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Beards on Business Leaders: A Strength or a Curse?


Thinking about growing a beard? There are some issues you need to consider.

We know a few things about what people want in their business leaders, especially male business leaders. A Journal of Applied Psychology study showed employers preferred athletic men of average build, and theorized that a man could earn an extra $700 per inch of height. But is it acceptable for men to have beards?

CEO of Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein
Beards seems to be catching on with CEOs. A few daring CEOs wear mustaches of the Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck variety, such as Edwin Catmull of Pixar (NYSE:DIS), Zack Nelson of NetSuite (NYSE:N), or Russel Simmons, co-founder of Yelp (NYSE:YELP). CEO of American Apparel (NYSEAMEX:AA) Dov Charney is well-known for his eccentric facial hair, but his reputation among co-workers is not necessarily one that most CEOs aspire to. Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS) CEO Lloyd Blankfein's new scruff, which borders on a closely trimmed beard and a five o'clock shadow, may be game-changer, however. It is unusual for CEOs of major financial institutions to embrace facial hair. Richard Parsons, former CEO of Citigroup (NYSE:C) would be a rare exception to the rule.

Beards are generally more popular among a younger set of CEOs. Stuart Butterfield of Flickr (NASDAQ:YHOO) and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia are examples of an increasing number of new tech company leaders bucking the behavior of corporate culture. The late Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs, with his neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard and black turtlenecks, is one of the best examples of how the image of a CEO has morphed over the years. His authority was not diminished as a result of his independent style. It reflected his role as an innovator. (See also: Steve Jobs: Myth Vs. Reality.)

A younger Steve Jobs
Image consultant to CEOs and executives, Sue Jacques, based in Canada, tells Minyanville she advises business leaders to think it through before they grow a beard. She suggests CEOs grow their beards on vacation to ensure their colleagues don't see facial hair in its half-grown ugly-duck phase. Arriving at work with a partially grown beard can have a negative impact on your success. After all, it can be hard to do serious business with someone who looks like they just rolled out of bed after a bender," Jacques said.

She also advises to keep beards at a consistent well groomed shape, ask for honest feedback from others, and finally, to update your headshot.

"People may be reluctant to tell you if your beard doesn't suit you, your position or the corporate brand. Ask a few people whose opinions you value if your new look is flattering and appropriate. Also, make sure your facial-hair style suits your head-hair style. You may need to consider a different haircut to complement your new look."

CEO of Netsuite Zach Nelson
For those who can't afford to break the rules, however, beards are not advisable. If you're unemployed or looking for a new job opportunity, clean shaven is still best, according to recent studies.

A 2003 University of Sao Paulo study showed a North American bias against beards in hiring decisions. Sixty percent of personnel managers said they preferred clean-shaven men as a boss, compared to 15% who preferred a bearded boss. Another 2003 study "The Influence of Appearance on Personnel Factors" found something similar: Bearded men were promoted to managerial positions at lower rates than their clean-shaven co-workers. Those surveyed under the Sao Paulo study also associated beards with left-wing political preferences, an assumption that could hurt your chances of finding work, depending on your employer's party affiliation. The European Journal of Psychology published a study that found bearded men were also more likely to be seen as unconventional.

LinkedIn (NYSE:LNKD) recently posed the conundrum of beard or no beard when it linked to a CBS story about hiring biases, prompting plenty of replies from members. Doug White, a Business Solutions Architect at Business Intelligence, also commented, saying there was one important factor the commenters weren't considering: body language.

"The human brain is acutely aware of, and tuned to faces and expressions. A key responsibility of a CEO is communication," White commented. "With the availability of clean-shaven alternatives, why select and keep someone who intentionally dials down the bandwidth of a vital skill by masking expression behind facial hair (full beard) or creating an eye-drawing distraction (mustache)?"

The bottom line for aspiring business leaders is this: Keep it trim if you want your beard to complement your face, not distract from it.

(Also see: First Video of Steve Jobs Movie Is Scene That's 'Totally Wrong': Woz)
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