CEOs: Why you should perfect a Chris Carpenter handshake

Royle Printing CEO Chris Carpenter.

CEOs are an endangered species in today’s job market. At least 40% of executives are fired within 18 months of hire (the turnover rate being the highest for all career classes), with the most common reason cited as underperformance. The second most common reason for a C-suite firing may surprise you: It’s because a leader simply lacks “it,” an “executive leadership presence.” They don’t exude a strong enough executive vibe when expected to stand and deliver to an executive audience – a subliminal indicator, boards and/or company owners feel, of how well they handle pressure or represent the company across sectors.

What is “executive presence”? Is it an innate personality construct or can it be a cultivated skill?

To better explain the concept, let me offer an example: CEO Chris Carpenter has “it” – executive presence. When the head of Royle Printing walks into a conference room or shows up at a charity event, it’s evident from the way he carries himself that he’s a decision maker. He’s also a magnet for introductions; people seek him out and listen deferentially to his views. Whether in black tie or his signature bow tie, Carpenter’s presence is felt and – equally important for his company – it is acknowledged. He has established a leadership brand.

Breaking down Carpenter’s behaviors, we can create a checklist of the traits most often associated with executive presence:

1. Firm handshake. Carpenter’s grip is firm but not aggressive. In Snap: Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language and Charisma, author Patti Wood suggests someone meeting an executive like Carpenter for the first time is immediately assessing his credibility (is he believable?), likability (could he like him enough to do business with him?), attractiveness (well-groomed?), and power (is he confident or aggressive?). Whatever the appraisal, Wood claims it could take up to six months of regular interaction to change the immediate assumptions made. She adds that research reveals that as many as 87% of men have poor handshakes, though a good handshake can make the same impression in a few seconds that otherwise would require three hours of continuous face-to-face interaction to achieve.

2. Storytelling skills. Carpenter excels at storytelling, whether he is talking about the most recent expansion of his printing plant or what happened one crazy afternoon on the golf course. Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story: A Guide to Crafting Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, determined, while director of consumer and communications research at Procter & Gamble, that storytelling ability is more than a soft skill – it is a core leadership competency. P&G then hired Hollywood movie directors to teach senior executives how to lead better with storytelling. (At Nike, too, all senior executives are trained for the role of “designated corporate storyteller.”) Smith says stories are effective tools to inspire organizations, set a vision, teach, define culture and values, and explain who you are and what you believe.

3. Engagement. Carpenter knows when to talk and when to listen. His demeanor remains calm regardless of the topic. When others speak, he provides an in-the-moment audience; the person talking is the most important person in the room. He isn’t visually scanning a crowd while answering a question, or staring into a coffee cup when someone else is speaking.

4. In control. Carpenter minimizes barriers to making a good impression. He smiles, is well groomed, and is on time and well prepared, thereby avoiding the need for apology openers.



Psychological studies reveal that 93% of people’s judgments about others are based on nonverbal input, and first impressions are formed within seven to 17 seconds. During that short interpersonal window of opportunity, 55% of that first opinion is based on physical appearance. Clothes count; loud accessories and strong body scents (think colognes and even breath mints) detract. Surprisingly, 38% of a person’s first impression is also based on tone of voice. Repeating a person’s name back to them is a positive influencer, and ending an initial conversation with their name helps cement the connection and cues them to remember your name as well.

If you’re aiming for an executive post, or want to keep your CEO title in an era that’s shown a 300% increase in CEO removals, you should know that perhaps the most interesting differentiator for “executive presence” is far more subliminal. It’s what I think of as someone’s confidence height. While we know about shrinking violets, those identified with “it” actually do appear to stand taller. Estimates of height for someone with “it” tend to be 1 to 2 inches taller than reality.

So stand tall, executives. And practice that Chris Carpenter handshake.

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