The marzipan layer refers to the level of corporate executives just below the top echelon – the “icing,” typically the C-Suite or partners.
Although important to bakers, as it prevents icing sugars from leaching into a cake, an organization’s marzipan layer may act as a barrier that prevents advancement.
For aspiring professionals, breaking through this layer can be extremely challenging. As part of the process, a candid self-appraisal is imperative but what often triggers a breakthrough, is a straight-shooting mentor who delivers tough-to-hear, yet pivotal information. Sometimes, a wake-up call is an accidentally overheard put down or criticism.
Acclaimed economist and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett is profoundly open about her own transformative experience. Daughter of a “working class Welsh bloke,” today, she’s an internationally recognized for her innovative thinking. Dr. Hewlett is the author of 12 critically acclaimed books including, Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, and the founding president and CEO of the Center for Talent Innovation.
Growing up in the 1960’s, in the industrial, impoverished coal-mining valleys of Wales where unemployment reached 38 percent, Dr. Hewlett was an excellent student. She applied and was accepted at Cambridge University. Although she excelled at passing exams, “every time I opened my mouth, I let myself down.”
She sounded rough and raw; she mispronounced words and her grammar was shoddy. Like My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle, she dropped the letter H, so Henry Higgins became ‘enry ‘iggins. At the age of eighteen, she wasn’t well read, had never been to the theater, and had spent family holidays at trailer park rentals. Conversation with her well-educated fellow-students was beyond her. She was awkward and ignored.
Dr. Hewlett overheard her tutor saying to a colleague that she “sounded uncouth.” Tough to take. She realized that to get anywhere, she would need to up her game. Unable to afford elocution lessons, BBC broadcasters became her voice coaches. She listened to the radio, read newspapers and bought cheap theater tickets. Her journey had begun.
Dr. Hewlett understood that she had to revise the signals she sent. Although today, it’s nice to think that a tutor would provide feedback to help a struggling student on her way, the point is that criticism not meant for her ears propelled Dr. Hewlett forward. Her genuine, heartfelt story and journey of self-discovery marked the beginning of her drive to excel. This has culminated in her passionate research about the very issues that got her started – the signals people send.
What is so important to understand is that performance and goal achievement alone, are insufficient to break through the marzipan layer. The cornerstones of Executive Presence – the first impression you make, how you behave, communicate and look – often underrated by detractors, actually send the specific signals mandatory for breaking through the marzipan layer.
The skills to communicate that you really know your stuff, that you can present your ideas and that you look like a member of the top level are fundamental to the ultimate selection process of who gets to move ahead and move through the marzipan layer.
This is a guest post from Corporate Class, a My Big Idea™ strategic partner and originally was published in the autumn of 2017