Monday, 25 October 2010

Leaders with powerful faces produce top law firms. And female leaders..?

The more "powerful" a managing partner's face looks, the higher is the ranking of the law firm they manage (suggesting that those with more "powerful" faces are more effective leaders).

So it seems from a University of Toronto / Tufts University study of top 100 US law firms in 2007 according to AmLaw, where 67 people were asked to judge 73 managing partners' faces for "dominance, maturity, attractiveness, likeability and trustworthiness" (see the press release, abstract, and full article Judgments of Power From College Yearbook Photos and Later Career Success by Nicholas O. Rule and Nalini Ambady, PDF (free for limited time), to be published in Social Psychological and Personality Science Journal.)

The measure of "power" was taken from a combo of ratings for "dominance" and "facial maturity".

The measure of a law firm's success was based on three measures of firm profits as taken from AmLaw: profit margin, profitability index, and profits per equity partner (PPP). Nick Rule (one of the authors), said:

"Moreover, just to be extra rigorous, we statistically controlled for the number of lawyers working at each firm, since size can be an issue--though mostly for firm revenues."

Previous research - military, CEOs, politicians

Previous research, mentioned in the paper, has shown that -

"West Point cadets whose faces projected dominance were more likely to become generals than cadets with less dominant faces, Senate candidates whose faces were judged more competent than their opponents won three-quarters of their races, and the more powerful the faces of CEOs of Fortune 1,000 companies looked, the more profits that their companies earned."

What's new here?

So what makes this research different? (Apart from being of interest to lawyers, of course.)

First, half the photos used were from college yearbooks rather than the law firms' websites. Yet "facial power" as judged from the "old" (we're talking generally 20 year old) pictures was almost as good at predicting law firm profitability as when evaluated from more recent website pics.

Does this mean some people are just slated for power?

Well, it appears that looks do matter, but don't think yet that your fate is forever dictated by your face. It's more likely to be t'other way round - ie that your face is shaped at least in part by your own personality and life experiences.

Certainly, from my own experience (an oh so scientific approach), it does seem that people I meet who have sour faces and downturned mouths turn out to be cold, unfriendly miseries. And people with pleasant smiley faces are usually rather nice.

Other studies (mentioned in the paper) have shown that childhood personality stays pretty much the same throughout life. And - this is just me talking here, I'm sure there has been proper research on this - I suspect people tend to be quite good at judging personalities from faces, just as a survival mechanism when interacting with other people, if nothing else.

Now here's another interesting point from the study.

Unlike CEOs in most other industries (many of whom are lateral hires), managing partners of law firms have usually worked their way up within the firm - so having a powerful face should matter less than other factors like demonstrable skills, in terms of getting them selected as leader.

And yet, whether or not a more powerful face makes someone more likely to be elected as managing partner, it still seems that managing partners who do have more powerful faces are more likely to make more money for the firm who elects them.

Human warmth unrelated to profitability

The press release also said "Surprisingly, human warmth in the face—likeability and trustworthiness—was uncorrelated with law firm profits".

Some, of course, might say it's not so "surprising", especially with law firms. A likeable leader does not necessarily a profitable law firm make.

However it's perhaps a bit more worrying that "trustworthiness" isn't related to profitability in law firms.

It's true that people assessed how trustworthy the partners looked, than rather than how trustworthy they actually were, but is there a correlation between trustworthy looks and trustworthiness? My gut murmurs, possibly - shifty eyes and all that…

And what about the women?

Now what about female managing partners, you may ask? With female leaders, does having a more "powerful" face translate to a more profitable firm?

The paper didn't mention whether there were any differences there. However, Nick Rule kindly clarified to me that -

"Four of the MPs were women. Obviously, this small number prevents us from being able to do any meaningful analyses looking at differences between perceptions of the male and female MPs. However, if we remove these women from the data set the results don't change, suggesting that they were viewed consistently with the greater overall pattern."

He also pointed to a study following the work on how judgments of power from the faces of Fortune 1000 male CEOs predicted their companies' profits, mentioned above (Rule & Ambady, 2008; Psychological Science -  The Face of Success - Inferences From Chief Executive Officers’ Appearance Predict Company Profits).

Their follow-up concerned all the female CEOs in the Fortune 1,000 (Rule & Ambady, 2009; Sex Roles - She’s Got the Look: Inferences from Female Chief Executive Officers’ Faces Predict their Success). Well worth a read as it describes other research in the area too -  fascinating.

There, they found that judgments of power from the faces of female CEOs also predicted their companies' profits. Comparing the male and female data sets from the two studies they found that there were no significant differences in the way male and female CEOs were judged along any of the traits examined.

"Thus, although the findings with CEOs don't necessarily generalize to those of law firm MPs, they do seem to follow parallel lines," Nick Rule told me.

Very interesting indeed. Perhaps when deciding which job offer to go for, you should check out the photos of their managing partners or CEOs first - whether it's because you want to join a firm marked for success, or contrariwise want one with a leader ripe for displacement whose face is weaker than yours!

Now, is anyone up for doing a study on the top 100 UK law firms…?

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