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.
The 'Domination Thing'
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.
"Height, voice quality, stance … (are) not going to cut it without the substance," says Linda Sawyer, CEO of Deutsch advertising agency. "Survival of the fittest has become survival of the brightest."
But Karyl Innis, CEO of executive coaching firm The Innis Company, says corporate chest beating is widespread. She says CEOs who don't spot it are like "fish who don't see the water."
"Is this a lot of bunk? Absolutely not," says Jill Blashack Strahan, founder and CEO of Tastefully Simple, which sells food at in-house parties. "Arrogance and superficiality is nauseatingly prevalent. Chest beating is alive and well. It's a jungle out there."
If it's a jungle, women are at a disadvantage because they have higher voices and usually stand and sit in a more constricted manner, Innis says. In the jungle, being considerate is a weakness. When someone walks into a crowded meeting room, even the most senior women have a tendency to make room at the table. That's a mistake, she says: Those of power take up more than their fair share of space. Don't relinquish it. Spread out, arms wide on the table.
Tiedens says studies of gender and influence indicate that women invite backlash when they try to be verbally dominant. But there seems to be greater acceptance when displays of female dominance are non-verbal. She says that wearing heels makes sense, although she is unaware of any high-heel research outside the realm of podiatry.
Innis, 5-foot-4½, remembers when she was director of staffing and recruiting at Motorola several years ago. Staffer Glenn Gienko was 6-foot-4. After one long day, Gienko did a double take when Innis took off her heels to relax. "He lifted out his arm, and the top of my head didn't reach his palm. He said he had no idea I was so short. He thought I was bigger because I was his boss. I took up more space in his life. I'm very conscious about being bigger," Innis says. "Shoulders square and back, head up."
Maigread Eichten, the 5-foot-4 CEO of beverage company New Sun Nutrition, says she remembers a confrontation with a 6-foot, 200-pound-plus senior executive.
"He spoke loudly and in quite colorful language. I couldn't get a word in between his four-letter words. Imagine his surprise when this small blonde marched up, stared him down, commanded his attention, spoke clearly and loudly and ended with a smile. He was sold and charmed," Eichten says.
Even so, Eichten isn't convinced that heels and other efforts of dominance are effective. She jokes that she guards her personal space only to protect her salad at lunch, and the only time others comment on her size is when she introduces them to her 14-year-old son.
Tiedens' research has centered on women, and she says she was less qualified to say if the same tactics of dominance work for minority executives. Alfred Edmond, the 5-foot-7 editor-in-chief of Black Enterprise magazine, says they do work and advises young minorities not to disappear at meetings. His own promotions started coming after he took up body building as a hobby and went from 130 pounds to 175. He says he uses his baritone voice when he wants his way. Those with a deep voice are perceived to be larger, not only on the phone, but in person, Edmond says.
Height Literally Pays Off
Several studies indicate that taller men are more likely to be successful and that the advantage begins early. A 2005 study in Finland found that baby boys who were taller than average by their first birthday earned more 50 years later. The last U.S. president who was shorter than the average man was 5-foot-7 William McKinley 106 years ago.
Corporate CEOs also tend to be taller, and those who aren't taller have a way of appearing so. Retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch, at 5-foot-7, makes searing eye contact and will pull his chair around to sit close in one-on-one conversations. Harold Burson, chairman and architect of the largest public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, says he is 5-foot-6, "probably a little less now that I'm 86." He says his theory is that short CEOs rise from within the company. Executive search firms tend to produce the 6-foot outsiders, he says.
There may be some evolution in the jungle. Some CEOs say they recognize the importance of chest beating but have learned to use it in moderation. When Adler oversees contentious meetings, he tries to remain calm and centered. Likewise, Edmond says he resorts to dominant behavior "thoughtfully and sparingly, like corporal punishment in child rearing."
Peebles says he used to assume that the loudest, most aggressive male at the meeting was "the guy in charge," until he learned that's not usually the case. "If you have authority, you ought to use it less," he says.
Tiedens says it makes sense that wise CEOs are evolving to turn chest beating over to wannabe lieutenants, because research indicates that leaders who are dominant wind up with submissive employees, while those who step back empower those around them.
But dominant personalities, at least among those on the path to power, will long be with us, Tiedens says, even though chest beaters are perceived as less nice, likable and warm. Those gunning for leadership positions sacrifice popularity, Tiedens says. Edmond has advised his children to be both sure and right, but that it's most important to be sure.
"If you are absolutely correct, but seem unsure, you'll hardly be able to influence anyone, much less dominate them," Edmond says. At least once a week, he says, his wife calls him a stubborn dictator.
Edmond and other executives interviewed said they recognized that chest beating can be taken to an extreme and they worried that not only is there a fine line between confidence and dominance, there's also a fine line between dominance and schoolyard bully.
Leaders by definition are confident, and many can successfully negotiate dominance. But some cross over to become like hotel titan Leona Helmsley, nicknamed the queen of mean. Eleven states are in various stages of passing legislation that would give the victims of workplace bullying the right to sue for damages, according to The National Law Journal.
But if bullying is bad for business, the opposite could be, too. "If someone can't look me in the eye when they make a statement, or are passive, I downplay their credibility," says Steve Hafner, CEO of travel website Kayak.com.
Says Strahan: "When we avert our eyes, or cower, or speak in meek, whispery tones, we don't instill feelings of trust and safety."
McKay is never accused of being meek or in a cower. She wears heels even though she finds it ridiculous that 3 inches could add to anyone's credibility.
"It is a lot of bunk," she says. "But it works."