Does Appearance Matter?

So, do appearances really matter? They shouldn’t, but the reality is that they most certainly do. As the old saying goes, “you only get one chance to make a first impression,” and often times it is that initial perception that determines whether or not you are even afforded the opportunity to get up to bat. In this week’s column I’ll examine how managing appearances can have a substantial impact on your personal brand and your success. In a perfect world professionals would only be judged solely on their character, skill sets, competencies and performance, but alas, we do not live in a perfect world. While appearances shouldn’t matter, the reality is that the car you drive, where you office, the clothes you wear, whether you’re in good physical shape, the vocabulary that flows from your lips, the company you work for, the publicity and PR you put out, whom you choose to associate with, and any number of other appearance specific issues can add to or detract from the strength of your personal brand. I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for form over substance, extreme self-indulgence, narcissism, or masking insecurity by the trappings you surround yourself with, but I am a proponent of paying attention to detail and facing reality. Even the most discerning people make value judgments at the subconscious level as it is only human nature to use the power of observation in an attempt to validate perception. We want those with whom we work to not only be competent, but there is also an innate desire to have them look the part as well. Let me be transparent and use my personal situation as an example. I’m a professional advisor that works with a very high-end clientele. My job is to take very successful professionals and make them even more successful. While I would like to believe that I would be judged solely on the merits of my qualifications, the reality is that I know I’m judged on EVERYTHING my clients see and hear that relates to their perception of my ability. For instance, if I drove-up to your office in a beat-up Honda, wearing old tattered clothes, a generally disheveled appearance, and a very laid-back attitude would that first impression color your opinion of my ability? Sure it would. Likewise, if I drove up in a new Bentley, wearing a $3,000 custom tailored suit, sporting a fresh manicure and a GQ hair-cut, along with an attitude of arrogance would that also color your opinion of my ability? If not, it should. The overly slick professional always makes me want to grab my wallet and run. I actually prefer to play to the middle in that I am neither understated nor overstated but I am comfortable with who I am and my approach to the market. The advice I give to my clients is to be true to yourself, authentic in your approach to appearance, while striving to put your best foot forward in making a positive first impression. As an example, I don’t really care what someone pays for their clothing or automobile, or even how expensive their office accoutrements are, but I do notice whether or not they are well maintained and appropriate for the given situation. The bottom line is that your appearance should be one that both you and your clients/customers/stakeholders are comfortable with. You should manage appearances on creating a feeling of comfort and engendering confidence not on trying to impress. While much is often said about first impressions, this phrase in and of itself implies subsequent impressions are made as well. Professionals must be just as diligent in their management of future appearances and impressions. I am a huge proponent of being consistent and having a high degree of continuity of impressions/appearances. If you happen to be someone who makes a great first impression, but cannot execute and/or measure-up to expectations, you are just setting yourself up for failure and your clients will be even more frustrated than if they had never engaged you to begin with. A negative experience is worse for your personal and corporate brand than no experience at all. At the end of the day it is not about how much you spend or spin, but the authenticity, integrity, appropriateness of how you manage your appearance that matters. Disingenuous and insincere positioning may get your foot in the door, but when the door slams into your backside as your engagement or relationship blows-up don’t say I didn’t tell you so.