Let’s talk about a subject that in its most narrow interpretation has become a bit taboo in today’s world and with good reason. That subject is how you appear to the world. The taboo part refers to all the myriad of ways we react as humans to the physical presentation of others. Some aspects of this presence are hard wired in your DNA, some could be the result of life experiences and some are under your control. We will not talk about the way the world reacts to the physical package which is often based on lizard brain level, deeply imbedded patterns that have their roots in caveman level tribalism and sometimes ugly bias. Sometimes that reaction is from more benign origins having to do with our cultural experiences and norms.
The main point about the innate reactions to physical characteristics is that people tend to have instinctively positive reactions to people like them or to a society’s current view of what is the desirable phenotype. Possessing the right “package” might have or create a positive early impression, but the main thesis of this column is that the things you can control are in the long run much more important, impactful and career affecting. So sure, the people with film star looks might have an advantage at first, but that will melt like snow in the sun without the more fundamental and important aspects of personal presentation you can control. The bigger idea is that the most important aspects of your personal presentation are things you have near total control over. Moreover, when you make an effort to optimize those things they can play to your advantage or benefit in the world of work and personal affairs to a degree larger than you realize. A partial list of those things include posture; attitude; preparation; language; sense of humor; empathy; integrity; respect for others and more. One more thing. Unless you sit behind a computer and never are seen by others grooming, fitness and attire are in the mix too. Where to start in thinking about this mix of choices?
The first place is to decide, does all this matter to you? We live in a world that increasingly tolerates, encourages and celebrates individual expressions and authenticity. This is a good thing, period. Are you willing and able to make choices that are true to self but require some change, awareness or increased focus? This is not always easy, and your individual choices are just that. At the limit if you conclude success in your environment requires changes you are unable or unwilling to make, you should leave and find a place better suited to you. Let’s assume you are in a place that you largely embrace, want to succeed, feel valued and in a rough justice way is fair and a meritocracy. Then the first thing to do is take an honest self-inventory. This cannot be an exercise in narcissism, self-loathing or denial, but must be objective, honest and accurate. None of us are perfect nor can we be, and these sorts of inventories always surface many more opportunities than we can reasonably work on let alone meaningfully improve upon simultaneously. Your objective should be to pick those things you can change that are either most limiting or can have most benefit or probably a mixture of both.
Tackle the relatively easy stuff first. Look in the mirror. Dress? Posture? Grooming? Fitness? More people miss here than you might think. Do not be one of them. Dress should be the best you can afford, not flashy, consistent with your environment and say ‘I am serious and care’. Fewer great things over many mediocre always wins. Being fit and posture say a lot about your self regard and outlook. You do not need to be a gym rat or have six pack abs but being seriously overweight can get in your way and have longer term health consequences.
The much more difficult to change presentation aspects relate to attitude, preparations, communication style, and how you work with others. These are also the presentation aspects that mean the most over time, are very apparent to others and will set you apart for good or ill. The ideals have been communicated to you in one form or another since earliest memory, so this is not news. This is one of those life goals you know to be important, are easy to describe and often really hard to sustain. So, let’s take them as a series of questions that deserve honest answers. Fooling yourself here is a disservice to yourself and career limiting at best and destructive at worst. Do I have a positive attitude and am all in for the company, my colleagues and our mission? Does it show in how I approach work, work with my colleagues and convey my ideas? In short, am I fundamentally an optimistic and positive person who is a valued and respected team member? Do I communicate clearly, when I have something to say, with respect for my colleagues and with a bias for improvement and action rather than a voice of criticism and cynicism? Am I prepared at a depth that will meet expectation at least and go beyond expectation often? Am I a person of total integrity, do not wing it and am comfortable saying I do not know when I do not? Can I be trusted and counted on to do what I say? Do I support my teammates and subordinates? Do I have the courage and skill to tell hard truths in ways that are convincing and likely to catalyze reflection rather than anger or resentment? Am I a thoughtful risk taker who will advocate for or do the things that are not certain in outcome but have the characteristic that the view is worth the climb?
The best way to summarize this large package of choices and behaviors is to think about choices. Do I care? Do I understand how I am now and the implications? What few things will I work on in appearance, attitude and behavior that can really help? Finally, how will I measure progress and who will give me caring, honest and constructive feedback? This is a journey of a lifetime, and the view is very much worth the climb. Good luck.
Harvard Business School Professor Kevin Sharer joined the HBS Strategy unit in the fall of 2012. Before HBS, he was CEO of Amgen for twelve years and before that Amgen’s President for eight. He has served on the boards of directors of Chevron and Northrop Grumman and is currently on the board of Allied Minds. For a decade he was Chairman of the board of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History. Professor Sharer is a Naval Academy graduate and has master’s degrees in aeronautical engineering and business.