I'm short. There, I said it.
Some people want to be leaner, and others would like more hair; but if there were one thing I could change about my physical appearance, I would like to be a few inches taller.
I'm not extremely short, but at 5 foot 9, I'm an inch shorter than the average American male and a lot shorter than some of the business leaders I've met.
You might say that if being 5 foot 9 is the only thing I have to worry about, I must have better things to write about. Perhaps, but I do think height affects how people perceive you in the work force and therefore subtly affects your potential success in some careers.
One of the reasons I left the corporate world early was that I didn't feel I was getting much respect. Out of college I started selling radio advertising for a Toronto-based broadcaster. But in the radio business, you start at the bottom, which for me meant taking a job in Sudbury, a small mining town four hours north of Toronto. I inherited a dormant customer list and within a year turned it into a thriving book of business. Having put in my time and proved I could sell, I felt I deserved a job in the big city.
I applied for an open position in Toronto, and shortly after the interview I was turned down. I was told something about "not being ready." "Well, screw you," I thought. "I am ready and I'll prove it." So I started a company and have never worked for anyone since.
Did my height have anything to do with not getting the job? I don't know, but I'm pretty sure my physical appearance didn't help. I was young, short(ish), and did not fit the mold of a radio sales executive at the time. It was a field made up mostly of former high school jocks and tall, attractive women.
In the ensuing 20 years, I've been doing an informal height survey of business leaders. When I met Tim Ferriss, the superstar entrepreneur, author, and impresario, I was not surprised that he, too, is vertically challenged--a smidge shorter than me, I would guess.
Shortly after meeting Ferriss, I met the president of business banking for a large Fortune 500 bank, and sure enough, he was about 6 foot 3. Then I started observing business leaders in a social setting and I noticed that taller people were generally carrying most conversations. If a short person was getting any attention at a cocktail party, it was often because the person was very loud or flamboyant. All things being equal, most eyes wander to the tall.
Since my observations are probably biased because of my insecurities over my height, I decided to embark on a slightly more scientific study. I wanted to compare the average height of the CEOs of the 10 largest companies in America with that of a selection of successful entrepreneurs.
It turns out, that's much harder than it sounds. Unlike professional athletes, most CEOs don't publish their height. Through contacting the media relations departments of the 10 largest American companies and some creative googling, I was able to find the height of four of the top 10 CEOs:
John S. Watson, CEO of Chevron: 6 foot 4
Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway: 5 foot 10
Tim Cook, CEO of Apple: 6 foot 3
Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric: 6 foot 4
Average height among the Fortune 500 CEOs: 6 foot 2
Then I took a look at some of the entrepreneurs I admire:
Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook: 5 foot 9
Larry Page, co-founder of Google: 5 foot 11
Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google: 5 foot 8
Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter: 5 foot 11
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin: 5 foot 11
Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, PayPal, SpaceX: 5 foot 11
Average height among the successful entrepreneurs: 5 foot 10
There is nothing scientific about my list. Since I could not find out the height of GM's CEO, Mary Barra (the only woman CEO among those of the 10 largest companies in America), I chose not to include any women in my list of successful entrepreneurs.
I did not cherry-pick the entrepreneurs I know to be short; I just made a random list of recognizable names.
Now, you could argue my methodology is flawed and wildly unscientific, and I would agree with you. But I still find it interesting that the successful entrepreneurs in my list are, on average, a full four inches shorter than the Fortune 500 CEOs I sampled.
At 6 foot 2, she owns the room
I think height subtly affects our perception of people. At 6 foot 2 in heels, IMF chair Christine Lagarde, my guess is, walks into a room full of bankers and immediately commands more attention than if she were 5-foot-2.
Height plays an important role in how we perceive the leadership potential of people. Evolution made us want to follow tall and physically strong leaders for their ability to protect us against danger. In other words, we're hard-wired to want to follow people who are physically commanding.
Does that mean you can't run a Fortune 500 company if you're 5 foot 4? Of course not. Nicolas Sarkozy ran the entire nation of France at that height, although he reportedly disguised his physical stature by wearing special shoes and being careful about camera angles when appearing with other world leaders. Sarkozy is short, but he knows, like most of us, that tall people are viewed as stronger, more intelligent, and more worthy of being leaders.
Doing versus leading
All of this is why I think entrepreneurship is an ideal career choice for people who do not have the physical characteristics of leadership. If you're short (or fat or skinny or have funny hair or weird teeth), company building is an ideal career. When you start a business, you're not leading anyone. You're trying to refine a concept, and a premium is placed on ideas, intelligence, and tenacity. It doesn't matter how physically commanding you are, because there's nobody to command.
As your business grows, you may find yourself leading a few dozen people, but even so, a small entrepreneurial company doesn't need a figurehead perched on a pedestal.
By contrast, the job of running a Fortune 500 company, many of which employ more than 100,000 people, is much more about communicating a vision, inspiring your senior people to lead their teams, rallying the troops, persuading regulators to side with you, and being the public face of your company to the media. In short, optics matter more than they do in a startup.
If you're short, fear not. While you may have an uphill battle for the corner office of a big company, you're the perfect height to start your own.