I’m honored to share a guest post today from Gretchen Neels, whose I Hate to Shop! But Still Want to Look Great booklets are a must for those who are suddenly in charge or who have been in charge since shoulder pads were in vogue.
If you work for a law firm, consulting firm, government agency, conservative trade association, or in banking, insurance, or any other field where you are in the business of providing services requiring high levels of trust, projecting a look that says, “I am a professional and will treat you and the information you’ve entrusted to me with great respect and confidentiality along with first-class service.”
If you manage others in any of those fields listed above, you will also want to put forth a certain degree of authority and confidence, letting those who work for you know you’re the boss. As a manager, you set the tone for how those reporting to you dress and behave. The old adage, do as I say, not as I do, will get you nowhere when it comes to having your staff turn out professionally if you decide it’s ok for you, as the boss, to wear jeans, a T-shirt and some version of a flip-flop on Fridays.
Another adage to consider is dress for the job you want, not the job you have. In professional services, this is especially true. If you have an eye on the corner office, start dressing the part, today! Also, understand that opportunities abound, particularly at law firms and management consulting shops, where at the last minute someone is asked to stand in at a client meeting, luncheon or even a court appearance. Woe to the associate who decided yoga pants were a good choice that morning. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity (Seneca said that back in the first century AD), so prepare to seize opportunities when they present themselves. Often there is no “next time.”
In my Style Workshops, I ask participants to write down three adjectives they would like others to associate with them when they meet for the first time. I list some examples such as confident, warm, approachable, likeable, professional, sincere and trustworthy to get the creative juices flowing. After a minute or two, I go around the room asking what the attendees wrote down. Often they use the words I suggested, sometimes adding any of the following: competent, authentic, enthusiastic, kind, expert, honest, friendly, charming, etc. (Note that no one ever lists sloppy, boring, timid, thoughtless or lazy.) I then ask whether or not the clothing they wear (i.e., their “packaging”) gets them close to the ideals they just jotted down.
This is the point where women begin to see the light and realize that their clothing really does matter. What we wear on the outside—the “packaging”—reflects to others what’s on the inside. The trick is to align the outside with the inside. Participants soon realize that taking the time and effort to dress in a way that supports the messages they wish to relay to others makes perfect business sense.
Let’s take a cue from Hollywood for a second. Actors wear costumes for two reasons. The more obvious reason is that costumes provide audiences with lots of information about a character. Think magic nanny Mary Poppins – you see that long coat, funky hat and umbrella and you’d know her anywhere. But actors also use their costumes as a means of getting themselves into character and staying there for the duration of the scene. No doubt Julie Andrews felt more like Mary Poppins when she was in costume. Similarly, any professional will tell you they feel and act differently in a tailored suit than jeans, a sweater and Uggs.
We only get one chance to make a fabulous first impression. In the corporate arena, looks matter, and as the economy continues to tighten, looking and acting the part will make the difference between rising through the ranks or staying put; making it to the second interview or not. Winning or losing.
Below are some dos and don’ts to ensure you will always look like the consummate professional:
Do make sure your clothing is always spotless and wrinkle-free.
Do wear clothing that fits you properly – nothing too tight or too loose. A good fit is the key to looking great in whatever you have on.
Do invest in quality rather than quantity. High quality wool suiting will last longer and wear better than a wool blend or synthetic fabric. Lafayette 148 New York is one brand that makes some wonderful mid-priced Italian wool suiting in misses, petite and plus sizes (available at most department stores).
Don’t expose your cleavage, tummy, or too much leg. Showing too much skin is inappropriate and will have others second-guessing your judgment.
Don’t forget to accessorize. Adding jewelry, a scarf or a belt is a quick and easy way to spruce up a so-so ensemble, making you look more polished and put-together.
Don’t give up. After 40, many professional women focused on careers and family stop paying attention to the way they dress. This is a big mistake! When you look good, you feel good, and others will pick up on the self-confidence and positive energy you’ll project when you look your very best.
Gretchen Neels is the founder and president of Washington, DC based Neels & Company, Inc.
This article is an excerpt from her new e-book series, I Hate to Shop! But Still Want to Look Great, written for professional women who find that although they have a closet full of clothing, they have nothing to wear. As a speaker, consultant and coach, Gretchen is passionate about helping others manage the professional image they project to the world.