The right look, the right movesWhether it is to get hired, win votes, woo a potential mate, become an effective business leader or just gain confidence, image is an important component. Boosting one’s image can improve the quality of one’s life.
“Image has become a means of competitiveness in this day and age,” says Lee Jong-seon, president of Image Design Consulting. “These days, everybody’s become very competent, and it’s hard to differentiate among people, so there’s more of an emphasis on trying to refine one’s personal image as a way to gain a competitive advantage.”
Ms. Lee began her image consulting business in 1993, making it one of the first in Korea. She was a former flight attendant and later began training airline personnel on customer services. So far, she has advised more than 400 corporations.
According to the Association of Image Consultants in Korea, image consulting as a profession first emerged in the early 1990s and became a booming industry in the aftermath of the financial crisis in the late 1990s. There is no official number of image consultants in Korea as yet, the association said.
“When I first began consulting, there was a general perception that image consulting was rather extravagant. However now, people are finding that it is invaluable,” says Ms. Lee. She termed this century as the “age of design,” and said she hopes image consulting will gain mass appeal in the future.
It’s not merely to get ahead ― image enhancement is for personal reasons as well. Take, for instance, the television show, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” on cable’s OnStyle channel. Each week, five gay image specialists in hair, fashion, arts and culture, food and interior design set out to transform a hopelessly sloppy heterosexual male into a refined, connoisseur dapper Dan. After the thorough yet seemingly quick makeover, the new and improved fellow gushes to the fab five, crying out that they “changed” his life for the better.
Image consulting consists mainly of personal identity and customer service the former refers to analyzing one’s personality and actions and motivating the individual to change one’s image. Customer service refers to training employees as a group to enhance service. These days there’s more of a focus on the former. Image enhancement books have become bestsellers, with titles such as “Successful People Have Good Expressions” and “Men Win Through Style,” as well as “Warm Charisma” (by Ms. Lee), on how to upgrade one’s image.
Some people are born with good features and thus give good impressions. Others are not so blessed, but everyone makes an effort, says Ms. Lee. “When I was younger, people always said I looked sharp and selfish, but I tried to change that image by smiling more and trying to maintain a warmer demeanor.”
Ms. Lee says she started to speak in a lower tone and slower in order to rid herself of her somewhat chilly image. She practiced smiling in front of the mirror and likened the practice to a kind of physical treatment.
It’s not just about facial expressions. It’s the entire package ― how one dresses, how one talks and walks and how one carries oneself in front of others. “Lookism” is certainly in, says Kim Bo-bae, president of the Association of Image Consultants in Korea.
“Visuals, or non-verbal language, takes up a large part of what makes a person,” says Ms. Kim. “It’s a worldwide trend that we see.”
Individuals, not just business executives, are keen to learn about how to dress and manage their facial features in order to upgrade their disposition.
Ms. Lee says, “Visuals are effective to some degree but the way one communicates can have a more lasting impact.” She and six other consultants at her firm focus on advising executives on manners of speech and overall presence.
When Ms. Lee begins a project, she conducts written personality tests on clients in order to discern their traits. Then she designs a training program that best suits the individual and the vision of the company, and guides the client through one-on-one feedback and monitoring sessions. Ms. Lee says laughing, “One of my clients called me his mother-in-law.”
Image makeovers do not happen overnight, and there are differences according to each person in terms of how long it takes for an image transformation. The process could take from six months up to a year on average for a company executive. Ms. Lee also gives lectures and leads group workshops at various companies and for business leaders of the Federation of Korean Industries. The impact of receiving advice from image consultants can be seen in how employees perceive their bosses; positive responses usually led to improvement in company morale and thus productivity, explains Ms. Lee.
“[Ms. Lee] has completely changed my life,” says Park Sung-soo, chief executive officer of Sunjin Corporation, a heavy industries company. “What changed the most was that I was able to be more patient at work. Before I was short-tempered and abrasive, but now I have learned the art of becoming more magnanimous. It has altered the way I conduct business deals and the way I am perceived by my employees ― all for the better.”
Although more than 90 percent of Ms. Lee’s clients are chief executives of businesses, there are pastors, university presidents and even overseas Koreans who have sought help from her firm.
“Executives who have climbed the corporate ladder tend to be more ‘image conscious,’ whereas company owners and chief executives who have led the company from scratch tend to be more coarse and uncouth and are in dire need of an image boost,” says Ms. Lee.
by Choi Jie-ho