For me, a coach who specializes in executive communications, the topic of attire is like an unwelcome neighbor who keeps popping over. It’s a subject I’m not entirely comfortable talking about as it seems superficial and off-topic. (I’m a business coach not a style consultant, thank you very much.) But we all know it matters. We need to get over our collective discomfort and provide advice and feedback around this topic as it can absolutely impact one’s career prospects. So here goes.
How a person dresses is both a physical expression and a nonverbal communication. When you consider the proliferation of makeover shows for both men and women, you can see the power that clothing has over the way we view one another.
I once saw an episode where a tenured professor of nonverbal communication was made over, giving her a final epiphany that she’d been undermining her own credibility by not considering her self-presentation as a form of nonverbal expression. You can’t make this stuff up. Our desire to believe dress doesn’t matter is that strong.
As a coach, I see dress delicately placed in feedback that a client isn’t polished, lacks executive presence, or fails to exemplify a corporate leader. Many times, supervisors are delighted to share this feedback with a coach because they would never tell the person themselves. Telling someone they are inappropriately dressed feels way too personal (not to mention potentially over the human resources line, especially when giving feedback to women).
Despite its importance, for many professionals, attire is fairly unintentional. The guidelines we use for selecting our clothes may be different than anything else in our professional lives. We may choose comfort over impression for example, which would strike us as career killing if we were talking about body language. Or we might not update our corporate wardrobe for years when we’d never let our functional skills atrophy for one month.
I’m not advocating for a right way to dress — just that it be in alignment with the brand you want to communicate. If you want to be creative and innovative, dressing like an Internet entrepreneur in funky suits and laid-back attire might be the way to go. If you’re climbing the ladder at a Fortune 50 healthcare company and your intention is to be credible, you’re better off dressing like the CEO regardless of the corporate policy.
Over the years I’ve seen, and heard, a lot of commentary around executive attire — most of it behind people’s backs. Here are my best tips for dressing to strengthen presence, not detract from it:
- The adage to “dress for the job you want, not the job you have” always applies. See what the most senior executives wear for guidelines. Whenever you get promoted, your attire should be promoted as well — no exceptions.
- Keep your wardrobe updated. Styles change (yes, even men’s suits), as do waistlines. At least once a year, add new pieces to your professional wardrobe.
- Make sure your clothes are properly fitted. This makes a tremendous difference.
- Don’t dress for comfort; dress for presence. Casual Friday, or casual every day, does not mean sloppy. There’s a difference between dress jeans and washed-out “Dad or Mom” jeans.
- A blazer goes a long way toward looking professional. It also allows you to dress up or down as needed during the day. (You can always keep one at work, too.)
- For women, never, ever wear revealing clothes at work. Even if you look fantastic in them, you won’t be taken seriously.
- In general, the younger you are, the more conservatively you should dress. As you get more established in your career, you can add a bit more flair to your wardrobe because you have more gravitas. In your early years, your wardrobe should be professionally nondescript.
- Anything connected to work counts as work: plane rides, retreats, office happy hours or parties, etc. The workplace rules still apply.
- Finally, different audiences require different attire. Dress similarly to the group in front of you. If you don’t know them well, dress more formally.
Since attire is hard to discuss, it’s avoided — yet never overlooked. Even if you figured this whole dress topic out long ago, it may be relevant to someone who works for you. Think of it this way: dress is one aspect about your presence where you have complete control, ahead of time, to affect. So why not take advantage of it?
Have an opinion about corporate attire? Comment here or on Twitter @kristihedges.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author. This column includes excerpts from the author’s book, Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others.