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M. on Image In The Workforce

Originally published in AARP

Can the Right Image Land You the Right Job?

Image experts spill their secrets on how to walk, talk and dress for success

By Victoria Scanlan Stefanakos / January 11, 2013

A recent study at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business is turning image on its head. In it, test subjects perceived men with shaved heads as more masculine, taller –and even greater leaders –than those with longer or thinning hair. Surprised? Don’t be: An image that conveys confidence—like men who embrace their middle age—never goes out of style.

Like it or not, impressions count as we look for jobs and climb the corporate ladder. “We know that 55% of our first impression is a visual one,” says image consultant Susan Fignar, who specializes in executive presence. “People hire people not only because they have the skill set of the organization but because they also look the part.”

The right image can help your co-workers and employers perceive you as more powerful, more able and more trustworthy with important projects. Prospective clients and employers size you up quickly, based on your physical appearance and how confidently you carry yourself. A strong image puts others at ease.

Even smart, seasoned workers can use a tune-up on personal image. Here’s how to retool yours:

Do a self-assessment.

Start by taking a good look in the mirror. Make notes about what you like and don’t like about your appearance. What do you feel most confident about? What clothes flatter you? How would you describe your hair, makeup, facial hair, best suits, favorite dresses, shoes or glasses? Do you feel rested and healthy? Try to remember the last time you went shopping for clothing or invested in your appearance and well-being. Write it all down.

For some people, simply taking the time to take stock in themselves can be motivation to make improvements they know are overdue.

Ask for help.

Ask someone you trust to list three of your strengths and three ways you could improve, suggests Fignar. Listen to how people introduce you. If they note that you’re a connector, an idea generator, or a gifted teacher, remember those qualities and mention them when you’re asked to describe your strengths.

Request performance reviews. During your review, listen carefully to what your supervisor is saying and not saying. If she doesn’t know about accolades you’ve received and bottom-line impact you’ve made, you’re not sharing these results—and you should. If she does recognize all of your contributions, keep it up. Take notes and ask questions about what you can do to improve.

Consider hiring a professional. Image consultants are trained to take an impartial view of you—including your physical appearance, your behavior and your communication style. They can guide you on everything from a new hairstyle and wardrobe choices to improving your speaking voice, etiquette, and making a positive first impression (learn to ban the word “um”). You can search for ancertified image consultant near you through The Association of Image Consultants International. Enlist the help of someone you’d like to emulate—a personal shopper or friend who projects confidence and professionalism—to recommend clothes that suit you, too.

Upgrade your image.

A great haircut, attractive glasses, good-fitting lingerie and shape wear, and a fashionable suit cost money. But it’s money you’ll be glad you spent to help you earn more confidence and power, Fignar says.

Where you work, or where you want to work, should guide your image. A gray-haired manager considering a move to Microsoft, where the median age is about 30, would do well to color her hair. Facial hair is tricky: A goatee or beard is okay only if it’s trimmed and your workplace is informal; a clean-shaven face is always appropriate.

Your image isn’t limited to how you look in person, either. Fignar says your virtual presence is critical, too. “Be approachable, intentional, and memorable,” she says. Use email as a friendly but formal business conversation, not a text. Put a small mirror near your telephone and monitor your energy level while you speak. Record a friendly, professional outgoing voicemail message that isn’t rushed or flat. Online, remove any inappropriate images of you from Facebook and have a professional headshot taken for your well-crafted LinkedIn page. “It’s your personal website, so make the most of it.”

Mary Beth C. Sales, whose strategic image consulting spans corporate and entertainment clients throughout Los Angeles, agrees. “We all have a range of style that feels authentic to us,” she says. “You have to adapt to your audience, and look the part, but be yourself.” You, only better:

  • Look good. Wear fashionable, well-fitting clothes. (Sales likes lavender dress shirts paired with gray suits on men in all but the most traditional settings. She says women who pull their hair back look like they’re ready to get to work. And while women should only wear round-toed shoes (square toes are too masculine), men in Prada loafers ooze hip success. Just be sure to walk tall, too.

  • Make yourself powerful. Harvard Business School professor and social scientist Amy Cuddy explained in a recent Ted talk that you can change other people’s perceptions—and your own body chemistry—simply by changing body positions. Before your next interview or client meeting, spend two minutes in a bathroom stall in a “power pose”—hands on hips, feet shoulder width apart, ala Wonder Woman. Your testosterone will rise and your cortisol, or stress hormone, will fall. Your self-confidence will put others around you at ease.

  • Feel your youth. Aim to speak the language of younger workers around you. Be conversational, but not sloppy. For boomers, adjusting to a younger audience can be as simple as freshening up your look and getting to know what’s new with the 20-somethings in your world. If you act like you already know everything about your field—and many boomers do—you close yourself off to opportunities, Fignar says. Instead, be open, optimistic and curious. Ask folks what trends they see happening in their industry; they’ll be flattered, and you’ll be energized.

Bear in mind, the competitive modern workplace spans four generations. And while we all look and behave differently, we’re more co-dependent than ever.

“If you’re not getting what you want, you may need to step up your game,” Fignar says. “A lot of people never invest one penny in their personal and professional image. But business life is all about relationships—the way you relate to others and how they relate to you.”

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