The world has changed from the days when everyone in an office wore a suit and tie, or a dress and high heels. When we got dressed up to fly on an airplane. When people wore their “Sunday Best” to church. Things are much more casual these days. There is now a new meaning for “Dress for Success.”
Most of the articles that I write are serious. How to Manage Your Manager, Making the Most of All Hands Meetings, and Make An Impact – How Goals Can Help are just a few examples. This one is equally relevant and useful but may come across as a bit tongue and cheek.
What you will learn…
- How the meaning of “Dress for Success” has changed
- What it means to dress appropriately
- How your customers and partners think about dress
There are lots of ways to think about what to wear. The first that I will put out there is – dress appropriately. If you are working in a place where everyone wears a suit, you likely should wear a suit, or at least nice pants and a dress shirt, and then decide if a tie and/or a jacket is required. If everyone at work wears what might be called business casual, then you should wear something that is similar to what they are wearing. Don’t wear shorts or a mini-skirt (more on this later).
The bottom line when it comes to what to wear is that you need to consider what is appropriate. You work for the company. You represent them. It is not about your personal expression – you can have that, but the way you look is a representation of the company. This is especially important as a manager and leader.
Dress to Convey Who You Are
Now that we have appropriateness out of the way, let’s move on to how you can and should dress to convey who you are.
I like to think about this in two ways. The first is personal. You should look for ways to convey your personal style within the boundaries of your company. Here are three examples.
- If you dress conservatively, feel free to blend this with the norms of your company. This might mean a high cut long sleeve dress. As long as it does not make you look like an outsider, feel free to wear what you like.
- If you really love color, you can add an appropriate amount to what you wear that allows you to stand out a bit. An example might be a bold tie and handkerchief.
- If you like wearing short dresses, feel free to wear a dress, but make sure that the length is not inconsistent with the expectations of others in your company, customers, partners, or whoever you work with.
The second is about your role at your company. The clothes that you wear are a part of the initial perception you convey and therefore must be considered as that initial perception matters and can be difficult to change.
Here are three examples of dressing for the role.
- If you are an engineer that rarely meets with customers, it is not just ok to be wearing very casual clothes. It is to some degree expected and supported. A casual culture for engineers is desirable by existing and potential employees.
- If you are in sales, it is very important that you dress as well or slightly better than anyone else in the meeting. You are conveying your understanding of your customer by emulating being one of them. This will lower anxiety and increase trust.
- If you are attending a customer meeting as the expert in your product, you should dress to look like a product expert. If you are an engineer, dress like one (maybe just slightly better than you dress at work but not as dressy as sales).
Example: Technology Company Meets Telecommunications Giant
I have attended a lot of meetings with customers. What I have noticed is that they are conditioned to look at representatives from your company from a role perspective based on what they wear.
A great example of this was a meeting that I attended with a large telecommunications company when I worked for Juniper Networks. An executive from the telecommunications company was concerned about some security aspects of our management software. They looked at the least well dressed person from Juniper and asked them the quesiton.
This was telling. They did not know this person was an engineer. They guessed based on the clothing that each of us were wearing that this must be the person in the room that could answer the question.
My take away from this and other similar meetings is that our customers understand the change in how people dress. Dressing for success is no longer about being the best dressed but rather dressing appropriately for your role.
A Few More Thoughts
If you are wearing your company’s clothing, you need to be on your best behavior. Whether you are working or not, others will see you as representing the company
.Example: Drunk on a Plane – Wearing Company Logos
I will never forget how embarrassed I was when on a plane back from Las Vegas while working for Sun Microsystems. The party clearly had not stopped as a number of people got on the plane. They were loud and rude to other passengers on the plane. They badgered the stewardess asking for more drinks. When she said they had enough, one of them grabbed her and pulled her onto their lap.
I was well back in the plane so I could not see everything that was taking place. It appeared that other passengers helped the stewardess and things finally settled down. As I exited the plane I saw the group that had been a problem. One of them was wearing a Sun Microsystems shirt.
It was bad enough that they acted the way they did. To do it wearing their company logo not only made them look foolish but had a negative impact on Sun with everyone who was around them. Needless to say I reported this and know that the Sun leadership took action.
Sexy is not appropriate – regardless of what sex you are. If this is how you dress outside of work, keep it there. When you bring it into the office you are at a minimum telling your co-workers and managers that you don’t care what the company stands for, you are more important. You should be able to wear whatever you want. You are also stereotyping yourself into others that dress that way. To be honest, it is not a stereotype that typically leads to larger and more important roles in the company.
Be clean, make sure you don’t smell, and wear shoes. Unless you are someone that works from home, you will need to interact with others possibly including customers and partners. You will alienate yourself and will reduce opportunities provided to you if you do not focus sufficiently on personal hygiene.
What About Tattoos (and Piercings)
Tattoos (and piercings) are not really a part of how you dress. But I thought that it would be worth mentioning as the opinions and perceptions that go along with both are changing quickly.
Twenty years ago tattoos were something that sailors, criminals, and/or people living an alternative lifestyle would get. Just ten years ago most people who got tattoos would have them done in a place that would be easy to cover up for work.
That is changing. Companies are becoming more open to tattoos. Today almost 60% of people are neutral or believe that tattoos are acceptable at work.
If you want to learn more about company culture and whether tattoos are acceptable or not, I would recommend going on Glassdoor. There is a good chance you will find a discussion on the topic. If you don’t find one, start your own.
Wrapping It Up
Dress for Success used to mean wearing nice clothes. Wear a suit and tie if you were male and a dress with nice heels if you were female.
That is not the case anymore. You have a LOT of flexibility in what you wear – as long as you stay within the norms of what is acceptable by your company. You can and should look for ways to convey through the clothes that you wear, who you are and what role you play.
You can also for the first time seriously consider a tattoo or piercing that shows, again as long as it is within the norms of what is acceptable by your company.
As a manager, you should follow all of this guidance and take it one step further. You are someone that your team or organization watches. They look at what you do as a part of understanding what the company expects and rewards. They also look at what you wear. You need to keep this in mind.
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