Have you got 'the CEO look'?

21 Jun 2010 Voices

A recruitment consultant told delegates at Acevo's Future Leaders Summit they had to 'look' like a chief executive to get the top job. Rowena Lewis questions why

A recruitment consultant told delegates at Acevo's Future Leaders Summit they had to 'look' like a chief executive to get the top job. Rowena Lewis questions why.

If I told you that your ‘look’ is more important than your credentials in getting that first CEO role, would you believe me? Probably not. If a headhunter told you that in order to obtain the top job you must ‘look the part’, would you be inclined to listen?

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Acevo Future Leaders Summit, a quick-fire set of presentations and veritable pearls of wisdom from 15 individuals sharing their experiences with an audience of aspiring CEOs. One presentation however left me cold. David Fielding MBE of Tribal Resourcing kicked off with the assertion that before we think of going for the ‘top job’ we should ask ourselves...‘do I look like a chief executive?’

A ripple of self-critique shimmied through the audience, as we were invited to assess whether our own image was up to scratch. And I was left wondering how I could be so naive as to think that our credentials and collective contribution to leadership in the sector might suffice.

Fielding went on to give an account of a recent interview with a candidate. Whilst I assume the candidate must have looked good on paper for Tribal Resourcing to have taken an interest, he made what appears to be the cardinal error of wearing a spike through his eyebrow. Fielding was compelled to say ‘talk to me about the piercing’, to which the candidate replied ‘I want to be true to myself’. Fielding’s opinion on the matter was made clear at last week’s conference: "Be true to yourself," he said, "but let’s be honest, you ain’t gonna get this job!"

Hang on a minute, have I got this recruitment business all wrong? If I were chair, looking to recruit a new CEO, I wouldn’t give two hoots about a piercing. I would be concerned with finding the absolute right person for the job, someone who demonstrates that they are capable of translating the vision into action and organisational success. There’s a misplaced sense of priorities when a search agency is prepared to make a judgement on the basis of looks rather than competencies.

Fielding suggests that us women might consider being remembered for what we can contribute, not for our dangly earrings. Similarly men cannot afford to malinger with a half-hearted knot in their tie. As icing on the cake, Fielding reminded the men in the room about gender-sensitive hand-shaking, with an appeal not to "crush a woman’s hand".

Ok, I’ve heard this kind of talk before. Let’s not delude ourselves. Image consultancies are rampaging through the corporate world making big bucks out of telling women how to ‘dress for success’. But I would challenge whether bought-in expertise on the right shade of lipstick or the optimum height of heels has standing in any workplace, let alone the sector that supposedly embraces and champions diversity.

That said, I may be hyper-sensitive to all this talk of stereotyping appearance. At the tender age of 32 I am still ID-ed at the off-licence. And I’ve been told on several occasions that I might be ‘taken more seriously’ if I changed the way I dressed or rethought my hairstyle. I could have given serious consideration to this well-meaning advice, but frankly, I have no intention of hiding behind a homogenous uniform in order to progress my career. As it happens I would prefer to be judged on the basis of my contribution rather than how I look.

Am I naive or do I represent a set of civil society that is no longer prepared to engage in a dialogue around stereotypes or to tolerate the assumption that leadership ‘looks’ a certain way? Time to challenge the status quo methinks. The fact is talent comes in different packages.

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