The Charm Hacker

Olivia Fox Cabane says she can make anyone more likable—for a price. But can charisma really be taught?

Teresa Chin
Mar 26, 2014 · 37 min read

ON A RAINY EVENING in the spring of 2013, around 30 men and women gathered in an apartment high above the streets of San Francisco. They were dressed in business-casual and cocktail attire. Fading light from the wraparound windows painted the sparsely furnished room in hues of orange and pink. Sixteen stories below, a row of silver railway cars lined up at the city’s Caltrain station, looking like children’s toys against the backdrop of skyscrapers. Orange-and-black–clad baseball fans streamed from the station and headed to the nearby AT&T Park, but the cocktail party seemed oblivious to the night’s game. In place of sports trivia, their conversations were peppered with organizational affiliations.

Google. MIT. Stanford.

In the crowded kitchen, a 50-something man in thick, designer glasses recounted a birthday dinner he had thrown for his fiancée. “We must have drunk ten thousand dollars’ worth of wine,” he said.

He turned to a nearby guest, an acquaintance who had recently piloted a new type of mobile app, and asked how things were going.

“It’s okay,” the guest said. But, he added, someone had recently told him—

“That’s wrong,” Designer Glasses interrupted loudly. “It’s a great idea.” He sipped his drink, then looked around for a new conversation to join.

To the side of them, on a black marble kitchen island, trays of hors d’oeuvres sat forgotten. A store-bought red velvet cake with a housewarming message piped onto it had only a single slice missing. Around the food, though, the party was a churning network of people. Strangers moved towards each other with a smile and a firm handshake.

“What do you do?” they asked each other. “And how do you know Olivia?”

Olivia Fox Cabane, the 34-year-old host, was wearing a low-cut black dress and dark tights. Her feet sparkled with the red sequins that she had added to her otherwise simple flats. She had pulled her curly brown hair into an elegant half-updo, a nice complement to her long, pale face. Her heavy-lidded eyes were rimmed with gold eyeshadow, and they grew wide whenever she spotted an introduction that needed to be made. Software engineers met neuroscientists, entrepreneurs mingled with investors. Email addresses were exchanged, lunches scheduled. And Olivia kept moving.

She came into the kitchen. Two young men were now trying to start a party game. “It’s a game of first impressions,” explained one, a 20-something Stanford graduate with black spiky hair and tight dark-wash denim jeans. “We all have preconceived ideas about who other people are, but we’re not always right.”

The guests nodded.

Spiky Hair continued: The idea is that you share your first impression of someone else in the group, he said. And that person has to refute it with a story. “For example,” he said, pointing at the woman standing across from him, “I might say, ‘I think you’re really boring and you’ve never done anything interesting in your life.’ And you would say?”

“Uh,” the woman replied. She looked lost, and a short but distinctly awkward pause followed. Olivia swooped in. “That reminds me,” she said, lightly touching the startled guest’s arm and pulling her away. “Have you met Laurie? She’s a fabulous girl. Super intimidating. Let me introduce you.”

After she seemed sure the new connection was taking root, Olivia began to pull back from the conversation. She slipped away from the group, threading her way through the living room and toward her private office. She closed the door behind her and, now alone, took off her sequined shoes and lowered herself to the floor. She lay supine on the white carpet next to her desk, with its built-in treadmill, and a pile of well-worn Terry Pratchett novels.

Olivia Fox Cabane was hiding from her own party.

She took a few deep breaths and let the silence wash over her. It wasn’t the first time this evening she’d done so, and it wouldn’t be the last. She was finding it exhausting to be around other people. She needed time to recharge, even if it meant physically closing herself off from everyone for a few minutes.

Olivia needed to be charming that night. As is often the case when she is playing host, she had to work hard at it.

We’re used to thinking about charisma as an intangible. It’s a quality that is instantly recognizable in its natural form, yet defies definition. Martin Luther King, Jr. had it. Steve Jobs, too. Michelle Obama has it. So does Don Draper. Whether it’s the way someone always remembers your name, seems to care about your life, or notices your new haircut, the draw of charismatic people is almost universal. We don’t just like who they are; we like who we are around them. They make us feel important, and yet we are the ones who end up wanting to please. Popularity and power are the birthright of the naturally charismatic.

But Olivia wasn’t born with it. She is, and has always been, an introvert. As a teenager she was a high-school outcast—the kind of kid who sits silently, then says too much, and at the wrong time. She has an engineer’s mind and an occasionally clumsy grasp of social nuance. It took her years to learn how to be a good host, and to do so she had to seek out the science of charisma. She had to assemble tools and tricks that could transform a shy teenager into a socialite. She had to reverse-engineer the intangible. Now she earns a six-figure salary by teaching others how she did it.

Olivia’s clients include Fortune 500 CEOs, human resource managers, heirs to international fortunes, and the executive directors of major charitable organizations. Increasingly, they’re also the engineers and tech entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. After all, hot startups can grow from 5 to 500 employees in a few years, forcing the founders—who are often computer programmers—out of their cubicles and into roles that require them to inspire and emote. What’s more, the teams these founders manage have become diverse: Engineers and designers are valued equally in many startups. The new executive has to get the best out of both. Olivia is very busy.

After a few minutes on the floor of her office, Olivia sat up and brushed the carpet fuzz from her dress. Her face was serene, satisfied. When she opened the door to rejoin her guests, she practically floated toward the Stanford kids, whose game had stalled on another confused guest. Olivia reached down to scoop up a small black-and-tan puppy—a foster dog she was watching—that had been wandering around without anyone noticing. She handed the burrito-sized animal to the Stanford duo, who took turns holding it while other guests cooed. The conversation shifted to dog people versus cat people. Olivia smiled at the pair, who seem relieved to be saved from the game they had created. The party rolled on.

OLIVIA WAS BORN in Paris in 1979. Her father was French, and a physical chemist; her mother, an American psychotherapist. Though Olivia spoke French fluently, she was ostracized at school. A picture from Olivia’s pre-teens shows a group of coiffed, Parisian children—a 1990s tableau of perky ponytails, doll-like features, and brightly colored sweaters. The children beam at the camera, glowing with enthusiasm. All except Olivia, whose smile hangs limply. Her round glasses and dark, heavy features jar with her classmates’ airy blondeness. She appears to be surrounded by a cushion of space, as the children around her are repelled toward their other neighbors.

Part of the problem, Olivia recalls, was that she didn’t fit into any prescribed social group: She was too athletic for the nerds, too bookish for the jocks. She liked science fiction but also enjoyed dressage. Her mother, sensing that something was amiss, tried to help her daughter fit in by dressing Olivia in an American interpretation of French fashion: frilly, floral outfits ornamented with gloves and bows. The other kids called her a poser. “To them, I was always the weird American,” Olivia said recently. “It was obvious to everyone except my mother. Fitting in was something she desperately wanted for me, but all I did was stand out for the wrong reasons.” The awkward child became a dorky teen. The popular girls grew willowy; Olivia developed a curvy, athletic build. Flirting came as second nature to most of her peers, but Olivia was baffled by the subtleties of social interaction. She was too blunt, others told her. Too honest. Too much like her ultra-rational scientist father, who liked to work by “thinking like a molecule” And there was something unusual in her speech patterns, too. The young Olivia would butt into conversations and then become exhausted. She had a tendency to overshare, bursting forth with information like a conversational water balloon.

Olivia’s behavior may sound like an indication of Asperger syndrome, a mild form of autism. But there is a crucial difference between an awkward teen and many young people on the autistic spectrum: Olivia was keenly aware of her social rejection. She recognized the disappointment in the face of her mother, who desperately wanted her daughter to fit into French society; she felt the scorn of her classmates; she sensed that she was saying and doing the wrong things, but she couldn’t figure out how to make people like her.

Olivia’s worst years came after her parents transferred her from a diverse international school to Lycée Victor Duruy, a small, elite high school in a wealthy district of Paris. The building was blocks from the Eiffel Tower and served some of the oldest families in France.

At her new school, she wasn’t just the weird American; she was the weird, lower-class American. According to Olivia, her French teacher even announced to the class that, because of her non-intellectual hobbies like swimming and skiing, the only thing Olivia was fit to become was a garbage collector. Her new classmates were similarly cruel: She learned some had banded together to form a “Let’s get Olivia kicked out of school” club.

“It wasn’t a pretty time,” Olivia said. “I didn’t have the tools back then to interact with other humans. So I survived by going numb.”

Her grades suffered, but she managed to qualify for French law school. At 18, she left and headed to Panthéon-Sorbonne University, where she was one of over 3,000 first-year students. Compared to the intense social scrutiny of Duruy, the relative anonymity felt like a vacation. “I finally got to be just a face in the crowd,” Olivia said. “It was such a relief not to be in fight-or-flight mode all the time; I was finally able to think. That’s when I started developing the tools.”

Olivia had always been a fan of tools. When she was a kid, she would spend hours watching her father at his workbench. The room contained a letterpress and a device for slicing metal, but her father’s favorites were the woodworking tools. Olivia loved the way he could use them to change the nature of materials, altering the shape and feel of an object until it resembled something completely new. She remembers the smell of wood shavings filling her nostrils as he carved patterns into the wood. “That was always the place I wanted to go play,” she said.

Olivia, through the years

The memories came back to her in her first years of university, when the respite from bullying allowed her to reflect on the challenges she’d encountered socially. For most of her life, Olivia had felt lost when navigating social situations, while others seemed to have a built-in compass. She desperately wanted to find her way, but how? Raised by two academics, she looked for answers in behavioral science. “When you have parents who are a psychotherapist and a physical chemist, you assume there’s been research done about everything,” Olivia told me recently. “But academic studies are not presented as tools. They’re presented as complex tables and regressions. So it took a lot of time to get what the studies were saying. Unfortunately in my case, I didn’t have time. I was really desperate. I needed to figure this out for myself,”

Olivia’s mother wanted to help, so she handed her daughter a book, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. In place of graphs and tables, the book contained lessons like “Three fundamental techniques in handling people;” “The six ways to make people like you;” “The twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking.”

“My mother said she wasn’t sure if it would be useful since, to her, the book was full of no-brainers,” Olivia said. “She was like, ‘Geez, do people need to be told this?’ For me, though, it was a revelation.”

For the first time, Olivia realized there were actual human tools one could use to interact with others. She began to seek out other titles, and used them to build a social road map. It took some effort. Though self-help books were gaining popularity in the United States at the time, in France they were barely tolerated. Few people bought them, and those that did rarely admitted to it. But Olivia was hooked, and before long she had accumulated a small trove of social self-help books.

They weren’t all helpful. Several were outdated personality guides from the 1950s, a time when it was assumed that only the naturally charismatic became leaders. But a few stuck out, like one by Kate White, editor-in-chief at Cosmopolitan between 1998 and 2012, titled Why Good Girls Don’t Get Ahead … But Gutsy Girls Do. White listed “nine secrets every career woman must know” and urged ambitious young women to shed their self-effacing good-girl personas and “get some zip.” Olivia was struck by the methodical techniques that White advocated, including the idea that women should “toot their own horns” and seek out new challenges. Olivia started experimenting with her own behavior, adding updated tools of her own.

She had begun writing a recipe for reinvention.

THE IDEA THAT qualities like charisma or leadership can be taught is fairly new. Sixty years ago, science dictated that social skills were innate; somebody like Olivia would have been better off seeking a profession in which she could mostly avoid people.

Peter Cappelli is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school and an expert on human-resources development. He says that leadership training was first deemed necessary for success in the 1920s, when corporations like General Electric began to hire inexperienced workers straight from university. GE sent new employees on programs designed to fast-track them into tailored positions—some of the first executive-development schemes in the world. As with business-coaching tactics today, the methods were rooted in the latest scientific knowledge. But the psychology of the 1920s was rather different to today’s, in part because of the influence of Freud.

Freud believed there were three aspects to our personality and psyche: the id, ego and superego. The ego (conscious mind) and superego (conscience) could be shaped by society, but the id represented our biologically ingrained instincts and motives, from which we could not easily be freed. What’s more, Freud argued that much of our behavior stems directly from the id. To business thinkers, this meant that some people were psychologically predisposed for leadership, while others lacked the necessary hardwiring. Finding a company’s future executives, in other words, was a matter of correctly identifying a person’s knack for leadership.

At GE, promising new hires entered a one-year program, during which their leadership potential was assessed by both superiors and peers. The company also ran what would now be called an executive retreat—effectively, a test of employees’ ability to socialize. Lower-level managers and executives would spend a week in the summer camping on a company-owned island in Lake Ontario. One can see the appeal of the approach, or at least appreciate why it made sense at the time. But it imposed an artificial ceiling on those deemed to be lacking social skills. This was bad news for introverts.

Over the next few decades, however, businesses like GE began letting each section of the company develop its own leaders. Some executives pushed back against the separation of social and technical skills, and started considering engineers for management roles. Other companies made similar changes. A 1953 study found that one-third of large corporations were led by executives with engineering backgrounds. While this might have been meritocratic, it wasn’t always effective. According to Cappelli, the engineers were “frequently bewildered” by executive positions, which were fundamentally about overseeing people.

Different companies sought out different solutions. Some hired psychologists to act as consultants for newly minted managers. (Thomas Gordon’s Leader Effectiveness Training, which emphasized active listening and no-lose conflict resolution and was popular at the time, was later adapted into a popular parenting technique in the 1970s). Others, like Lockheed, sent a dozen or so trainees every year to Harvard Business School for the management equivalent of finishing school. Industrial-agriculture giant Monsanto set up an extensive interpersonal-skills training and coaching program specifically for its chemists and engineers. One company official described its graduates as “so brilliant, they annoy everyone.”

Yet, for all the emphasis on training, the 1950s recipe for management material had little to do with job performance. Evaluations continued to focus on social skills rather than educational achievement or technical ability. And with only a fuzzy understanding of the precursors to social success, top executives developed lists of must-have skills that became increasingly generalized. In 1957, The New York Times tackled the issue by publishing two lists of skills. One was drawn from a corporate personnel manual, the other from a kindergarten report card:

List A: Dependability; Stability; Imagination; Originality; Self-expression; Health and vitality; Ability to plan and control; Cooperation.

List B: Can be depended on; Contributes to the good work of others; Accepts and uses criticism; Thinks critically; Shows initiative; Plans work well; Physical resistance; Self-expression; Creative ability.

A successful executive in 1950s America, in short, was expected to have essentially the same skills as a well-behaved four-year-old. (B is the kindergarten list, by the way.) In the decades that followed, corporate hierarchies became inflated with executive deadweight as the personality tests proved a poor means of picking boardroom winners. Companies began to doubt whether it was worth trying to train talent internally when it could be poached from other companies. Human resources departments and executive-training programs dwindled.

By the time the dot-com boom took hold in the 1990s, driving demand for a new generation of managerial talent, companies had all but abandoned the goal of developing social skills in-house. Yet the idea that personality and success were entwined had not gone away. Coaches who might have taken company jobs were going direct to the masses instead. Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, published in 1989, would eventually sell 25 million copies. (A few years after it appeared, President Bill Clinton mused that American productivity would greatly increase if people adopted the habits.) A bronzed, square-jawed business guru named Tony Robbins made millions from motivational events and books like Awaken the Giant Within. By now, Freud had been largely forgotten, and personal progress was not just possible, it was easy—it was just that the responsibility for achieving it had shifted to the individual.

It was around this time that Olivia began to develop her own highly effective habits. Her timing, it turned out, was good. As she absorbed her collection of self-help books and began adding tools of her own, the corporate landscape was changing in a way that she would soon exploit. The tech boom had already propelled more engineer-minded people like herself to the top of multimillion-dollar businesses. Many were, in the language of Monsanto, brilliant enough to annoy others. Some were also intolerant of those less brilliant. According to The Wall Street Journal, Bill Gates once reacted to the opening of a presentation by a Microsoft employee with the remark, “There’s nothing about that slide I like.” A few moments later, he asked the presenter, “Why don’t you just give up your options and join the Peace Corps?”

This was the late 1990s, and Microsoft dominated the world of personal computing. Yet a demand for more holistic leaders was emerging. At Apple, where Steve Jobs was insisting that products be both functional and beautiful, executives were incorporating not just engineers and salespeople but also designers into their multidisciplinary teams. The company’s success meant the practice became ingrained in Silicon Valley business culture. “Apple changed the game,” said Kelli Richards, who served as the director of music and entertainment markets at Apple for most of the decade. “Apple put it out there that they wanted employees who are experts, yet who also have the capacity to work as part of a cross-functional team.”

Companies needed managers who were technical and charismatic. Geeks, yes, but not dorks. This is no longer a new idea. It isn’t enough any more just to be smart. You also have to be able to interact with people. And that is easier said than done. It is one thing to grasp the rationale for social skills, but to actually become more charismatic? That’s tough.

As Olivia finished her fourth year in law school, her transition was almost complete. True, she was still a bit of a bookworm; she was studying for a dual master’s degree in French and German business law, after all. But she was also teaching sailing lessons in the summers, performing with a comedy improv troupe that she had founded, and freelancing for Forbes magazine. She wasn’t just busy, she was social.

A photo from her 21st birthday party, in 2000, shows a group of costumed law students, some dressed as angels, others as devils. Olivia stands among them, her arms thrown around two young men holding plastic pitchforks. Her red-painted lips form a grin that matches the sparkly horns glued to her headband. A few years prior, her classmates wanted her kicked out of school. Now the awkward nerd was the center of the party.

Eventually, other people began to take notice of her transformation. After university, Olivia moved to New York to work as a freelance publicist. She would talk with journalists, and one reporter kept asking about the social tools she had developed. A short time later, a profile of Olivia appeared in the international edition of Le Figaro. The piece emphasized how she had created a set of personal leadership and communication tools. Soon Olivia was getting calls from executives. They wanted to know how she had transformed herself—and they wanted her to help them do the same.

AARON HAS ALWAYS BEEN SMART, the kind of kid who gets good grades and stays out of trouble. But he is also, in his own words, “kind of an asshole.”

He remembers a moment, over a decade ago now, when he was queuing for movie tickets. The show was due to start in a few minutes, but an older woman at the head of the line was taking her time. Aaron recalls her putting rhetorical questions to the cashier: Do I like comedies? Maybe I want to see a drama. Do you think this is a good movie? Finally, he couldn’t take it any more. He burst to the front of the queue, pushed her out of the way and demanded to buy a ticket.

“Everyone kind of stopped and stared,” he told me. “Even my friend was like, ‘I can’t believe you did that.’ But I was like, what? I had no idea I had done anything wrong.” (Aaron is a pseudonym; he asked that his real name not be used for professional reasons.)

For a long time, Aaron was able to use his intelligence to get by in social situations. He finished high school with honors and got accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, where he spent most of his time “in a drunken blur.” But after he graduated, he had trouble finding a job. His résumé was strong, but he kept getting rejections after companies brought him in for an interview. Clearly something was going wrong—but he wasn’t convinced there was anything he could do about it. “I thought being socially awkward was just part of who I was,” he said.

Eventually he was offered a job at Google. He liked it at first: Everyone was smart and the fast pace appealed to him. But after a few months, he noticed he was getting tired. As a natural introvert, he found the carousel of meetings had started to wear on him. He got into arguments with colleagues who were offended by his brusque manner. His diet suffered. He began sleeping poorly. Google signed him up for a leadership-training seminar, but he ended up making fun of the facilitator.

“Some of these business coaches have these one-size-fits-all programs that are downright cultish,” he said. “You feel like you’re on late-night television, and they’re selling you the same kind of crap you sold someone else. It’s mass leadership production.”

Exhausted and looking for a new working environment, Aaron left Google, following his boss—who liked the quality of his work despite the occasional outbursts—to another major corporation in the Bay Area. Once again, Aaron was asked to receive leadership coaching, but this time it was Olivia giving the training.

When he first met her, Aaron was hesitant, even downright rude. He tried alternately ignoring and mocking her. But Olivia didn’t get flustered. “Just let me follow you around for one day, and listen to what I have to say,” she suggested. “If you don’t like it, fine. What do you have to lose?”

That was two years ago. A few days before her housewarming party, I watched as Olivia sat in her living room, across a table from Aaron. A neat-looking man, he wore the deliberately dressed-down uniform of Silicon Valley executives: dark fitted jeans, a blue sweater pulled over a collared shirt and leather dress shoes. He smoothed his shaggy brown hair, which had been flattened slightly by his cycle helmet, and pulled a large black Moleskine notebook from his messenger bag. They discussed an internal job move that Aaron was preparing for, which required convincing a colleague to transfer into his current position. He scribbled notes as they talked.

His potential successor was well positioned, Olivia observed.

“She’s pretty spineless,” Aaron said, one eyebrow rising slightly. “So I think if I put a little pressure on her…”

“Have that conversation with her in a nice, warm voice,” Olivia said.

Aaron tried. “Hi, how are you dooooooing?” His tone was reminiscent of a sarcastic kindergarten teacher.

“Not patronizing or condescending,” Olivia said, firmly.

“Dammit.” Aaron sighed. “I need a puppy.”

“Borrow mine.”

When Olivia started coaching Aaron, she gave him an unusual list of suggestions: change his diet, fix his sleep schedule, and move apartments. Under different circumstances, this was the kind of advice that, as Aaron puts it, he would have judged “complete and utter horseshit.”

Yet he understands that her suggestions aren’t random. After Olivia’s own transformation, she looked back at what she had achieved with her own social skills and decided to systematize the process. Inspired by her father’s scientific approach and her mother’s work in psychology, Olivia began reading about the science of the brain. She returned to the library, and began to see parallels between the academic findings and the self-help techniques she had found so effective for herself. Eventually she combined her tools, and the science behind them, into what might be called a practical theory of charisma.

Olivia started creating her theory by examining her own behavior. She characterized herself as an introvert, because social interaction exhausted her. Yet she wasn’t shy. She started conversations, but small talk wore her out. She would begin to feel tired, then anxious, then outright nervous. She would talk faster and lose her train of thought. Her facial expressions would become strained. She might sweat. And this could happen regardless of whether she understood the subject of the conversation.

She began to view her awkwardness as a process that started in her mind and manifested in her actions. When she was working on a story for Forbes and felt she had a reason for introducing herself to people, for example, she noticed she would hold an upright stance—more so than when she approached someone at a party. Her personality didn’t change, just her internal sense of comfort, and the way her actions appeared to others.

Eventually, she began to think of social interaction as the product of three categories of skills: technical, external, and internal. Technical skills are raw brainpower. They include the ability to follow complex directions or derive solutions to challenging problems. Most of the engineers she works with rate themselves highly in these areas. They’re also, she says, the least important when it comes to developing a charismatic personality.

External skills are more important, albeit at a surface level. They’re the things we associate with successful salespeople: a welcoming smile, a sympathetic nod of the head, a warm handshake. These actions are part of what we call charisma—but only if they feel genuine. And that’s the problem, at least for people for whom these behaviors don’t come naturally. We can sense a strained expression or faked interest, and neither appeals. Olivia cites a Stanford University study in which researchers scanned the brains of subjects shown pictures of people trying to hide their real feelings. The observers’ brains reacted as if a threat were present.

The solution to this conundrum—that external skills are important to charisma, but faking them can backfire—rests with internal skills. These have to do with understanding what is happening inside your head, and knowing how to handle it. Internal skills include the ability to sit with discomfort, to be mindful of the feelings that arise in a given situation—and to have enough self-compassion not to be overrun by those feelings. These are the skills that allow you to bypass the feelings of anxiety, fear, and doubt that rise in high-pressure scenarios. And while an internal state can’t be faked, it can be manipulated. Done right, the results of that process can be transformative.

The placebo effect might be thought of as such a manipulation: Create an internal feeling of having received treatment, say by administering a sugar pill that looks like a real drug, and your body may act as if the treatment were real. Olivia believes charisma can work in much the same way: imagine a situation in which you would be warm, generous, and confident—like playing with a puppy—and your internal tinkering will lead to real changes in your external behaviors.

This, in a nutshell, is Olivia’s recipe for instant charisma. “Charismatic behaviors must originate in your mind,” she wrote in the The Charisma Myth, which was published in 2012. “What your mind believes, your body manifests.”

Her coaching now consists largely of helping her clients trick their minds using the methods she has developed. Her executives are tutored in techniques like “responsibility transfer,” in which they learn to alleviate the stress of uncertainty by imagining a benevolent, universal force assuming control of their lives, and “rewriting reality,” which involves undoing the anguish of a painful experience by coming up with alternative scenarios that transform the event from distressing to excusable.

Visualizations are key. Brad Ludden, one of Olivia’s clients, says that the technique has helped him improve his public-speaking skills, and that he uses it before almost all important meetings. Ludden, a professional kayaker who founded a nonprofit that takes kids with cancer on aquatic adventures, is charismatic by normal social standards, but becomes intimidated around CEOs. “I’m the kind of guy who’s used to being on the river, not a boardroom,” he says.

Before a big meeting, Ludden closes his eyes. In an instant, he is back on the Zambezi River, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Mist is everywhere. The roar of Victoria Falls fills his ears. His arms ache—he has just fought his way up a dangerous stretch of rapids. A steep drop lies before him, and a camera crew to his side. He wants to get it over with, but he has to wait until the director tells him to go. He wonders who will tell his mother if he dies. No, he thinks. I can’t let that happen. He calms his breathing. Time slows down, and he becomes aware of every movement. He is Neo in the Matrix. He pushes his kayak into the rapids.

“That moment, everything went perfectly,” Ludden said. “I’ve never felt so confident, moved so deliberately. I figure if I could be present and calm in that situation, when I was in front of scary rapids, I should be able to overcome anything.”

Like Ludden, Aaron has noticed himself change since he started working with Olivia. He gets into fewer arguments. When he feels that people are in the wrong, he no longer feels an uncontrollable urge to correct them. He no longer fixates on opposing viewpoints, or spends hours in rhetorical email battles.

“I’m not going to lie, her suggestions can be weird,” Aaron said. But, he added, “You hear her story and you think about yourself in high school, and you ask yourself, ‘Do I really want to be the same way the rest of my life?’”

After two years of tutoring in techniques like these, Aaron is still working with Olivia. Back in the living room, he reflected on Olivia’s advice for helping him communicate with more warmth. “Thinking of puppies while I talk to people helps a lot,” he said.

“Of course it does,” she said patiently. “The satisfaction we get from animal connections is different than the one we get from humans. We register it differently. Thinking about puppies translates to the voice, triggers your brain’s emotional center.”

“Eventually,” she added, “we both know you are going to need your own dog.”

WHAT SHOULD WE MAKE of Olivia’s charisma science?

At one level—a 30,000-foot view of the question—there are trends that support her ideas. Neuroscience has come a long way since the 1950s, when most researchers believed that the adult brain was like a newly completed building—a static structure that we inhabit, but do not renovate. Whatever brain structure and wiring you ended up with after early childhood, you had to live with. Sure, people could learn basic techniques to adapt to their circumstances, but they weren’t thought to be reorganizing the way their brains worked. One implication was that there was only so much you could do for individuals who didn’t “get it.”

We now know that the brain is not so static. Using fMRI machines and other brain-scanning devices, researchers have watched subjects’ brains adapt and evolve during learning tasks. When a person learns new motor skills—simple piano exercises, for instance—neural connections in areas of the cortex that control movement are reconfigured. A small rewiring job, if you will. Similar changes take place when we learn how to navigate a maze or memorize a text.

This idea—that training can alter the physical structure of the brain—was a revelation to Olivia. She takes it to mean that people using her tools aren’t just going through the motions of being charismatic—they are actually changing who they are, right down to the level of their neurons.

In some cases, scientists have seen the same effect when people do nothing more than think about learning new skills. Regularly imagining playing the piano, for example, is enough to prompt a little cortical rearrangement. And meditation, one of Olivia’s key tools, can change the structure of several areas of the brain, including some that regulate emotions.

Olivia’s science citations also appear to stand up to closer inspection, at least according to William Bosl, a Harvard neuroscientist. Like many of her contacts, Bosl met Olivia at a party. It was two years ago, on a trip to San Francisco. A friend had invited him to a party in an unusual venue: a cargo ship that had been converted into apartments. It was crowded and dark. About 30 people crammed into the quarters of the ship, which was docked at a pier on the bay. Bosl soon lost track of his friend, and found himself as the awkward guy nobody seems to know. He was just thinking of leaving when he bumped into Olivia.

He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but there was something unusual about her. Her pronunciation of certain words, for example. She didn’t exactly have an accent, but she formed each vowel with an inordinate amount of precision—“siweet” instead of “sweet.” She was confused by cultural references; she didn’t own a TV, she said. Yet at the same time, she was kind and cheerful and, to Bosl, instantly likable.

“When I mentioned what I did for a living, she seemed especially interested,” Bosl said. Olivia said she was writing a book on the science of charisma, and asked Bosl if he would look at the science sections of the manuscript. He had only known her for a few minutes, but he readily agreed. “She wasn’t like a salesperson exactly, but she definitely wasn’t inhibited,” he said. “She seemed to really care about me and my work, and I wanted to help her out.”

Like Olivia, Bosl was interested in using neuroscience to probe social skills. In one recent paper, he had explored whether scalp electrodes could be used to measure the brain’s electrical activity and screen infants for autism. For the next few weeks, he spent his free time reviewing Olivia’s manuscript. For the most part, the science looked accurate. “There were only a few places where I was like, I don’t know about this,” he said, “and when I found things like that I would write to her and she would change them.”

Yet the most serious criticism of Olivia’s use of science isn’t the big idea she espouses or the validity of the individual studies she cites—it’s that the definition of charisma is so slippery. Visualization techniques have been extensively studied in sports, where the desired goal—more accurate putting, a faster backhand—can be clearly defined. Outside of sports, psychologists have almost nothing to say about the link between visualization and charisma. In fact, the field has very little to say about charisma itself: Scientists don’t generally like to study something they cannot define or measure.

Activity in the brain can, of course, be measured. Yet the connection between rewiring studies and charisma is tentative. Meditating your way to a thicker cerebral cortex does not mean you’ve become a magnetic leader. No one has scanned the brains of executives undergoing charisma training, and, even if they had, it is not clear what they would look for: If a charisma module exists, neuroscientists are yet to find it.

“The problem is all our brains and personalities are so different, it’s difficult to tell what makes anyone unique,” said Bosl. “Even with fMRI scanning, which is the brain technology du jour, at this point it’s so crude that the only thing you could tell a charismatic person about their brain is whether or not they have a tumor or a lesion.”

If charisma is something that can’t yet be measured, does Bosl believe in Olivia’s professional transformation? He thought for a while after I asked him and then recalled an event he attended shortly after Olivia’s book had been published. It was a big party, and she was asked to make a speech in front of the whole room. She seemed hesitant at first. When she spoke, she had a loud, clear voice, but she seemed more comfortable when the focus was on someone else. “She didn’t come across as someone who was naturally charismatic since age two,” he said, “but it worked for her. It was actually kind of endearing.”

Though Bosl admires Olivia’s work, he says it’s distinctly different from his own approach to understanding the brain. “Pop science like Olivia’s book is not science, but rather the popular reporting of science,” he said. “And that reporting can sometimes take liberties and go beyond what’s actually supported by the literature.”

But then again, he added, “This is a woman who got me to agree to help edit her book within an hour of meeting her for the first time. You can talk about the brain all you want, and I don’t know if hers looks any different now than it did when she was an awkward teenager. But from a practical point of view, look at where she is now.”

TODAY, SILICON VALLEY IS increasingly obsessed with how to build a successful—and palatable—management culture. This is partly because the area’s success stories are so big. Executives at Google and Facebook must consider many layers of management, thousands of workers and millions—or even billions—of users. But it is also because the ingredients for technological success have changed.

“If you look at all the notable technology in the last one or two years, they all incorporate social elements,” said Joe Cheung, a longtime Silicon Valley recruiter who has worked for companies such as Netflix and Salesforce. (Cheung currently works for Medium, Matter’s parent company.) “Nowadays, we expect executives to be on Twitter and Facebook engaging with customers. We want programmers who understand that all apps have a social layer. Everyone in the tech world needs to be expanding their social sensibility.”

It’s not just about the technology: Services like Facebook are so embedded in our society that a narrow band of technology executives have, by default, assumed a sort of global leadership position. They are soothsayers, courted by politicians, thinkers, and journalists. And their personal brands matter—just look at the rivalry between Apple and Microsoft. Steve Jobs was as intelligent as Bill Gates and, when it came to his personal life, as fiercely private. But Jobs was unusually magnetic on stage, and the media chose to see Gates as a dork. This was an unhelpful narrative for Microsoft, which for many years has battled—and failed—to be perceived as a creative company.

Many of the entrepreneurs drawn to Silicon Valley in recent years realize this. Like Aaron, they know they cannot coast by on intellect. But the Jobs brand of business charisma doesn’t come easily to many of them. (Or, to be fair, most of us.) The next generation has found the transition from technology to leadership no less awkward than the engineers of the 1950s. And those who falter are declared a liability—too stiff, too dorky.

During Facebook’s rapid rise to prominence, for instance, Mark Zuckerberg was given an ultimatum. In the company’s early days, when Zuckerberg was barely out of university, he was uncomfortable with leadership. He was ambitious, but often crumbled when required to put a human face on his technical leadership. In front of an audience, he would sweat and struggle to communicate. As the company grew, staff rankled at Zuckerberg’s inability to cope with social nuance, and his advisers, sensing revolt, urged him to seek help. As David Kirkpatrick recounts in The Facebook Effect, Zuckerberg hired an executive coach to improve his people skills and took elocution lessons to help him with expression. The problems lessened, and Zuckerberg is now a competent public speaker.

Among the biggest adherents of leadership training in Silicon Valley is Marissa Mayer, who became CEO of Yahoo last year after an extremely successful decade at Google, where she rose from engineering to become one of the company’s most high-profile executives. In 2002, a few years into her time at Google, Mayer realized that the company needed to train a new generation of leaders to steer the search-engine giant as it expanded. And she didn’t want to copy Microsoft, where bullish MBAs dominated.

Mayer’s answer was a fast-track program called Associate Product Managers, which, in an echo of the leadership programs of GE almost a century before, focused on identifying employees with the social skills needed to oversee ferociously smart—and occasionally recalcitrant—engineers. APM has become an internal incubator for Google. The most talented recruits are sent to a boot camp, where they are made more capable, more approachable, more charismatic.

Google invests a lot in the program; those who complete it and stay at the company become strong enough leaders to justify the costs. Some leave, of course. Among APM’s graduates is Bret Taylor, who worked at Google until 2007, when he left to form FriendFeed—which was later acquired by Facebook, where Taylor was chief technology officer until last year. Google’s approach is percolating through the rest of the industry. With Mayer at Yahoo and many APM graduates elsewhere in Silicon Valley, the thinking may become pervasive.

Yet there is no small irony to what Olivia does, or indeed to the many other executive coaches who help the technology industry’s smartest minds become more charming.

Charisma is, in part, the ability to be genuinely mindful of others; to be emotionally aware. If intuition were our guide, we might assume that this couldn’t be learned. We might think that it was a blessing enjoyed by those born with an extra dose of empathy and the intelligence to make use of it. We wouldn’t imagine that charisma could be encapsulated in a series of tools, any more than a novel could be condensed into a tweet. Which is not to say that Olivia and her peers don’t succeed in making their clients more charismatic. But perhaps only in Silicon Valley would a group of engineers think they could hack their way to charisma with a series of neuroscientific shortcuts.

IT WAS A HOT AFTERNOON in May of this year, and San Francisco seemed full of people dressed as if they were auditioning for a summer clothing commercial. Pastel shorts and cotton tank tops abounded. In the shade of South Park, a few blocks from Olivia’s apartment, groups of friends watched dogs play and sipped cool drinks from red plastic cups.

Olivia swept past in dark sunglasses, a black velvet dress, and black tights. She walked into an intersection lit up by a do-not-walk signal. “Oops,” she said, as a car whizzed past. She was in a hurry. “I don’t want to keep the kids waiting too long,” she said.

The “kids” were a group of 30-something Swiss business professionals in town for an executive training camp. Olivia was going to field questions about her book, and though she doesn’t always like speaking to small groups, which can trigger her introverted side and sap her energy, she likes Q&As for their informality. “I don’t need to prepare anything,” she said. “I can just show up and see what they need to learn.” It was one of several pro bono jobs, including speaking gigs and coaching sessions, that she accepts every year.

We arrived at a small, chic industrial space not far from Olivia’s apartment. The room was split between a lecture area and a series of desks occupied by technology startups. Extra monitors and granola bars littered the tables, at which half a dozen workers typed away on their laptops. Olivia set up in the back of the room as the visitors shuffled past the programmers and took their seats. In an untidy hand, she wrote a single word in green dry-erase marker: “charisma.”

When she addresses large groups, it’s easy to see why Olivia is one of the best-known speakers on charisma coaching. I watched a video of a talk she gave last year at Stanford, to over a thousand students, and she appeared professional and poised. Asked a question, she would hesitate just long enough to seem thoughtful and confident. She seemed to connect with individuals in the audience, and to hold the attention of the group itself.

This was not one of those days.

She began with “Sprechen Sie Hochdeutsch?”—do you speak Standard German? Olivia speaks fluent German, but there are several regional dialects. No, they said, they spoke a different form of Swiss German. “Oh God,” she mock lamented. The audience laughed politely.

She curtsied.

In English, she launched into a summary of her book, explaining how the brain can be rewired for almost anything, including innovation and charisma. Audience members jotted down notes on yellow legal pads. Most were male project leaders interested in increasing the efficiency of their teams. Olivia suggested a few techniques. Why not have employees brainstorm while playing with pieces of play dough? She threw a few plastic tubs into the crowd. Pink and purple globs spread from person to person.

A woman with long wavy brown hair raised her hand. She looked slightly younger than the others and was one of only a few women in the group. “Excuse me,” she asked in a high-pitched, sing-song voice, “but how do you—”

“Stop,” Olivia interrupted. “Come on up here.”

The woman’s blue eyes grew wide. She dusted off her tight white jeans and pink blouse. Hesitantly, she rose and walked to the front of the room, facing her colleagues. They stared back in anticipation. Olivia stood next to her and told her to ask her question again.

“Um, I was asking, how do you prevent someone from—”

“You need to take up more space,” Olivia said, interrupting again. She repositioned the woman so that her stance was wider, like an action figure. “Give up cute and sweet. No one will take you seriously. Try projecting your voice.”

The woman nodded, but her posture hunched. She looked back at her seat.

“Now talk to the back of the room. See that stuffed animal?” Olivia pointed to a toy donkey on a desk further back. “Say, ‘Come here, donkey.’” Her voice was clear and firm.

“Come here, donkey,” the woman said. It sounded more like a question than a command, as Olivia pointed out. The audience started to chuckle. Several leaned forward in their seats. Try again, Olivia said.

And again.

And again.

Olivia’s coaching style is not for everyone. She has a gift for identifying her clients’ social weaknesses, just as she once identified them in herself. When something really irks her—a simpering tone, breathy uncertainty, poor posture—she says she cannot help but take immediate action. Since Olivia has honed her social awareness, to sit and do nothing would be to endure the social equivalent of nails scraping on a blackboard. Her critiques are harsh, but an expected part of the process when she coaches a private client, who pay up to $100,000 for six months of unlimited access to Olivia’s advice. Before she agrees to work with a client, she usually ensures that he or she is open to this brand of critique. But on days like today, when her feedback is unsolicited, the reactions are not always positive.

“It’s about a fifty-fifty chance that they won’t take it well,” Olivia said when I asked her about it after the talk. “Half the time people end up loving the honesty. The other half of the time, they see it as plain awkward.”

From an observer’s standpoint, it was awkward. Olivia’s technical message was clearly coming through (she next decided to help the woman with the volume of her voice by suddenly pushing on her diaphragm), but she seemed so focused on the end goal that, to use her own terms, her internal and external skills were falling short.

After several more attempts, Olivia released the woman from her grasp. “You can do it,” she told her, and stepped back to observe her creation.

The woman furrowed her brow, fixing her gaze on the fuzzy brown stuffed toy in the back of the room. She widened her stance and let her arms fall to her sides. She took a deep breath.


The audience clapped, and despite the blush rising in her cheeks, she smiled.

“Better,” Olivia said, with a look of genuine pride. She patted the woman on the back. “Good girl.”

FOR THE PAST FEW YEARS, Olivia has been a regular at the invitation-only Renaissance Weekend events, which attract senior politicians, Nobel laureates, venture capitalists, and Hollywood screenwriters, as well as a Pulitzer winner or two. The organizers have even granted her a special privilege, a sign of her insider status: the power to invite others. The first year she brought two. Now she brings over 20. It’s got to the point where her posse has adopted a club name of sorts. She swears they chose it themselves: “The friends of Olivia.”

This circle—Olivia’s clients-cum-friends—expands ever outward. She recently contracted with Penguin to write a second book, this time with her friend and fellow coach Judah Pollack, about how entrepreneurs can increase innovation. And last May she was appointed the director of innovative leadership at StartX, a nonprofit set up to accelerate the development of Stanford’s top entrepreneurs. Olivia prides herself on her intuition; she claims that she can determine whether a person will be successful within a minute of being introduced. At least in terms of the future of business coaching, she seems to have got it right.

By 10 on the night of Olivia’s house-warming party, most of the guests had moved on to other festivities. She smiled as she shooed the stragglers out, reminding them that she had to pack for an early-morning flight to New York. Then she removed her earrings and her shiny red shoes. She took off her tights and threw them to her foster puppy, which used its teeth to test the limits of their stretchiness. Then she packed: a toothbrush and makeup; non-wrinkle outfits in her favorite power colors of black and red; noise-cancelling earphones for the plane; earplugs for the hotel; and, finally, a small stack of well-worn photographs that she takes on every trip.

Olivia spread the pictures out on the bed and looked at the faces of the people she considers closest to her. Pollack, her fellow business coach. Shoshana, her meditation teacher. Christien, her favorite cousin, long since passed away. The Dalai Lama, whom she’s never met, but keeps as a focus on the idea of mindfulness. The photos were a mixture of friends and teachers and totems. They help her remember all she has built for herself. When Olivia arrived at her hotel room the next day, she would spread the pictures out on the anonymous countertops to infuse them with a sense of warmth. It wouldn’t quite be home, but sometimes it’s enough to pretend.

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This story was written by Teresa Chin edited by Jim Giles, fact-checked by Cameron Bird, copy-edited by Tina Lee. Photography courtesy of Sarah Rice. Ian Parkinson narrated the audio version.


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