Monday, August 26, 2013

Dating and Leading: Does Height Matter?

(This post is backhauled from July 2007 but still dedicated to the late, great Dave Rossi.)

Many years ago I was sitting with my friend, Dave, in a bar in Cambridge when he looked across the room at a pretty young lady and said, “I’d like to ask her out, but it’s no use.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.  This was a guy with a 150 IQ who had spent the summer before business school being a cowboy on a Texas ranch.

“Well, she’s a 7 and I’m only a 5.”

“Come again?” I asked.

“It’s dating by the numbers,” Dave said.

“Tell me more.”

David then proceeded to spin the most elaborate theory of numerical dating that I had ever heard. I don’t remember all the details, but here’s the gist.  Suppose a guy is a “5.” (I can’t begin to explain the criteria, but you know one when you see one.) According to Dave, men typically add 1 to their score, sometimes 2, and so do women. It’s ego and self-deception. In any event, a 5 male is pretty convinced he’s a 6.

But, according to Dave’s theory, everyone wants a date who is one better than he is. So, and here’s the true problem with dating by the numbers, according to Dave: A 5 guy thinks he’s a 6 and therefore wants a 7, but the 7 gal thinks she’s an 8. So, you end up with “real 5” guys chasing “deceived 8 gals.”  Or vice versa (though mostly not).  Perhaps you’ve been there, done that.  

Now (still a year or two from meeting my lovely future wife) I’m panicked. “Is there any way to raise your score?” I asked.

“Sure.” he said. “Money.” Rich guys get 1 added, and super-rich get 2 or 3. So a super-rich 5 becomes a 7 or 8 in the eyes of others.

At that point, staring in the face of two years of business school loans, I asked meekly, “Anything else?”

“Of course,” said David. “Height.  A tall guy gets 2 and sometimes 3 points added.”

“Are you sure,” I asked? “That much?”

“Positive,” responded 5’7 ½” Dave to 5’8” Eric. “Height is better than money. Height is the best.”

Perhaps Dave had stumbled onto a universal truth, much the same way that we stumbled back to our dormitory that night.

Now come ahead 25 years [to 2007, remember]. I was traveling earlier this week and found a USA Today outside my hotel room. The cover story in the Money section is entitled Does height equal power? Some CEOs say yes. . .Some see being taller, louder, dominant as step up the ladder.  Le Gourmet Gift Basket CEO Cynthia McKay wears 3-inch heels, for example, even though she's 5-foot-9 in bare feet.  “Why? For the same reason that 6-foot-3 Don Peebles, CEO of The Peebles Corporation, puts his hand on the shoulder of shorter adversaries and crowds into their personal space when negotiating a key deal.  It's to gain a ‘subliminal sense of power,’ Peebles says.”

People of status often use height, or an inflated appearance of height, to look more powerful, says Lara Tiedens, an organizational behavior professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, who has written extensively about how executives acquire status. “They look directly at others, use an open stance and vigorous gestures, speak loudly in a deep voice, interrupt at will, and lean in close or otherwise reduce the space of others and expand their own. What does all that audacity get them? ‘Others see them as smarter, more competent and deserving of all their promotions,’ Tiedens says.”

In retrospect, one of the best things I ever did at Sensitech was hire a COO who was about 6’3” tall.  We’d go into negotiations or confrontational meetings and I’d feel like the Evil Emperor with Darth Vader at my side.  I gained two or three vicarious inches of height, an especially good thing when Death Stars were at stake.

Many executives in the article disagreed, saying the advantage of a tall CEO was a thing of the past.  One, who worked under Bill Gates during Microsoft's early days, recalled the world’s close-to-richest man was of slight build and incapable of resorting to chest beating.  Under Dave’s scoring system, of course, Gates might very well add 3 or 4 for wealth and not worry at all about height.

In fact, several studies indicate that taller men are more likely to be successful and that the advantage begins early. A 2005 study in Finland found that baby boys who were taller than average by their first birthday earned more 50 years later. The last U.S. president who was shorter than the average man was 5-foot-7 William McKinley 106 years ago.   Corporate CEOs also tend to be taller, and those who aren't taller have a way of appearing so. Retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch, at 5-foot-7, makes searing eye contact and will pull his chair around to sit close in one-on-one conversations. Harold Burson, chairman and architect of the largest public relations firm, Burson-Marsteller, says he is 5-foot-6, "probably a little less now that I'm 86." 

Interestingly, he says his theory is that short CEOs rise from within the company. Executive search
firms tend to produce the 6-foot outsiders, he says.

For the record, Lincoln was 6’4” and Washington 6’2”—our tallest and greatest Presidents. That’s a little weird, that particular correlation. But, thankfully, Chester A. Arthur was 6’2”, and James Madison was under 5’4”, so that nice R-squared you were starting envision doesn’t hold.

Anyway, I tend to think, while Dave might have been a little off on the details, the fundamentals of his theory were sound.  (And, we both lucked out, don't you know, so the theory has its blessed anomalies.)  I also believe being a tall CEO has its advantages.  And if you’re not?  Well, you just have to get used to looking up into the face of danger.  But--having a 6’3” COO at your side is not a bad fallback.