sent a dozen or so trainees every year to Harvard Business School for the management equivalent of finishing school. Industrial-agriculture giant Monsanto set up an extensive interpersonal-skills training and coaching program specifically for their chemists and engineers. One company official described its graduates as “so brilliant, they annoy everyone.”

Yet, for all the emphasis on training, the 1950s recipe for management material had little to do with job performance. Evaluations continued to focus on social skills rather than educational achievement or technical ability. And with only a fuzzy understanding of the precursors to social success, top executives developed lists of must-have skills that became increasingly generalized. In 1957, the New York Times tackled the issue by publishing two lists of skills. One was drawn from a corporate personnel manual, the other from a kindergarten report card:

List A: Dependability; Stability; Imagination; Originality; Self-expression; Health and vitality; Ability to plan and control; Cooperation.

List B: Can be depended on; Contributes to the good work of others; Accepts and uses criticism; Thinks critically; Shows initiative; Plans work well; Physical resistance; Self-expression; Creative ability.

A successful executive in 1950s America, in short, was expected to have essentially the same skills as a well-behaved four-year-old. (B is the kindergarten list, by the way.) In the decades that followed, corporate hierarchies became inflated with executive deadweight as the personality tests proved a poor means of picking boardroom winners. Companies began to doubt whether it was worth trying to train talent internally when it could be poached from other companies. Human resources departments and executive-training programs dwindled.

By the time the dotcom boom took hold in the 1990s, driving demand for a new generation of managerial talent, companies had all but abandoned the goal of developing social skills in-house. Yet the idea that personality and success were entwined had not gone away. Coaches who might have taken company jobs were going direct to the masses instead. Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, published in 1989, would eventually sell 25 million copies. (A few years after it appeared, president Bill Clinton mused that American productivity would greatly increase if people adopted the habits.) A bronzed, square-jawed business guru named Tony Robbins made millions from motivational events and books like Awaken the Giant Within. By now Freud had been largely forgotten, and personal progress was not just possible, it was easy — it was just that the responsibility for achieving it had shifted to the individual.

It was around this time that Olivia began to develop her own highly effective habits. Her timing, it turned out, was good. As she absorbed her collection of self-help books and began adding tools of her own, the corporate landscape was changing in a way that she would soon exploit. The tech boom had already propelled more engineer-minded people like herself to the top of multimillion dollar businesses. Many were, in the language of Monsanto, brilliant enough to annoy others. Some were also intolerant of those less brilliant. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates once reacted to the opening of a presentation by a Microsoft employee with the remark: “There’s nothing about that slide I like.” A few moments later, he asked the presenter, “Why don’t you just give up your options and join the Peace Corps?”

This was the late 1990s, and Microsoft dominated the world of personal computing. Yet a demand for more holistic leaders was emerging. At Apple, where Steve Jobs was insisting that products be both functional and beautiful, executives were incorporating not just engineers and salespeople, but also designers into their multidisciplinary teams. The company’s success meant the practice became ingrained in Silicon Valley business culture. “Apple changed the game,” said Kelli Richards, who served as the director of music and entertainment markets at Apple for most of the decade. “Apple put it out there that they wanted employees who are experts, yet who also have the capacity to work as part of a cross-functional team.”

Companies needed managers who were technical and charismatic. Geeks, yes, but not dorks. This is no longer a new idea. It isn’t enough any more just to be smart. You also have to be able to interact with people. And that is easier said than done. It is one thing to grasp the rationale for social skills, but to actually become more charismatic? That’s tough.

Inspired by her father’s scientific approach and her mother’s work in psychology, Olivia began reading about the science of the brain. She returned to the library, and began to see parallels between the academic findings and the self-help techniques she had found so effective for herself. Eventually she combined her tools, and the science behind them, into what might be called a practical theory of charisma.

Olivia started creating her theory by examining her own behavior. She characterized herself as an introvert, because social interaction exhausted her. Yet she wasn’t shy. She started conversations, but small talk wore her out. She would begin to feel tired, then anxious, then outright nervous. She would talk faster and lose her train of thought. Her facial expressions would become strained. She might sweat. And this could happen regardless of whether she understood the subject of the conversation.

She began to view her awkwardness as a process that started in her mind and manifested in her actions. When she was working on a story for Forbes and felt she had a reason for introducing herself to people, for example, she noticed she would hold an upright stance — more so than when she approached someone at a party. Her personality didn’t change, just her internal sense of comfort, and the way her actions appeared to others.

Eventually, she began to think of social interaction as the product of three categories of skills: technical, external and internal. Technical skills are raw brainpower. They include the ability to follow complex directions or derive solutions to challenging problems. Most of the engineers she works with rate themselves highly in these areas. They’re also, she says, the least important when it comes to developing a charismatic personality.

External skills are more important, albeit at a surface level. They’re the things we associate with successful salespeople: a welcoming smile, a sympathetic nod of the head, a warm handshake. These actions are part of what we call charisma—but only if they feel genuine. And that’s the problem, at least for people for whom these behaviors don’t come naturally. We can sense a strained expression or faked interest, and neither appeals. Olivia cites a Stanford University study in which researchers scanned the brains of subjects shown pictures of people trying to hide their real feelings. The observers’ brains reacted as if a threat were present.

The solution to this conundrum—that external skills are important to charisma, but faking them can backfire—rests with internal skills. These have to do with understanding what is happening inside your head, and knowing how to handle it. Internal skills include the ability to sit with discomfort, to be mindful of the feelings that arise in a given situation—and to have enough self-compassion not to be overrun by those feelings. These are the skills that allow you to bypass the feelings of anxiety, fear and doubt that rise in high-pressure scenarios. And while an internal state can’t be faked, it can be manipulated. Done right, the results of that process can be transformative.

The placebo effect might be thought of as such a manipulation: create an internal feeling of having received treatment, say by administering a sugar pill that looks like a real drug, and your body may act as if the treatment were real. Olivia believes charisma can work in much the same way: imagine a situation in which you would be warm, generous and confident—like playing with a puppy—and your internal tinkering will lead to real changes in your external behaviors.

This, in a nutshell, is Olivia’s recipe for instant charisma. “Charismatic behaviors must originate in your mind,” she wrote in the The Charisma Myth, which was published last year. “What your mind believes, your body manifests.”