Lipstick Leadership in Higher Education

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By Lori E. Varlotta

As an academic and a college president, I wish I could say I was first introduced to the idea of women doing their own thing, making their way in the big wide world, through some worthwhile book or artsy film.

But I can’t. In my parochial, supportive (in a tough-love kind of way) blue-collar community, it was cigarette ads that most helped me envision a world for women that was different from the one my beloved mother inhabited so adeptly, and mostly comfortably.

I was a young girl leafing through my mom’s pile of Better Homes and Gardens when I first saw the 1970s ads for Virginia Slims. I loved those ads. The women were beautiful and cool, and — as a preteen — I bought hook, line, and sinker into the notion that women of the day had "come a long way, baby." To me those ads said that, as a woman, you could be yourself and still thrive in your personal and professional lives.

The ads never prompted me to smoke, but they did focus my attention on political and social issues of the times. Starting at the age of 12, I had a severe case of wanderlust. I routinely announced that I would go to college (though no one in my family had), get a good job, and never "have" to get married. In retrospect, the latter was an insightful and loaded construction for a kid.

Long after my dissertation and well into my academic career, I took great pride in the fact that I was marching (mostly) to the beat of my own drum. I had become my own independent, successful self. While I was by no means a rebel in academe, I was also not particularly easy to categorize. For that reason, a few supervisors along the way hinted that I should emulate (at least in style and presentation) Senior Woman X or Senior Woman Y. Usually I was presented with only two choices, as there were still precious few women serving as college presidents or vice presidents.

But it wasn’t until 2012, when I was a candidate for a university presidency and didn’t get the job, that an important insight came into crystal-clear focus: Sometimes being yourself generates an undesirable outcome, at least in the short term. The insights came from a search consultant who gave me timely, unadulterated feedback that was both dispiriting and eye-opening.

She telephoned to debrief me right after I had received the courteous "thanks, but no thanks" call from the head of the search committee. The consultant confirmed that even though I had not been selected for the position, my interview had gone remarkably well. She said I should be thrilled that the areas in which I needed to improve were "quite simple and easily fixed."

On one level, what she relayed next was shocking — especially for the year 2012. On another level, however, it was about as fundamental as it gets. The two areas that the consultant said had jeopardized my selection as the top candidate were my physical appearance and my "too direct and data-driven" way of answering questions.

After I let out a fairly pointed, "Whaaat?" the consultant broke it down to a granular level:

  • Even though I was almost 50, I still "looked" too young to be a president.
  • My navy pinstripe business suit (six years old at the time) was not particularly chic.
  • My uncoiffed hair could be tamed a bit, and my face, bare except for a little lip color, could be more "made up."
  • At the very least, my lipstick could "pop a little more."
  • One more thing, she added: "Don’t rely so heavily on data and facts when answering questions. When interviewing women, most search committees want to see their soft side — be a little lighter and less intense … sprinkle some fluff in with your facts and data."

When I relayed all this feedback to my husband (I did get married at age 46, even though I didn’t "have" to), he very aptly replied: "You’ve come a long way, baby — but not far enough."

In hindsight, I now know I was lucky to hear such a blunt assessment. Troubling though it was at first, the consultant’s feedback turned out to be useful to know, and I took it in that vein. Putting it front and center over the course of the next few months, I ruminated about it more than I like to admit. I spoke with a few colleagues I trusted and let the critique settle in. Then I forced myself to get a little distance from it and analyze it from a third-person rather than first-person perspective.

By then, I could concede that a president’s physical appearance, presentation style, and sense of self should and do matter — in different ways, at different levels — based on the specific institution’s culture.

Most important, the experience made me realize that I needed to find a leadership post at a place that wanted me. I was willing to polish my style a bit, but I knew that sandstone never becomes granite and granite never becomes slate. So I got back in the search saddle to find a place where my best self aligned with what a college or university needed at that moment in its own evolution.

Once on the job market again, I had to admit: Maybe my speaking style was a little too formal, fact-driven, and rigid. Tweaking that delivery style made sense to me. Accordingly, I decided to keep citing facts and figures in my responses but aimed to position them within a broader narrative that would not dilute their punch.

I also agreed wholeheartedly with the consultant that I come across as a direct straight shooter. That’s because I am. It is at once a strength and an Achilles’ heel. I neither wanted to, nor really could, change that part of who I am. So I owned it, in the self-deprecating way that comes naturally to me. It allowed me to show colleagues who didn’t know me how this directness, while at first a bit intimidating, was also an avenue for getting to the stuff that really matters: engaging people (donors, alumni, campus colleagues, students) on matters of substance rather than talking with them about the weather.

As for the appearance stuff, I went back and forth on that one. I really struggled with how far I wanted to veer off my "natural" path.

It wasn’t long after that 2012 search experience that I was invited to interview for another presidential post at a small liberal-arts college. This time I was a little more relaxed during the panel interview. I told a couple of stories that illuminated the facts and figures I shared. The committee members chuckled, and I could see them visibly relax.

So how much did I change my wardrobe and makeup? Not much. OK, so I did wear mascara this time. And I did purchase a curling iron that I brought on the trip to tame my hair. The mascara and hair-curling added a good 20 minutes to my morning routine, but I still felt like me when I looked in the mirror.

I wore the same suit and I used the same lipstick (a shade of plum, in case you were wondering) as before.

A week later, I got the call and the offer.

Turns out my lipstick color was the perfect match for this college. And, in much more important areas, the fit was right as well. Happily, I have served as president here for almost six years.

As I reflect on that search process and the years that followed, here are a few thoughts for aspiring senior administrators to ponder as they embark on the search process.

  • A good fit — especially at the executive level — is one where you align with the institution, both in terms of your professional skills and your personal attributes and values. Candidates for senior positions must do some deep soul searching as they contemplate some of the same questions we expect our students to ask and answer in the admissions process: Can I see myself — my true self, not a reconstructed version of myself — at this very place, at this very moment? Are my personal values aligned with the campus in ways that will allow me to genuinely explain, support, and model its mission and values?
  • During the interview process — and if hired, every day on the job afterward — it is critical that you be yourself. You can and should decide how and where to polish the rough spots of your candidacy, but you cannot become a different type of rock. The bottom line is this: It is possible to land a job at a place where you "performed" extraordinarily well in the interview, but it is impossible to lead with continuity and authenticity if you are always in performance mode.
  • Employers always tell our campus career center that "soft" skills — writing, speaking, team building, empathy — are critically important for entry-level positions. Those same skills turn out to be crucial in executive searches, too. Frankly, such skills may be just as important as the technical skills, disciplinary knowledge, and academic credentials you bring to the table.
  • A final word of advice echoes something my mother used to say: There is nothing artificial about a nice smile, a genuine warmth, and a fresh coat of lipstick.

Lori E. Varlotta is president of Hiram College, in Ohio, and its first female president.

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