As a basic principle, I learned in my childhood that you should not give in to appearances, or to be more precise, you should look behind appearances, especially when you want to evaluate a person. Then, for decades, films have been spouting “beauty is on the inside”, which in the end has been interpreted by many people as meaning that there are actually two categories: the beautiful, who are of course empty inside, and the not beautiful, who are obviously wonderful inside. Then, when I became a manager, this cardinal rule somehow seemed even truer, because a manager decades ago was supposed to be unable to take care of himself enough to have time for his appearance. And it was only natural that the business world would rise above this. But there has been a huge shift in this area in the last decade or so, and the clichés that the managerial world has developed for itself – in defence of its own laziness or even carelessness – have now collapsed. And the pandemic is revving up this process to turbo speed.
The surface is not always superficial
I remember my very first shocking experience about the appearance of managers. I worked as a manager in Central and Eastern Europe for an international US company, where I spent more than ten years. As fate would have it, for the first three years, I had almost no contact with the US head office, but during a kick-off meeting, I was promoted, and with that promotion came an invitation to a big, early February event in Mexico. The event was hosted at a beautiful five-star beachfront hotel, which provided me with an experience that was indescribable. Continuing my history as an athlete, when I started building my career, I decided to keep moving and take my health seriously, so I trained my body regularly. I was also proud of the fact that I was very unique in the ex-Soviet region where I worked, and wherever I went in Europe, people always noticed that I looked very sporty, despite my managerial position. Well, I thought I could finally be in my element on the beach, as I knew the European managers of the company and I thought it would not be difficult to attract attention. As usual, we arrived at the hotel, and my first trip was pretty much to the beach. As well as being completely captivated by the sight of the sea, I couldn’t help but notice that the beach was full of very good-looking people. Owners of nicely “maintained” bodies were enjoying the water and the sun. I was even a little embarrassed, because I was still carrying a few extra kilos; after all, I had come from winter. What I found strange was that I didn’t really see anyone from the company as they said it was the dead season, so I wasn’t expecting simple tourists, but I figured it would at least give me a chance to meet people. I did chat to a couple of fellow beachgoers, and although they were a few years older than me, I felt like I was in my own community. We talked about a lot of things before we got to the point where we found out who was here for what. I was already surprised when everyone in the company indicated that they had come from the US for the kick-off – because they were American – but the shock came when I found out that they had been appointed as Regional Finance Director, Commercial Director for Europe, and I could go on and on with the various senior positions. It was a shock, because back home, the image of the CFO was that of an old man who smoked cigarettes all the time, who occasionally emerged from a cloud of smoke, and who had very poor posture. The kick-off went well; I had a good time, I was not unique only because of my sporty appearance, but I told myself that this was all just a privilege of the American headquarters, which is far from reality.
The effects of generational change
When I go to an event like this today, my default expectation is to get the same picture as the shock I experienced. A lot has happened in 25 years in business, but perhaps the biggest change that has had an impact on a manager’s whole life is that the boundaries between personal life and business career have disappeared, or at least become very blurred. It is no longer possible to pick up work on the way to the office in the morning, nor is it very much possible to drop it off at work as soon as you leave home. Thanks to technology, these two worlds have merged. In the meantime, the management world has also gained a lot of experience, and we have benefited from the weaknesses and mistakes of our predecessors. One of the things that we learned was that you have to take care of yourself and how you look. Of course, the emergence of young generations in the labour market has been a major stimulus to this, and looks have crept into the life of today’s management world. Which, of course, we tend to judge on principle, because we shouldn’t judge by looks, says the average person. And the average person is right! But this is a different world. The biggest challenge for managers – precisely because of the young people who have entered the market in the last ten years – is to be seen as an idol by the fresh workforce. In addition, the new generation is not full of workaholics, so they are not focused solely on their professional backgrounds. Today, it is not enough to be a very good professional; one needs to live a holistic life, such that it is written all over their body. The new generations don’t want to get sick of work; they want an environment where they can feel comfortable, obviously develop professionally, but also not be ashamed of the way they look. In fact, a significant proportion of young people go further than that. They want to see a clear sign of status where they can say, “yes, I want one of those”. It could be a watch, a branded suit, or a car that they will have to build a career around. But beware! Don’t think that these status symbols are enough on their own! Those days are over! The generation that has grown up with social media – they have lived through the conquests and scams of Facebook and Instagram as children – can see through the superficiality perfectly. They can sense exactly when someone is only strong on the outside and has no substance behind them. There is a new trend in this area. Look the part, dress the part, and have the tools that fit your professionalism, that express your business career level without over-promising it. So obviously, there are managers who have to accept that it is not enough to simply be good, you have to be able to show it, and there are managers for whom the message is that you need knowledge behind the glamorous appearance.