Move Up with Presence, Power & Warmth

April 25, 2018


Several years ago, I came across Olivia Fox Cabane’s TedTalk on “the charisma myth.” An executive coach, Cabane challenges the notion that charismatic individuals are simply more attractive and outgoing than the rest of humanity. Instead, Cabane maintains that certain individuals are viewed as exuding charisma because of what they do. Anyone who adopts the same behaviors may be viewed as more charismatic, too.

While no legal employer I know expects this year’s class of summer associates or new grads to radiate charisma, most openly tell me that they are in search of prospects who demonstrate professionalism in all that they say and do. To the extent that you incorporate Cabane’s three key elements of charisma into your day-to-day work, I believe that you’ll be perceived as having the professional persona that leads to long-term success.

I have outlined Cabane’s three key charisma elements below:


Charismatic individuals are fully present in every interaction. They give those with whom they are meeting their undivided attention, and by doing so, they build bridges of connection and understanding. Successful politicians are absolute pros when it comes to demonstrating presence even in the briefest of meetings. Others walk away from interactions and tell others, “I only had one minute of his (or her) time, but during that minute, I felt like I was the most important person in the world.”

Practicing presence sounds easy. Once you enter the workplace, however, you will find it to be among the most challenging behaviors to make habitual. Why? Put simply, our brains are not wired to focus for extended periods of time. The fight-or-flight response that has helped ensure the survival of the human species has also primed your attention to be readily diverted. Combine this with the fact that today’s workplace is filled with a gazillion possible diversions—a constant influx of emails, texts, and tweets; drop-in meetings; and phone calls—it’s little wonder that new and established professionals alike note that they are challenged to demonstrate presence. 

Focus on being mentally present during interactions at work. This requires paying genuine attention to what is said—both verbal and nonverbal cues—during meetings and conversations at work. Do not fool yourself into thinking that you are fully present when you attend a meeting on one subject and briefly divert your attention to respond to an email on a separate issue.

In addition to giving others your undivided mental attention, be physically present during your workday. I recognize that technology allows you to work at any location and at any time. I also know that it’s common for plum assignments to be handed to the first summer or new associate a partner physically sees when that lawyer steps away from an important client phone call or meeting. As you start to establish your credibility, build a persona that communicates you are an eager and valuable contributor to a team effort—not someone who simply wishes to phone it in.


Cabane defines “power” as “the ability to affect the world.” Typical forms of power that she identifies include: influence or authority over others; large amounts of money; expertise; physical strength; and high social status. Few summer associates or new hires possess any of these. Yet, you still have the power to impact a workplace.

Every assignment that you receive—if you complete it well—lifts a burden off the shoulders of someone who is more senior. To the extent that you complete these assignments in a competent and timely manner, you enable supervising lawyers to focus on other critically important tasks. Thus, you positively affect their world. Every new entrant to the workforce has the option of viewing him- or herself as a “cog in the wheel” or as a “contributor.” Become a contributor.  

You can further affect the workplace simply by bringing the right attitude into the office. Every year I hear about summer associates and new hires who are immediately marked as stars because they support team members and respect staff. I also hear complaints about new employees who act as if the world revolves solely around them. Focus on demonstrating an attitude that communicates, “I’m here to make a positive difference.”

Other ways to ommunicate “power” include the following:

Attire – When you start work, dress as well as you can and in a manner that is consistent with cultural norms. If suits are the norm at your employer, do not show up in jeans and tee-shirts. Avoid being the summer or new hire about whom others say, “I can’t take that person (to court/to meet a client/to an important meeting) because of their attire.”

Body language – Develop a firm handshake and become comfortable with making sustained eye contact. Avoid fidgeting. When standing, plant both feet firmly on the ground. When seated, do not rock or swivel unnecessarily in your chair. Ensure that your hand gestures do not distract from key messages.

Speech – Commit to making one relevant statement at each meeting that you attend. Others cannot know of the knowledge and expertise that you are developing unless you share it. To ensure that you come across as thoughtful, think before you speak—Cabane recommends taking a two-second pause before making a statement. Because inflecting up at the end of statements communicates uncertainty, when you speak, focus on ending sentences with your voice inflecting down.


Some people become charismatic because of warmth—think Mother Teresa or the Dali Lama. For the rest of us, the interplay between power and warmth is absolutely critical. Cabane notes, “Someone who is powerful but not warm can be impressive, but isn't necessarily perceived as being charismatic and can come across as arrogant, cold, or standoffish. Someone who possesses warmth without power can be likeable, but isn’t necessarily perceived as charismatic and can come across as overeager, subservient, or desperate to please.”

You can demonstrate warmth by expressing a genuine interest in the people you with whom you work. Focus on their goals and objectives. Small offers of kindness (I’m grabbing a soda. May I bring you anything?) demonstrate your ability to think of others and attend to their needs.

Show gratitude and appreciation for everything that comes your way—assignments, invitations to social events, and feedback (whether it’s positive or constructive). Express thanks to key decision-makers, and don’t forget to verbalize your appreciation to administrative and other support staff, too.  

Finally, practice a bit of self-compassion. Cabane cites some research that indicates “[i]ndividuals who score high on self-compassion scales demonstrate greater emotional resilience to daily difficulties and fewer negative reactions to difficult situations, such as receiving unflattering feedback. Higher self-compassion predicts a greater sense of personal responsibility for the Outcome of events: it helps predict levels of accountability. People who score high on self-compassion also have a lower tendency for denial.”

If you need to come across as a professional in the days and week ahead, start each workday by asking yourself:  What can I do to demonstrate PPW (power, presence and warmth) in the hours ahead? Make these elements part of your persona and you will quickly be viewed as the consummate professional.



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