Le Gourmet Gift Basket CEO Cynthia McKay wears 3-inch heels even though she's 5-foot-9 in bare feet.
Why? For the same reason that 6-foot-3 Don Peebles, CEO of The Peebles Corporation, the nation's largest African-American-owned real estate development company, puts his hand on the shoulder of shorter adversaries and crowds into their personal space when negotiating a key deal.
It's to gain a "subliminal sense of power," Peebles says.
People of status often use height, or an inflated appearance of height, to look more powerful, says Lara Tiedens, an organizational behavior professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, who has written extensively about how executives acquire status. They look directly at others, use an open stance and vigorous gestures, speak loudly in a deep voice, interrupt at will, and lean in close or otherwise reduce the space of others and expand their own. What does all that audacity get them? Others see them as smarter, more competent and deserving of all their promotions, Tiedens says.
Tiedens says her findings and recommendations to become taller, louder and borderline rude have been called evil, but says she's only the messenger calling attention to the age-old pecking order of humans, which is also common throughout the animal kingdom, from the arcing tail of the scorpion to the chest-beating chimp.
"It's an evolution from the days of primates," says Yaron Adler, CEO of IncrediMail, an Israeli company where executive meetings often turn into shouting matches that remind Adler of Britain's Parliament.
Tiedens says women are often irritated by chest-beating behavior but should learn from it. So should minorities, the young, the shy and others who feel their ideas get short-changed on the merits, she says, because meeting rooms are dominated by white, male, chest-beating power brokers.
Peebles, for one, says he has a "radio" voice and employs it to command attention. McKay makes sure the ring tone on her phone is sophisticated, never "frilly." She schedules meetings on her turf, where her office walls are covered in diplomas and accolades, and she drops into conversations that she is a lawyer as well as a CEO before pursuing important negotiations.
Many white, male CEOs say they are not pleased to be lumped together with rutting elk and other beasts gone wild. In interviews, they say that chest beating may have been a staple of corporate leadership in the past but that executives can no longer get away with aping Tarzan.
Retired CEOs Renny DiPentima of SRA International, James Copeland of Deloitte & Touche and Bill George of Medtronic, call such studies borderline drivel and say the last thing a busy CEO has time for is to plot to gain an upper hand.
"Today's workers, vendors and customers are simply far too smart to fall for some kind of domination thing," says Vern Raburn, CEO of jetmaker Eclipse Aviation.
Raburn worked under Bill Gates during Microsoft's early days and says the world's second-richest man is of slight build and incapable of resorting to chest beating, although Microsoft executives did play intellectual games of "who's smartest, who can think fastest."
Some successful women also say chest beating is rare and a waste of time. "Sounds like something a professor or consultant would think of," says Andrea McGinty, founder of online dating site It's Just Lunch and online retailer Baby Dagny.