Sunday, January 20, 2013

New Research - Extra Pounds Undermine Perceptions of Leadership Ability

While marathon training and workouts aren't  part of a senior manager's job description, leadership experts and executive recruiters say that staying trim is now virtually required for anyone on track for the corner office.

"Because the demands of leadership can be quite strenuous, the physical aspects are just as important as everything else," says Sharon McDowell-Larsen, an exercise physiologist who runs an executive-fitness program for the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership.

Executives with larger waistlines and higher body-mass-index readings tend to be perceived as less effective in the workplace, both in performance and interpersonal relationships, according to data compiled by CCL. BMI, a common measure of body fat, is based on height and weight.

While weight remains a taboo conversation topic in the workplace, it's hard to overlook. A heavy executive is judged to be less capable because of assumptions about how weight affects health and stamina, says Barry Posner, a leadership professor at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business. He says he can't name a single overweight Fortune 500 CEO. "We have stereotypes about fat," he adds, "so when we see a senior executive who's overweight, our initial reaction isn't positive."

CCL staff detected the correlation after collecting hundreds of peer-performance reviews and health-screening results from the CEOs and other senior-level managers who participate in its weeklong leadership workshops in Colorado Springs. A pair of university researchers, using data from 757 executives measured between 2006 and 2010, found that weight may indeed influence perceptions of leaders among subordinates, peers and superiors.

The CEOs of today are also more visible than their forebears and must be camera-ready at a moment's notice, composed while courting investors and ready to respond in a company emergency. Excess weight can convey weakness or a "lack of control," says Amanda Sanders, a New York-based image consultant who has worked with senior executives at Fortune 500 firms.

Companies seek leaders with physical endurance, the better to manage global businesses and solve complex problems, says Mr. Posner, who advised Dow Chemical Co. (DOW) on training high-potential global leaders in 2010 and 2011. Those leaders were instructed to build in regular time for exercise to help them withstand the constant travel and the demands of an overseas role. The training even incorporated such classes as Zumba, Pilates, tai chi and yoga, says Dawn Baker, Dow's global director of talent management.

So even if your goals don’t necessarily include climbing all the way up to the level of CEO, it’s still equally fair to assume that if the scrutiny, judgment and perception is happening on the very top of the corporate ladder, it's happening at all levels!

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