Dear Mr. Molloy:
I am a 52-year-old executive in a marketing firm. I have worked for this company for the last 24 years and over that time developed a reputation as one of the more creative executives of the organization. I did so by developing marketing programs for a large corporation which was so successful, that one is being used as an example of good marketing in masters programs at several universities.
Nevertheless, I face a major problem. Three weeks ago I made a presentation to the executives of one of the largest computer companies in the world. In the end I sold the program but it took a great deal of effort and there is no reason that should have been the case. In the past when I made similar presentations the reaction of most clients was that I was interesting and innovative, even when they did not buy the proposal. I definitely did not receive that type of reaction from either that client or a second client I met one week later. I felt like I was 24 and starting over again, they questioned the most fundamental things about my presentation.
I’ve been a fan of yours for many years and decided to research my problem. I have several engineers in my department and I gathered them together and asked if I changed my presentation in the last year. Four of my most senior engineers said they saw no difference. Three disagreed, they said I lost some of my enthusiasm and the youngest member of the group said since I had changed from salt and pepper to gray that made me look older. I’m in excellent shape and have a young face. After some discussion the consensus was that I didn’t dress as well as I did a few years ago and I should upgrade my wardrobe. They said I also chose the wrong colors because I’m very fair and sometimes with my gray hair and white shirts I often look washed out. Almost everyone agreed that sometimes I looked bland.
I would like your input and your advice. Particularly about the type of clothing I should wear when making a presentation. I would also like advice on how I can improve my image as I age. Please don’t tell me to dye my hair, I’m never going to do that. My wife dyes her hair and it is a constant job.
Names and Addresses Withheld
I ran across your letters while researching problems faced by managers as they get into their 50s and 60s. When I receive several letters on the same subject I usually answer the one that encompasses most of the questions. In this case it is impossible because actually as your letters demonstrate looking older creates different problems in different industries. Although each question requires its own answer I think we can for the sake of this question divide the business world into those who dress traditionally and those who dress casually. That is why I’m writing this blog on a Monday of the second week because it covers two subjects and is twice as long as a normal blog but cannot be separated because they are closely related.
I talked to several of the men and women who wrote to me about the subject and came to the conclusion that while doing research is usually a way of solving problems it does not work in yours or similar cases. The idea of the person in charge asking those who work for him to give honest feedback on anything he or she does is just plain silly. Just think about it, if you are asked by your boss to give him feedback on his dress and image your main concern would be your career not his. As a result, your answer would be to put it politely diplomatic, you certainly wouldn’t say anything that might annoy or upset him. While I am flattered that my friends would follow my approach to solving problems, I suggest if you asked your subordinates to comment on your image you ignore their answers.
If a man in his 50s or 60s wished to be seen as an authority figure he should stick to traditional blue and gray suits. The only thing I would add today is if they are appropriate in your business, since today many of the industries that insisted on traditional dress in the past now have adopted casual dress codes. If you work for a traditional company in a traditional industry and dress suitably I suggest that you give your wardrobe a bit more panache when you’re giving a presentation. Keep in mind, you must present a consistent image or you will lose credibility. Even if you work in a traditional business where you’re expected to dress traditionally never wear a white shirt when speaking, blue or blue pinstripe will make you more effective. Avoid end on end blue shirts for reasons I cannot explain our recent research showed that they do not work well on speakers.
Your refusal to dye your hair is a common reaction. However, it doesn’t solve the problem. Our research shows if you have gray hair people do not think you are as able as someone whose gray hair is dyed. Gray hair certainly makes you look older and as a result you are treated differently. Because my hair turned gray in my early 30s my trips to Home Depot were typical of how most people react to a man with gray hair. I regularly shopped in that store picking up bags of mulch, rocks and so forth. When my hair was gray and that was most of the time I parked right in front of the door and loaded my car. However, when I dyed my hair I was invariably told to move my car. The person in charge of the loading area assumed that I was able to carry those bags down to my vehicle. Not only did the employee in the parking area respond to me differently when I was gray, so apparently did TV audiences. I found very early in my career that if I dyed my hair I had greater credibility with the audience in the studio and the audience at home and as a result when I dyed my hair I sold more books.
However, I must point out that dying your hair only sends a positive message if you do it correctly and maintain it. You will be better received if you choose a color which is identical to or similar to the one you had when you were young. That makes it less likely it will look artificial. If you never dyed your hair before you might consider going to a salon and have an expert do it. Although most of these establishments have been designed for women there are some that cater to both men and women. I’m sure you will feel more at home in one of them.
You also wanted to know how you could be effective with high-tech people. With that group looking old or out of date created serious problems even for managing engineers. When we questioned engineering managers, we were surprised to hear that they often face similar problems to yours when they hit their 40s, 50s and 60s. Their main complaint was they spent much of their valuable time answering what they considered dumb questions. Their expertise was either questioned or ignored by some of the young engineers who worked for them.
This actually created a Catch-22 situation. If they gave in and dressed more like their subordinates they were often treated as equals not as more experienced, better qualified engineers. When they continued to wear casual executive attire which is standard in many high-tech companies they maintained their authority but lost some of their technical expertise in the eyes of some subordinates. Nevertheless, the vast majority of managing engineers decided that looking like they were in charge helped them manage their people better.
Their complaints fell into two categories. While engineers are supposed to solve problems on their own many young engineers apparently waste their time reinventing the wheel. These managers complained that time and again they found young engineers wasted time and money solving problems that had been resolved years earlier. Another habit of young engineers that wasted time and money was when a manager told them to do something they expected him to explain why he made his decision. Most managers thought that was a waste of time.
One gentleman who had a Masters degree in electrical engineering from MIT and an MBA from Harvard was so annoyed by this problem he gathered his team together and said the following. When I tell you to xxxx ,don’t question it, just squat and strain. He went on to explain that many of the young engineers while they understood the technicalities of problems usually had not worked out a cost benefits analysis. He explained he made that statement because his boss actually came to him and said a young engineer had come up with a superior way of solving a problem that existed for years. He quickly explained that while that was true, using his solution would cost 13% more to produce the same product. His boss immediately backed off but he was offended that the young engineer’s suggestion was even considered.
The most significant problems however are faced by those who come from the outside as consultants to sell solutions to nontechnical problems to technicians. They found unless they looked like techies their advice was often not taken seriously or questioned by people who knew little to nothing about the subject under discussion.
In most cases when you’re selling to high-tech people it is appropriate to dress as if you are one of their executives. This is the opinion of most successful salespeople. However, there is a substantial group who follow my advice, if you normally wear a suit when you arrive wear a suit but before you start to sell take off your jacket and tie. When you leave, put them back on. They believe it adds to their authority and the research backs them up in the majority of cases. Since it doesn’t back them up in all cases I think the decision has to be made by the salesperson based on their past experience with that company.
Of course if you are in a field, eg. accounting or law, where everybody expects you to wear a traditional suit, you should. Even techies will think less of you if you do not.
As you can see selling to high-tech people is tricky. No one with any common sense can ignore how techies react to the messages sent by salespeople since they impact a substantial percentage of the purchases in business today. It is an area I intend to continue to look at and I will report to you regularly in this blog on what I find.