Do first impressions really matter? While they shouldn’t, the reality is that they most certainly do. As the old saying goes “you only get one chance to make a first impression,” and often times it is the perception of appearance that determines whether or not you are even afforded the opportunity to get up to bat. The truth is most people when first meeting someone will quickly attempt to size them up. Whether consciously, or unconsciously, they will make quick value judgments in an effort to assess your credibility and flesh out your agenda. In today’s post I’ll examine how managing appearances can have a substantial impact on your personal brand and your success.

In a perfect world, professionals would only be judged solely on their character, skill sets, competencies, and performance. But alas, we do not live in a perfect world. While appearances shouldn’t matter, the reality is that the car you drive, where your office, the clothes you wear, whether you’re in good physical shape, the vocabulary that flows from your lips, the company you work for, the publicity and PR you put out, whom you choose to associate with, how you appear online (social networking platforms, search engine results, etc.), and any number of other appearance specific issues can add to, or detract from, the strength of your personal brand.

I want to be clear that I’m not advocating for form over substance, extreme self-indulgence, narcissism, or masking insecurity by the trappings you surround yourself with. Rather, I am a proponent of paying attention to detail and facing reality. Even the most discerning people make value judgments at the subconscious level – it’s only human nature to use the power of observation in an attempt to validate perception. We want those with whom we work to not only be competent, but there is also an innate desire to have them look the part as well, as those individuals we choose to associate with will oftentimes influence other’s perceptions of us.

In most cases, the old saying perception is reality isn’t too far off. If the right person, enough of the right people, or even enough of the wrong people believe something to be true, it may not matter that they’re wrong. Perception can in fact shape reality, even if said reality turns out to be a false reality. Managing impressions, perceptions, and opinions is important if you want to be in a position of influence. Put simply, what people think of you matters. We’ve all met many an individual quick to state “I don’t care what people think of me.” The person who utters this statement usually cares very much about what people think. If they don’t they are either very naïve or very arrogant.

While the next statement might seem a bit callous, I believe it’s true as it relates to both personal and professional relationships. At a base level, most people will very quickly attempt to discern whether you are a person of significance or insignificance, ally or adversary, friend or foe. In most cases people will perceive you in one of two ways – as a person who can help them, or as a person who can hurt them. Which camp you fall into will largely determine whether or not you’ll be included or excluded – whether you’ll be part of the inner circle, or to relegated to the periphery always finding yourself on the outside looking in.

Let me be transparent and use my personal situation as an example. I actually prefer to play to the middle in that I am neither understated nor overstated, but I am comfortable with who I am and my approach to the market. While I will dress in a suit and tie when appropriate, you’re much more likely to find me in jeans and casual sport coat. While I have driven a variety of luxury imports over the years, at this stage of life my Chevy Tahoe seems to fit my lifestyle the best. While I have a few swiss watches, my Timex Ironman is still my favorite. I will always attempt to put my best foot forward, but like me, love me, or hate me, I simply won’t feign appearances to win business…what you see is what you get.

The advice I give to my clients is to be true to yourself, and authentic in your approach to creating a great first impression. As an example, I don’t really care what someone pays for their clothing or automobile, or even how expensive their office accouterments are, but I do notice whether or not they are well maintained and appropriate for the given situation. We’ve all witnessed the shallow attempts made by insecure people who are living large in an attempt to impress others, as opposed to creating a lifestyle that is authentic, within their means, and personally satisfying. The bottom line is that your appearance should be one that both you and your clients/customers/stakeholders are comfortable with. You should manage appearances on creating a feeling of comfort and engendering confidence…not on trying to impress. Most importantly, your family needs to be comfortable with how you conduct yourself.

While much is often said about “first impressions,” this phrase in and of itself implies subsequent impressions are made as well. Professionals must be just as diligent in their management of future appearances and impressions. I am a huge proponent of being consistent and having a high degree of continuity of impressions/appearances. If you happen to be someone who makes a great first impression, but cannot execute and/or deliver up to expectations you are just setting yourself up for failure and your clients will be even more frustrated than if they had never engaged you, to begin with. A negative experience is worse for your personal and corporate brand than no experience at all.

Here’s the thing – it is not about how much you spend or spin, but the authenticity, integrity, and appropriateness of how you manage your appearance that matters. When who you are on the inside is completely congruous with who you portray yourself to be on the outside you’ll find that life will just seem a bit more enjoyable. Disingenuous and insincere positioning may get your foot in the door, but when the door slams into your backside as your engagement or relationship blows-up, don’t say I didn’t warn you…