THE BLOG

Should CEOs Be Hot (and Should We Even Care)?

01/21/2014 12:06 pm ET | Updated Mar 23, 2014
Ethan Miller via Getty Images

Hot, pretty, handsome, beautiful -- choose an adjective, put it in front of the word "executive," and you have an article for most business news sites. At least that is what it feels like lately. Back in December, Drs. Halford and Hsu from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, published a working paper in which they examined 677 CEOs of S&P 500 Companies and discovered a positive correlation between attractiveness, as judged by facial geometry, and shareholder value. Now, as the old adage goes, correlation does not equal causation, but this study has forced us all to look at the odd, at times uncomfortable, intersection of competence and beauty in business.

Now, being a "hottie" isn't some revolutionary discovery.
Dr. Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas, Austin, actually devoted an entire book to the subject. Though published in 2011, Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful was written based off of studies he completed through the 90s, and he reached very similar conclusions to the two researchers out of Wisconsin. Attractive people tend to make more money than less attractive people, earning on average a quarter of a million dollars more over their lifetimes. They also seem to have an advantage when applying for loans, looking for jobs, and negotiating wages -- a study by the APA in Smart Money found that attractive workers earned 10 percent more than their unattractive colleagues, and that an attractive person had a 72.2 percent chance for a callback after an interview, versus 62.02 percent for unattractive applicants. As many of us already know, first impressions are important, and these studies support the notion that making a good first impression is easier for the attractive.

But beauty is only skin deep.
Reading through Drs. Halford and Hsu's working paper, I noticed that it mainly focused on short-term results. They tended to analyze stock fluctuation around event days, like the executive's first day of hire, or when a CEO would appear on the news. They also examined initial wage, and, as I already pointed out, it has been shown that attractive people are typically offered better wages. But as anyone who runs a business will tell you, successful companies are built on long-term returns. Being attractive may get your foot in the door, and help you move into a swanky new house, but if you don't have the ability or intellect to lead a company, it doesn't matter how beautiful or handsome the stockholders think you are. Lose them too much money, and you'll find yourself being pushed out the door.

Therefore, we shouldn't focus too much on executive beauty.
Admittedly, I'm adding to the problem by heaping yet another article on beauty in business onto the pile, but I feel it is important to point out the danger of focusing too much on beauty. Notably, most of the articles I've read on the subject use women for their examples of executive pulchritude. For example, in an interview with CNBC, Drs. Halford and Hsu specifically call out Marissa Mayer, CEO for Yahoo since 2012, as a prime example of the "attractive CEO." Evidently, she scored an 8.5 on a 1-10 scale of attractiveness and, since taking over, Yahoo's stock price has increased by 158 percent. But her facial geometry did not pull Yahoo out of its nose-dive. It was her business acumen, her ideas, and her unrivaled ability to communicate with her company, stockholders, and the general public that revived Yahoo.

If we focus solely on Mayer's, or any other CEO's, beauty, does that take away from their otherwise commendable accomplishments? Are we simply pointing out what society has long drilled into our mindsets - that life is easier when you're attractive -- or are we adding the issues of sexism as it affects the perceptions of women in business? The positive correlation of beauty, wage, and initial stock performance does seem to exist, and it is perfectly fine, even commendable, for an executive to embrace their looks and fight against the "beauty paradox" -- the idea that, if you want taken seriously, you have to pull all of the focus away from your looks and onto your other assets. The trouble comes when we focus too little on what they do, and too much on how they look while doing it.