Whether you like it or not, people make quick decisions about you every day based on the way you look and carry yourself. In fact, a recent Princeton study showed that, "a split-second glance at two candidates’ faces is often enough to determine which one will win an election".
I had the opportunity to sit down for virtual coffee with Sylvie di Giusto, a global executive image consultant and author of the book, The Image of Leadership. "People packaging" is Sylvie's expertise. Before speaking to international audiences on the power of image, she worked in corporate human resources.
Sarah: I love your book, “The Image of Leadership” which talks about how leaders package themselves to stand out for the right reasons. One of the main takeaways is that as a leader, you can control your clothes and the way that you present yourself to the public. Why do the small details matter?
Sylvie: While your clothes seem like a basic—and for many even irrelevant—part of your image, they are one of the numerous elements that go into building a strong personal and professional brand. They are part of a "bigger picture," kind of a puzzle that you put together on a daily base and that help you control how others see you. Because if you don't control your image and the way others perceive you, someone else will.
So when putting together this puzzle, you need to get crystal clear about what you want to express and how you'd like to represent yourself in the best possible way. Every single puzzle piece will be an opportunity for you to broadcast this message, instead of hoping your message will somehow make it into the others' minds.
Attention to detail during this process also matters, because if you don't show that you care why should other people? It's a simple leadership concept, based on the idea that if you don't take care of yourself first, people do not think you have the ability to take care of them too.
In addition, and unfortunately, humans tend to notice when you are doing certain things wrong. But they don't notice if you do them right. Therefore, the lack of, or a wrong choice can affect the way others think about you as a leader and can affect your credibility.
Sarah: To quote your book, “the most authentic leaders in the world are consistent in what they wear every day”. The first person who comes to my mind is Steve Jobs who was famous for his black turtleneck. Thinking back on my own work experience, I had a former COO who was known for wearing a Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirt every day which symbolized for many how approachable he is. As an image consultant, what advice do you have for a professional who has been inconsistent in their work style? How do they select an attire that is authentic to their personality and their industry?
Sylvie: Authenticity and consistency are vital in delivering a compelling visual message. Once you've decided how the world should perceive you, focus on your target audience next. What would they like to see in you? How can you make sure they immediately trust you and want to to do business with you? And when it comes to your wardrobe choices it's not about choosing the one or the other; it's about analyzing all the touchpoints you have in between with your target audience and finding a way to send the same and consistent message to them visually. This can go from sneakers to lace-up oxfords, from denim to suits, from tattoos "proud as you can be" to totally covered up. There is no one size fits all formula, there is just ONE formula that fits and represents you best.
Sarah: Your book does a fantastic job of addressing work stereotypes (from the office Tinkerbell who flutters around the office always smiling to the Schrute who is always the top performer but hard to identify with as a leader). If someone has been put in a box at their office--- is it often irreparable? Do high performers need a change of scenery (new job) in order to get noticed?
Sylvie: From small on, we learn that stereotypes are bad, bad, bad. However, the reality is that they exist and that they are really just a shortcut we all take because our brains, in general, are lazy. They are a generalization about how we think a specific group of people behaves. The real question is, what makes some stereotypes inappropriate, unprofessional, or unfair and keeps qualified and capable leaders from the positions they deserve to be in? And if this is the case, it depends on how much time you have and what are your chances to escape that box permanently. Because changing other people's conscious and unconscious beliefs based on generalizations about you is possible, yet it's hard and takes time. Because you are not only working on improving yourself, you are also trying to affect their thinking. Do you have time? What your chances? Is it worth it? What's in for you?
Sarah: The transition from producer to manager is a challenging process for many. It can be especially hard when you already have a professional footprint in the office and rapport with your colleagues and the dynamic changes.
What advice do you have for people who may have made mistakes early in their career (drinking too much at the holiday party or not dressing modestly), who are still working for the same company and have moved into more leadership roles? Can you repair a poor professional imprint?
Sylvie: Of course, you can! With consistency, patience, focus, and honesty, you can repair any reputation. Depending on the impact your actions had on your or someone else's reputation, it might require that you address what you have done wrong and apologize for it. We all make mistakes, yet you must acknowledge that you are responsible for your actions—and no one else. And obviously, you must commit to not repeating your behavior or any behavior similar to it. Leaving in the United States has taught me that this is a country of second chances, there are many examples of people in the public eye to prove this point. However, I do believe it's harder to get a third, or fourth, or xxx chance. Because you really must change your behavior. If you think you can just pretend to have changed, take a shortcut, or repeat a similar behavior, you'll find yourself disappointed and it will harder to change the imprint you made on people's mind.
Sarah: Having friends at work is said to boost work satisfaction by 25%. Yet, having office friends can be challenging to navigate. What advice do you have to make sure that friendships don’t create conflict?
Sylvie: Friendships at work can create conflicts on different levels: With yourself, your friend(s) and your colleagues. What if you'll have to have one of those problematic job conversations with our best friend? Will you take business conversations out of the office and how about confidential at work? Will you get stuck in a negative circle by constantly venting to each other. Will your friend's reputation have an impact on how others perceive you and your performance? What if your friend one day becomes your boss? Will your friend be accused of having a favorite team member—you? How about losing your friendship one day over a workplace conflict?
As you can see, dozens of risks come with what is being great to have—a friend at work. However, even if most of us are aware of the pros and cons, it isn't always a choice that we consciously make. Often, we grow into friendships—right there—in the workplace. What has been a new colleague just yesterday can become an incredible friend over the years.
In any case, I recommend being discreet and professional—always. Talk about the situation and the risks that are included with your friend(s), create rules and an environment that is safe for everyone involved. Yet still, in general, I recommend, choose "friendly" over friends at work.
Sarah: I polled professionals in my network, and the biggest challenge identified is the transition from being ‘one of the people’ to being ‘leader of the people’ (i.e. having to tow the corporate line, managing friendship/ relationship dynamics, etc.). Practically speaking, how does one do this well?
Sylvie: As someone who transitioned from being a "peer" to being a boss, it's crucial to understand how you're perceived and how this perception has changed for each member of your new team. Some might be happy for you, and others might think they'd have deserved your promotion. Some might feel nervous about your next steps, and others might hope to have personal advantage as a result of your career move. Therefore, the most important leadership skill to immediately demonstrate is fairness. You must show your ability to treat everyone the same, no matter your personal or professional history. Accept the reality that you are now in a different role that requires a fair and professional platform, which offers each of your team members to be the next in line. Because …. [see next question]
Sarah: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten? Did you take it? (Asking everyone this question)
Sylvie: ...great leaders do one thing well. They create more leaders.