07/31/2014 05:55 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

Appearance vs. Authenticity

Many employees are encouraged to "just be yourself," only to find their authenticity -- and their career ambitions -- constrained by unwritten office rules about appearance, speech and behavior. Professionals of color, especially, find there is a much narrower band of acceptance, and the constraints bite harder. Because senior leaders are overwhelmingly "pale and male" -- professionals of color hold only 11 percent of executive positions in corporate America -- upcoming professionals of color often feel they have to scrub themselves of the ethnic, religious, racial, socioeconomic and educational identifiers that make them who they really are.

One such long-simmering identifier that recently exploded into the public eye: hair.

When Today co-host Tamron Hall recently appeared with unprocessed hair, her natural-style sparked a firestorm on the blogosphere. Three months earlier, the U.S. Army announced an updated grooming policy that prohibited certain natural-hair styles, such as cornrows, braids, two-strand twists and dreadlocks. Some soldiers and members of the Congressional Black Caucus claimed that the new regulations targeted African-Americans serving in the military.

This is no tempest in a teapot. As Erin C.J. Robertson explained in a recent blog,
"... in America, black hair has been and remains highly political. It has been used as a yardstick, for blacks and whites alike, to measure beauty, respectability and worth."

Although rarely fought in such a public forum, skirmishes over appearance versus authenticity flare up almost daily in the corporate arena, where how you look is a key element in executive presence (EP). As I explain in my new book, Executive Presence: The Missing Link between Merit and Success, performance, hard work and sponsors may get top talent recognized and promoted, but "leadership potential" alone isn't enough to boost even the most qualified men and women into top jobs and prime opportunities. Moving up in an organization depends on looking and acting like a leader, on being perceived as having "executive presence." According to research from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI), EP constitutes 26 percent of what senior leaders say it takes to get that next promotion.

EP rests on three pillars: gravitas, communications skills and appearance. And while most senior executives (and coworkers) see appearance as unimportant in the long run -- think of Mark Zuckerberg's signature hoody -- the fact is, it is a critical first filter through which gravitas and communication skills are evaluated. That explains why high-performing junior executives often get knocked out of contention for key roles and promotions: Get appearance wrong and you're struck off the list. Conversely, cracking the appearance code opens doors and puts you in play.

But what if conforming to your organization's definition of EP clashes with your sense of self?

CTI research found that 41 percent of professionals of color feel they need to compromise their authenticity in order to conform to EP standards at their company, 37 percent more than their Caucasian counterparts. More than 30 percent of African-American women reported having experienced style-compliance issues.

Such statistics are a call for change. CTI research shows that when people feel they cannot bring their whole selves to work, they feel disengaged and unmotivated. They burn out or leave. No organization -- whether it's a corporation or the U.S. Army -- can afford to lose the contributions of any group of talent, especially over something as trivial as a hairstyle.

As our economy grows ever more globalized, and competition for market share intensifies, companies are under ever-greater pressure to innovate -- both to retain market share and to capture new markets in emerging economies and underserved markets. New CTI research shows that an inherently diverse team -- one that includes members who are female, nonwhite or of non-European origin, or LGBT -- boosts the team's innovative potential by providing critical insights into the unmet needs and wants of overlooked or underserved end users like themselves. In other words, your inherent difference can make you a valuable asset to teams -- and leaders -- who can benefit from the unique perspective that difference confers.

Ultimately, the authenticity conundrum can be solved by enabling others to recognize the value that difference brings. In today's hyper-competitive world, the organization absolutely needs you to bring your whole self to work.

At the same time, there's no doubt that we still have a long way to go. Tell us what you think: If you want to be perceived as leadership material, do you suppress your difference or embrace it? Is assimilation a smart career strategy or a sell-out, a compromise to your authenticity or just a compromise?