The Importance of Charisma To Your Career Toolbox

(This is a classic oldie, published a decade or two ago in our column for Science. I hope you will enjoy it — DJ).

As a recent interviewing process came to a close, the hiring manager prepared to extend an offer to one of our two finalists. As she compared the candidates, I couldn’t help noticing some hesitation. This was strange because I was proud of both candidates and the quality of the match. Everything about them was a perfect fit, from their academic training to their experience in Quality Control for the therapeutics sector. Still, something was bothering my client.

I decided to pursue it. “Something’s not right,” I said. “We always recommend that client companies make hiring decisions only when they are truly excited. Jennifer, you don’t sound inspired. What’s up?”

“On paper, there is absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t make an offer right now to either one of these people,” she said. “I just can’t bring myself to do it. These two QC managers have the combined personality of a cinder block.”

Personality? At first I was surprised. No offense intended, but personality–call it charisma–is an unusual requirement in a quality control job description. That seemed like something you would expect in a sales manager, but not in quality control. The whole conversation left me perplexed.

“Jennifer, when we initially discussed the position, we set up a screening process geared to find an individual with strong scientific skills, an assay-developer par excellence who could bring technical expertise to the team. In the personal-chemistry department, we just wanted a good fit with the corporate culture. We placed no special emphasis on finding someone with charisma. What is your thought process here?”

“This post I’m recruiting for requires a great deal of involvement with the outside world,” she said. “If I bring in people who will be uncomfortable each time they step outside the QC lab, I would be shortsighted. We need to hire people who can have an impact both internally and externally. If they can’t influence others positively, they will be relegated to running assays for the next ten years. I don’t think that’s a good career move for either candidate, and it certainly wouldn’t be a smart decision on my part.”

Of course, Jennifer was thinking of the long term. It was in her best interest as a manager to hire people who could eventually take her place. She was absolutely right. At that moment our search started again – but for a different sort of candidate.

Charisma: The “It” Factor

The book that inspired me to write about this topic is The ‘It’ Factor: Be The One People Like, Listen To, and Remember,”  by Mark Wiskup (Amacon, 2007). Mark Wiskup never once uses the term “charisma” but he does a great job of detailing that special something–the factor that, when it’s missing, puts you in Jennifer’s “cinderblock” category.

The subject of charisma makes most people think of sales reps and politicians. But in many successful companies you’d be hard pressed to find a person in any influential position who doesn’t have some measure of charisma. Those on the scientific track are not exempt!

Mark Wiskup asks, “What is it that makes some people stand out in a crowd, able to start a conversation and immediately draw people in, while others–lacking this elusive quality–get pushed to the side, even when they have something valuable to say?” His book goes on to answer that question by describing how certain people have no fear of presenting their ideas to anyone who may be able to help them; these savvy few combine this “no fear” approach with excellent persuasion and negotiation skills.

There is, of course, a negative side; for many, charisma has a well-deserved bad image. Thomas Edison had charisma, but so did Adolf Hitler. And the world of startup companies will always have slick, charismatic executives who convince the investment community to back smoke-and-mirrors ventures. But the kind of charisma I’m referring to here is a positive, motivating force exuded by those who have a particular knack for good communications. If you and other people think they’re slick, they don’t have the real deal.

Think back on any career opportunities you may have missed. Perhaps you’ve been in a situation like the one described above in which your technical talents were not quite enough to motivate your interviewer to extend an offer. If so, consider: There is one element of charisma that can do wonders for your career, and it happens to be the one aspect of charisma that you can learn. It’s how well you communicate.

The Charismatic Communicator

Is it possible to change your stripes if you aren’t already charismatic? This topic came up recently on the AAAS Career Discussion Forum. Reader Eric thought it would be an impossible job for most people: “I think it is silly to entertain the notion that we can ‘train’ charisma into someone, as if this indefinable quality could be checked off on your career to-do list,” he commented.

Yet, I’ve watched many people emerge from their shells by developing the pieces of charisma that are learnable. They may not have the magnetism of Steve Jobs or Thomas Edison, but they manage to move themselves out of cinderblock territory and to get respect when they need it.

Here are some elements of charisma that you can add to your career toolbox just by being conscious of them, and my recommendations for developing new habits:

Good eye contact. A good strategy is to remember the old fashioned telegraph, where communication went back and forth along a wire. In this analogy, your eye contact is the telegraph wire, and when you don’t maintain consistent eye contact, communication trails off. It’s unfortunate, but if you lack this ability many people will unconsciously–or consciously–dismiss you as a lightweight. Remember this great quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “An eye can threaten like a loaded gun; or, it can insult like hissing and kicking; it can alter moods by beams of kindness, or make the heart dance with joy.” So:

  • Practice keeping better eye contact in your day-to-day conversations with friends and relatives. Don’t employ a non-blinking, 100% glare (as that makes people uncomfortable) but do try to keep a reasonably good connection with the other person’s eyes as they talk.
  • Some cultures have a different view of eye contact. South Asians, for example, need to recognize that much more eye contact is expected in the United States and Europe. Conforming can help increase their charisma as perceived in Western offices and laboratories.

Good listening skills. Charismatic people will not corner you and talk nonstop. Instead, they encourage you to open up to them. As they lean forward, their body language says “I’m interested in what you have to say.” Many people who think they are charismatic simply talk too much and don’t listen. Mark Wiskup says in his book, “The competition to be heard is intense.” Make sure those you are speaking with know you got their message.

  • The ‘It’ Factor describes a little voice inside us, which Wiskup calls the “Mommy and Daddy Voice.” He says that we’ve been listening to this little voice all our lives, a small memento planted there by Mommy and Daddy when we were just learning to speak. That little voice, Wiskup says, is the reason that so many people love to hear themselves talk. Force that voice out of your mind. Become an active listener and you’ll make great strides in the way people feel about and respond to you.
  • Be present. Do you continue to type away at that email while engaged in conversations with colleagues? Stop what you are doing, make eye contact, and listen.

Speak in terms of the other person’s interests. I’m amazed how often technical people forget this. One candidate for that QC position could have won the hiring manager over by pointing out how his process-validation experience would have benefited her company. Instead, he insisted on discussing aspects of the work that excited him but had no bearing on the company or the manager’s specific interests. The core of your message needs to be aligned with the core of that person’s interests–especially when interviewing!

  • You can’t speak in terms of the other person’s interests if you know nothing about them. That’s why good listening skills are critical, and why doing your due diligence before an interview is so important. Have you thought through the match of your skills and the hiring manager’s needs? Can you explain it, pithily?
  • While you don’t need to have a scripted conversation, it’s important to strategize before an important presentation to ensure that you monitor carefully all traces of “ego speak” –those areas of your work where you tend to go overboard and talk nonstop. Showing a little passion is good, but “rattling on” about an area of work that isn’t of interest to the other party is never a good idea. Self-awareness (not self-consciousness) is the key.

Leaders: Everybody Wants to Hire One

One of our most frequent posters on our forum is Allie (Ale), a PhD Canadian cell biologist who reported in a recent thread that she had been discussing industry’s requirements with a senior manager from a local biotech company.

“I asked this senior manager what they look for in people who are transitioning from academia to their R&D department. I expected to hear something about the technical expertise! But no, he said “leadership”, and stopped there,” she posted. Ale was surprised there wasn’t a long list of technical attributes brought up in that discussion.

How do companies detect leadership potential in an applicant? While your CV has something to do with it, so will your charisma. Whether you’re on the technical or managerial track, your move up the ladder–and your first step onto it–could depend more on this factor than you think. Fortunately for you, there are elements of the charismatic leader you can start working on today.