It’s difficult to speak about leadership potential without discussing appearances. Harder still is to give or get feedback on appearances at work without people getting defensive and emotional. Yet appearances count for a lot when it comes to choosing candidates for promotion to top  leadership positions. We owe it to ourselves to get feedback on how we look, if we want to be taken seriously for promotion.

We like to think that promotions are made according to competency and merit. Yet we can’t deny that impressions in the first 5-15 seconds matter, like it or not. The reality is we judge our leaders – presidential, political, and corporate – on appearances first and substance later.  Studies confirm that, overall, we elect and select those who are taller and better looking.

So I’m going to discuss this hot topic and encourage you, if you don’t agree, to respond to me, either here on the blog, on LinkedIn, or contact me personally, and of course, if you agree, feel free to say so and add to the conversation.

Here are three questions to ask yourself:

  • What marks us for success?
  • What exactly are bosses and colleagues looking for these days?
  • How much do superficial appearances matter anyway?

No matter how much we say we value authenticity, we can’t ignore that standards for appearances have risen and we’re judged on many more fronts – wrinkles and waistlines as well as dress and shoes. I’m not sure if we’ve always been this way and we’re just more conscious of how images can rapidly spread through the Internet and YouTube or what. It doesn’t matter. If you want to be picked for leadership roles, you’ve got to look the part.

The problem is, there are no publicly posted rules or guidelines. Like art, selection committees seem to know leadership presence when they see it. And there seem to be only unspoken rules when it comes to dressing like a leader. One expert, however, has included a chapter on appearances in her book: Sylvia Ann Hewlett, co-director of the Women’s Leadership Program at the Columbia School of Business writes in Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success:

At first glance, CTI (Center for Talent Innovation) data seems to show that appearance isn’t that important:

  • 67% of senior executives surveyed told us that “gravitas” was the core characteristic of executive presence.
  • 28% said that communication skills comprised the core.
  • 5% said appearance was at the heart of the matter.

However, from our qualitative data we found that appearance was typically the filter through which gravitas and communication skills were evaluated.  That explains why high-performing junior employees oftentimes get knocked out of contention for key roles and promotions: they simply don’t look the part. … No one even bothers to assess your communication skills or your thought leadership capabilities if your appearane telegraphs you’re clueless.

How you look, dress, and carry yourself is very personal. You can’t do much about your height; you can do something about your fitness and diet to improve your weight and body image.

Research shows that what really counts is that you take good care to look your best. It’s not how good-looking you are but what you do with what you’ve got.

But that’s not going to help you improve. What helps is getting good feedback from peers or mentors who are qualified to give it. Who can you ask about how you look? Of course, your coach can help, if you’ve got one.

What do you think about this? I’d love to hear from you.