Is Your Image Hindering Your Career Growth?Published: October 10, 2007 in Knowledge@Emory
Wondering what’s holding you back from getting a senior position in your company? Take a look in a full-length mirror: The problem may be the image reflecting back at you.
Yes, skill and talent are important, says Sherron Bienvenu, a professor emerita at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School. But looking and sounding the part of someone who is capable of heading a division or company is just as important.
“You can destroy everything positive about yourself with just one inconsistency, like a bad haircut. Maybe it's just a detail, but if you didn't think your appearance was important, what decisions will you make about product presentations?,” asks Bienvenu, a visiting professor in the international MBA program at the Helsinki School of Economics. “If your language is too casual, too formal for the occasion, biased, or anything else inappropriate, how will you talk to the board of directors?
“Bottom line: You don’t want to be excluded from a position because of a poor image.”
But exactly where does image come from? How do you build a solid professional image?
According to Bienvenu there are several steps to identifying and refining your image, which she describes as your professional brand—the perception that everyone, all your target audiences, have of you. First, explore what and who inspire you and why. “If you can articulate the specific traits, behaviors, attributes, etc., of who and what inspires you, then you can design your goals to reflect that inspiration.”
For those aiming for the top positions, look carefully at senior management, notes Bienvenu. “Ask yourself, what is it that they do or say that makes them valuable to the company?”
Second, design professional goals based on intention. “For example, you want to get a particular job and then to be successful at it. Or perhaps you are in the process of changing your job, industry, or functional area, and you want to be sure that nothing distracts from your experience and expertise as you navigate your transition. This is intention,” she adds.
The next step is to create your identity—all the ways you present yourself to your various constituencies. “Everything counts,” Bienvenu says. “What you know and how you express it—how you look, what you wear, your choices in personal grooming—where you went to school, what you majored in, what career path you choose—whom you associate with, where you go, what you do for fun. All of these factors together shape your unique identity.”
All of these factors combine to create the fourth step or image. “Your entire identity package then produces an image, which is the perception that your target constituencies have of you—your professional brand,” explains Bienvenu. “If your image is consistent with all your target constituencies and accurately reflects your intentions, you will have a solid reputation.”
Bienvenu stresses that the image you portray must meld with your given personality and values, otherwise any inconsistencies will be magnified. “Inconsistencies in identity tend to create a sense of confusion and mistrust in the eyes of the people you would most like to impress,” she warns.
For example, showing up late and under prepared to a meeting can show a lack of respect, or being rude to a server in a restaurant while you are trying to convince your supervisor that you would make an excellent and motivating manager. Other elements that can undermine your efforts, Bienvenu adds, include talking up the importance of teamwork then rarely choosing to collaborate on projects, or attending a business-social event with a significant other who is inappropriately dressed, lacks social skills, or drinks too much.
Image involves bringing out the best of who you are while fine tuning areas that could hold you back. Although this may sound simplistic or even a little manipulative, Bienvenu asserts that there is value in the details. “A really good “big picture” is created from a lot of small details. And in this competitive professional environment, you can’t risk the missed opportunity to communicate your focus, your consistency, your attention to detail.”
The Art of Communication
While outward appearance is vital to success, honing an image that includes polished verbal and nonverbal communication skills will separate you from the pack, says Molly Epstein, who teaches management communication at Goizueta. “When you talk about what not to wear, that’s at the bottom of the pyramid. Of the fifty qualified candidates, twenty know how to dress well,” she says. “The ability to make others feel comfortable, to persuade others to follow your lead, those things will take you to the executive suite.”
Epstein is often called upon by companies to coach senior executives in effective writing, presenting and meeting management.
“Many Fortune 500 companies ask me to assist in grooming someone for promotion. They may have the leadership, management and technical skills, but the company won’t promote them until they can communicate professionally—written and orally,” Epstein explains. “It can be something as simple as pronunciation, but they want to make sure that whoever gets those high level positions really represents the company in the best light possible.”
Epstein likens the corporate world to a pyramid whose bottom layer is littered with employees with similar skills. “But if you look at the skills set as you go higher up the pyramid, you begin to see that interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence—the ability to identify with people or anticipate their needs—become more important,” she explains.
Giving a great presentation is only the beginning of good communication, adds Epstein. “What is appropriate to discuss before a business meeting, when you’re hanging around and getting to know one another? That is something a successful executive will know varies from culture to culture. It’s the ability to get the nuances that make someone a great leader.”
The value of mentoring
For those with aspirations to executive level positions, a mentor is a good way to learn the necessary social and business cues. “Mentors do a good job at helping people understand the culture in which they are working. For example: for someone who has been groomed for a fast track position, a mentor will say ‘What you said in the meeting was really stupid, don’t say that. It reflects a lack of knowledge.’ Get a mentor who is honest, who understands subtleties of company or business,” Epstein says.
With strong communications skills in hand, Epstein echoes Bienvenu’s warnings on the importance of dressing the part of a senior executive. “I’ve seen senior level executive women who have lost opportunities for advancement because they dressed inappropriately,” Epstein says. “The goal is to look attractive and polished, but to keep emphasis on your skills and abilities. That means no cleavage and wearing skirts of a decent length.”
Today, television shows such as The Learning Channel’s “What Not to Wear,” and the Style Network’s “Fashion Police” and “The Look for Less,” have made the general public more aware of appropriate attire and personal grooming, says Gloria Starr, a leading image consultant, and president and founder of Global Success Strategies, Inc. Starr, who has been an image and etiquette consultant for twenty-five years, says she has never seen such intense pressure to dress for success, especially at the senior level.
Several companies have decreed that no one who is morbidly obese will be promoted to the senior vice president level or higher, she says. One Florida company even hired Starr to convince an employee to lose 100 pounds. An Atlanta company wants her to persuade two executives to lose 150 pounds each. All three men are viewed as senior vice president or chief executive officer material, Starr says.
“The employer will usually tell an employee, ‘To highlight your brilliance and talent, we’d like to send you to an image coach.’ Then I tell them, ‘My role is to guide you in presenting yourself at your personal and professional best.’”
Some aspiring employees will take their fashion cues from current senior executives. In some instances, this can be a big mistake, Epstein says. “Occasionally you’ll see pictures of CEOs dressed casually; it’s to humanize them. But for people who want to reach that position the need is to professionalize themselves.”
At Goizueta, professors help students identify what is casual, business casual and dressy business casual. If you are unsure of the company dress culture, always go one level higher, Epstein says. “You’ll still look great if you have a suit on versus feeling underdressed and self-conscious.”
The faculty and staff at Goizueta have created classes and seminars to help students navigate the world of image building. Goizueta Plus is a series of courses that focus on professional development, or “Goizuetiquette,” including appropriate business behavior, attire and grooming, Epstein says.
“Both programs require a lot of one-on-one interaction between Career Management Center staff and students,” she says. Career coaches and students conduct mock interviews on camera then analyze performances to evaluate etiquette, professionalism and language usage, Epstein explains.
Undergraduate business students have created a class, “Goizueta GQ,” to introduce ‘Goizuetiquette’ in a fun environment. Juniors and seniors are required to take seminars that focus on image issues, including how to eat a meal during a business luncheon or dinner, and what conversation is appropriate during an interview dinner.
If your work is above reproach but you are still not getting ahead, a crack in image may be the culprit. As Bienvenu says, the “little things” do count.