Hairy tales from the hairy executives at the top

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

Facial hair on CEOs is rare, even frowned upon, but those of the furry face back it up with performance.

(Excerpt from The Globe and Mail, WALLACE IMMEN, Monday, August 1, 2005

The man that DaimlerChrysler AG has brought in to save its brands sports his own distinctive insignia: a bushy, grey walrus moustache that has adorned his face since he was a teenager.

It may work for Dieter Zetsche, who, last Thursday, was named the car company’s new chief executive officer, but if you’re aiming for the corner office, a beard or mustache can actually be a liability, career experts caution.

“In general, the word on the street about facial hair is nein,” says career coach and corporate trainer Colleen Clarke, president of Colleen Clarke and Associates in Toronto.

When you look at the pictures of any board of directors, invariably the people will not have facial hair — and these are people who become the gauge of the image of success,” Ms. Clarke says.

In fact, 95 per cent of the CEOs of the Fortune 100 companies and 82 per cent of the Forbes 100 richest men in America are clean-shaven, according to a study last year by Boston-based razor maker Gillette Co.

In politics, too, the smooth look is definitely the clear-cut winner. None of the leaders of the Group of Eight sport facial hair and no American president has worn a beard or moustache since William Howard Taft’s election in 1910, according to Gillette.

No wonder. Before last fall’s presidential election, 50 per cent of 500 respondents to a Gillette survey said they believe clean-shaven men are more honest than men with facial hair.

“The wearing of beards has been seen as a . . .liability for some time, because of the historical belief that they are diabolical, unhygienic or disguise the wearer’s true face,” says Allan Peterkin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto and the author of One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair.

In business, facial hair has been frowned upon in leaders because “beards have been perceived as an expression which could range from Communist to anti-establishment,” Prof. Peterkin says.

And mustaches have become a stereotyped accessory for fictional villains, from Peter Pan’s Captain Hook to anarchist Snidley Whiplash in Rocky and Bullwinkle to Sirius Black in the Harry Potter books.

Because facial hair is so rare in executives, it can draw too much attention, Ms. Clarke cautions.

“The advice coaches always give is, when you go on an interview, you don’t want to be wearing anything that singles you out and distracts people from your skills and what you say,” she says.

“Remember in an interview if they don’t know who you are, you want them to remember your ability and professionalism before they remember what you look like,” says career coach Ross Macpherson, president of Career Quest Inc. in Whitby, Ont.

As well, Ms. Clarke suggests that “a big guy with a big moustache can be an intimidating factor” to subordinates. “If you have a ‘stand back and gasp’ moustache, you have to do something to lighten the effect,” she says.

At the same time, someone who has always sported facial whiskers might become too self-conscious and uncomfortable shaving it off, Mr. Macpherson says.

Derek Oland, chairman and CEO of Moosehead Breweries Ltd. of Saint John understands that. Years ago, Mr. Oland, who has had a beard for close to 40 years, was cajoled by family and friends to go clean-shaven.

But the new look only lasted six months. “I felt kind of naked actually. Right after you shave it off, there’s that white pasty face again and you know, the inevitable jokes about, ‘There’s that weak chin again,’ ” he says.

So he let his beard grow back. And now, he has no plans to shave it off again.

“People can think of me what they want. If you look down deep, I don’t know why I have it. It’s just there. It’s me.”

Still, too many Canadian businessmen with moustaches tend to adopt an almost identical look, complains Rick Ricci, owner of Truefitt & Hill men’s grooming salon at Scotia Plaza in the heart of Toronto’s financial district.

“They all have the same lines,” he says — straight along the top of the lip and squared off on the ends.

If you’re going to sport facial hair, give it some flair, Mr. Ricci says. “We suggest angling the ends and adding a little style.”

Still, “anything that is too dramatic is a bad idea,” says Dave Lackie, editor of Cosmetics magazine in Toronto.

He says that huge moustaches that became vogue in the 1970s are now definitely out and they make anyone wearing one look dated.

The current fashion in moustaches: the thin look that NDP Leader Jack Layton wears, rather than the huge lip bush that Mr. Zetsche favours.

“The trend is to wear facial hair very short and keep it trimmed every day or two,” Mr. Lackie says.

And any facial hair should always match the colour of the hair on your head, he adds.

“Grey can look good if you have grey hair but if you colour your hair, use a product to colour the beard as well,” Mr. Lackie advises.

So given the relative lack of popularity of facial hair on the top rungs, what’s to be said about CEOs who do choose to let a razor gather dust in the medicine cabinet?

Mr. Oland, for one, says he likes to be with others who share his hirsute preferences.

“For some reason when I meet someone who has a beard, I get to know them a little faster. There is a commonality there,” he says.

More importantly, once they’ve reached the top, few are going to quibble with those who have made the hairy choice, say the experts.

“Chief executives are a special case. When you get to the top, you can pretty well have hair like you want,” Ms. Clarke says. “If you want to wear it, wear it and if you are in a senior enough position and your accomplishments speak for themselves, that’s fine,” she adds.

“There is always room for individuality,” Mr. Macpherson adds. “A beard or moustache can become part of your brand, if you are a strong enough individual to pull it off.”

Matthew Barrett, CEO of London-based Barclays Bank PLC, sports a moustache he also had in his previous position as CEO of Bank of Montreal, “and it looks stunning on him,” Ms. Clarke notes.

As for Mr. Zetsche, he has made the walrus “part of his brand and he can obviously back it up with strong performance,” Mr. Macpherson says.