From the April 2008 issue of Wealth Manager Web • Subscribe!

April 1, 2008

Professional Presence

Two advisors walk into a room full of potential clients, but only one attracts their attention. He has grace, style, and something special you just can't put your finger on. He adds energy to the room and in the end, everyone--including the most sought after client--wants to talk to him. Which advisor are you?

Russ cuts across a crowded restaurant like a hockey player on new skates. He has a sunrise smile and a crisp, dark suit that causes busboys to hop out of his way and people to look up from their plates. Russ smiles and moves on. He shakes hands with a supple and warm grip as if he were pulling you from an icy lake and happy to do so. Once seated at the table, he's eager for conversation and listens attentively, never fidgeting or mumbling. He is a man stripped of all distractions--leaving just his presence, friendly and inviting.

Meet Russ Carpentieri, described by his colleagues as "the most charismatic" wealth manager in the business. Russ (he does prefer Russ if you ever meet him) accepts the moniker as any charmer would: with humility.

"I like a guy who is humble and low-key," he says. "A smart and reserved person appeals to 95 percent of all people."

Carpentieri has spun his grace and charisma into a successful business. In 2002 he founded the Opus Advisory Group, a wealth advisory and benefits management firm with more than $3 billion in assets. His professional presence has been with him the entire way--a mixture of hard work, confidence and a genuine interest in the welfare of his clients.

"When a salesmen walks into the room you can spot them right away," he says. "When we started this business we wanted to change the entire philosophy of the financial services industry."

In order to maintain high-net-worth clients, Russ says reputation is paramount. That requires honing an authentic professional presence to ease a client's fears. Cub advisors may know the dollar's value in 12 different currencies, yet they were never taught how personality can actually enrich a client relationship, making it easier--and more profitable--to do business. Even seasoned managers are often ignorant of the principles of professional presence.

In fact, professional presence has component parts--distinct ingredients that when combined, create a polished image that can give every advisor an extra-competitive edge.

The Wardrobe

Consider Mr. Dowdy. A vice president for a financial services firm, he was brilliant and hard working. After 15 years in the business he was impressing his manager, achieving success, and being groomed for something greater. But one day the CEO called him in for a talk.

"He looked out of it," says Samantha von Sperling, an image consultant who was called in to rescue Dowdy. "He hadn't updated his wardrobe since he first started; everything looked worn and like it was bought 30 pounds ago."

Von Sperling, who runs Polished Social Image Consultants, is one of a growing number of image consultants who cater to business executives in need of wardrobe assistance. For her, professional presence starts with an executive's appearance. Clothes are part of the package and as important as the sales pitch or the degree on the wall: "A sloppy wardrobe means the account will be sloppy too," she says.

"Your client's eyes will always go to the extremities," she continues. "That's why the two most important things are a good haircut and polished shoes."

Von Sperling says the role of extremities is crucial, adding that fingernails should always be trimmed and there should always be a power watch on the wrist. "People notice these details, especially if it's the first meeting."

All too often von Sperling works with clients who are willing to spend thousands on a suit and painfully select a tie, but then ignore the things that can diminish the outfit's power. For example, she points out that dark circles under the eyes make you look tired and less powerful. A cheap pen signals the deal isn't worth a better one. Wide bellies suggest an inability even to take care of oneself--much less a billion dollars. And successful business moguls never wear cologne that smells like marmalade--always something clean and fresh.

Von Sperling has lists of fashion do's and don'ts ("Bald is not a problem, comb-overs are."), but matching shirts and ties takes time and an eye for fashion--two things good wealth managers aren't necessarily known for.

"If you can't dress yourself, and your spouse can't dress you, hire someone," she says.

When Dowdy came to von Sperling she invaded his closet--tossing out things and making lists. Then--at the rate of $300 per hour--she took her client shopping.

Remember: Personal shoppers are charging more for their expertise than for their time. They know which stores to shop at, and they know immediately what complements a client's attributes. Shopping with von Sperling is not an aimless venture through the mall, but a targeted quest to create a professional appearance.

"You would never dream of doing your own taxes or your own surgery, so why waste your time trying to shop when a professional can do it so much better?" she asks.

Nonverbal Communication

Juanita Ecker likes to use famous actors to illustrate the importance of good posture.

"Woody Allen is a perfect [negative] example," she says "What about his posture says he's not a very powerful person?" Ecker summons up a list: Stooped shoulders, head down, erratic hand gestures, wandering eyes, never smiles. Poor body language suggests tiredness and weakness--all the things we associate with lax behavior.

As a communication consultant, Ecker works for companies like Morgan Stanley and Lehman Brothers, coaching their new recruits on professional image and body language for the business world. The subject of Woody Allen comes up a lot.

"He actually takes up less physical space." Ecker jumps to her feet and mimics the diminutive actor by sagging her shoulders and looking at the ground. She clasps her hands in front of her body and clams her feet together. "Would you want someone like this on your team?"

Then Ecker unfolds her body.

"Now, this is how George Clooney stands," she announces. She moves her arms out to her sides and broadens both her feet by taking a half step forward. She pushes her shoulders back and her head comes up with a beaming smile. "Do you see how much more space I'm taking up? A person with presence actually inhabits more space."

A commanding professional presence, Ecker says, is one that has very few distractions. There is no fidgeting or foot shuffling. Successful advisors are confident under scrutinizing eyes and stand solid and straight; they point their chest toward whomever they are talking to and never let their eyes wander.

Naturally confident people will naturally have confident body language. The general rule of thumb offered by communication experts is to fake confidence until it comes naturally.

Verbal Communication

Dinah Day's trick for helping people improve their professional image is to record it. In her New York office at The Image Circle, Day sets up a video camera and a TV and then begins asking clients small-talk questions.

"It's amazing what shows up on camera," Day says, "It doesn't lie, and it's a non-confrontational way for powerful people to see their own shortcomings."

With the camera, business people can see and hear how others perceive them. One of the most common mistakes in anyone's presentation style is parallel communication--the "ums" and "uhs" people insert, but never notice until they play it back.

Day, who was a sportscaster and actor in previous careers, also recommends being more conscious of breathing. Breathe deeply and gather your thoughts by visualizing the key words of a sentence coming out of your mouth. Practice a presentation with your hand on your stomach to feel your diaphragm moving in and out.

Von Sperling suggests going one step further: take singing lessons.

"Yoga and singing are wonderful for helping your breathing and voice projection," she says. "Ninety percent of an impression is done through voice. You want to practice, record the sound of your voice on the phone. Take notes when you mumble or your voice gets high or squeaky. Women are notorious for squeaky voices."

She adds that vocal pitch changes how words are perceived--a high pitch indicates excitement and sometimes immaturity, while a deep voice signals experience and gives your clients reassurance that all is well. The trick is to be calm and breathe deeply through the diaphragm.

That Something Special...

But there's a wide gulf between practicing your breathing and stunning clients with your charisma. From the Greek, charisma literally means "grace" or "gift." It's something supernatural, an energy someone who has it can summon up to melt away caution and mistrust.

How can something so intangible--even magical--be learned?

"I don't think you can teach charisma," says Russ Carpentieri. "I can spot someone right away who's been to a consultant because they are so scripted and phony. You kind of feel bad for them."

According to Russ, the key to professional presence is not to be forcefully charming, but rather to just be authentic.

"I prepare for meetings by saying to myself, 'I'm going to help this person. I'm going to be a good listener.' It's a way of being genuine." Then he adds, "Even dogs and babies can smell BS. They can tell when someone is urgently selling something."

True enough, says Ecker, "But everyone has a grandmother who can be a really good person and authentic, but if they don't have a presence with a polished message, that message will never get anywhere."

For this, the consultants say, managers can get 90 percent of the way to charismatic with a refined wardrobe, confident body language and practiced speaking skills. And they even have a few more tricks for that last 10 percent.

"Someone who is welcoming and gracious has a lot of charisma," says von Sperling. Tell a joke, she says; remember how people take their drinks and the names of their kids. Let the person know he or she is the most important person in the room by genuinely listening and taking an active interest in what they say. "It only takes five minutes, and then it's okay to move on, but for those five minutes make that person the center of your attention," she adds.

Cost/Benefit

Image and communication consultants are quick to point out that the true cost of an unprofessional presence is immeasurable. When you consider that communication and reputation are the life-blood of what wealth advisors do, the consultants are right.

In real terms, the cost of not addressing professional presence might add up to loss of potential clients, longer meetings and decreased productivity overall. This applies not just to senior and associate advisors, but to everyone in the company--from the parking attendant to the intern. They can either be an asset or a liability. Small-to mid-size firms should take note that many large corporations now retain image consultants for their top executives and more are starting to offer some sort of professional training to junior employees.

Consultants typically charge between $5,000 to $8,000 for a semi-customized, full-day workshop that addresses a firm's needs. For more individualized services like one-on-one coaching and personal shopping, costs run between $150 and $300 an hour.

Is it worth it?

According to von Sperling--who may be a bit biased--the answer is a resounding "yes": "Ignorance doesn't cut it anymore. [Advisors] need to get a sense of social refinement if they want to succeed. They need to be aware of their world and how to be graceful and graceful under fire."

Charles Lane is a freelance writer based in Patchogue, NY.

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