Week 6:  Secrets of Executive Image – Appearance

Week 6: Secrets of Executive Image – Appearance

This post is the sixth in a 7 week series written by some amazing and diverse women.  If you haven’t been following along, then please go here to read the first 5 posts and tune in next week for the final one.

What is the first thing you think of when you hear Executive Image?

Probably because Image is in the phrase, the first thing that typically comes to mind is a person’s appearance.  Their clothing, hair style, makeup,  perhaps even age and race, paint a picture in your head.  I know we shy away from these thoughts because they aren’t politically correct.  We definitely don’t say them out loud for a number of reasons, not the least of which because it is illegal to discriminate due to age, race or gender.  However, there is a reality here that we can’t ignore.

Did you read the first post in this series by Margie Clayman?   When she Googled for executive image, this is what came up:

While there isn’t anything we can do about our age, race, or gender, we can take control of the rest.   I will give you specifics to follow in your wardrobe and other appearance choices; however, it isn’t as easy as a blanket “Here is what you need to wear to project an executive image.”

Consider the following scenarios and picture the executive in each:

  • Stock Broker vs. Google Strategist
  • Manhattan Real Estate Mogul vs. Elementary School Principal
  • Attorney arguing before the Supreme Court vs. Attorney taking the deposition of a cattle rancher
  • Interior Designer  vs. Large Animal Vet
  • Boston vs. Montana

Is your picture the same?  Not likely.   Why not?

Effective executives are expected to build relationships, to break down barriers and set people at ease.  The same dress that is appropriate in front of the Supreme Court is not appropriate when visiting the cattle farm that is the topic of the dispute.  There are also cultural differences depending on location within the States.  For example, typical attire in New York City is much more formal that what we expect in Denver.

We expect executives to be intuitive.   We want them to see the future and guide us, our decisions, and our companies.   We are almost hoping they have a crystal ball in their back pocket.  Should they show up in completely inappropriate attire, we lose a bit of faith in the rest of their abilities.  They couldn’t even figure out what they should wear, how could they possible lead this company or case?

Can you overcome this initial error?  Absolutely.  How a person carries themselves, whether they are prepared, the confidence they portray, their professionalism,  and their ability to communicate are what really stand out when you look deeply.  However, there are some people and situations that won’t give you a chance to prove yourself if you err in your appearance.   You want to avoid setting yourself up for having to overcome the impact of your initial appearance.

You may have noticed that I am blending executive image with leadership here, but isn’t that the point?  You want to convey an image that inspires trust, confidence and professionalism so that people will follow where you are leading.

Here are some general dress guidelines that apply across professions and location:

  • Who are you meeting with?  Dress one step better than you expect them to be dressed.
  • A jacket gives you an air of professionalism.  Whether it is a suit jacket with matching slacks or a denim jacket depends on your audience, but a jacket of some type can almost always be found to match your attire.
  • If you find yourself saying “Can I get away with xyz?”  then no, it is not the right choice.
  • You want the attention on what you are saying, not on what you are wearing.  Does your attire reflect that?
  • Pay attention to the details.  Even if everything you have on should work, sometimes it doesn’t.  Don’t try to figure out why or talk yourself into it, just change.
  • Pay attention to hygiene.  Be neat, clean and smell good.  That does not mean bathing in perfume.  It does mean showering, deoderant, brushed  & styled hair and teeth.
  • Wear earrings (if you are a woman).
  • Avoid heavy eyeliner and dramatic eyeshadow.   You aren’t out on the town, you are making a professional impression.
  • Cover your cleavage.
  • Iron.  Put creases in your shirtsleeves and your slacks.
  • Get needed dental work done.  Nothing contradicts a professional image more quickly than missing or rotten teeth.  You may even want to consider having them whitened.

To get more specific for those in “white collar” professions, here are a few more specifics:

  • Avoid bright colors and patterns.  See those images above?  Grey, black, and navy are the only colors pictured.
  • You should own a suit.  If you have double breasted ones in your closet, they are out of style.   Hang on to them if they are good quality as styles typically cycle back into popularity within a decade or two.
  • Skirts should be knee length or longer.
  • Lipstick is important.   You want a shade that compliments your coloring, that is apparent you are wearing it, but isn’t too dark.
  • Mascara is a must, but any other eye makeup should be subtle.
  • Pay attention to details.  Are your shoes scuffed?  Polish them.   Eyebrows overgrown?  Pluck them.
  • Your shoes and your belt should match.  Brown with brown (preferably the same hue).  Black with black.  White with white.   Ideally your purse would match also, but this isn’t universally expected.
  • Avoid dangling earrings, more than one ring per hand, bangle bracelets or any other jewelry that makes noise.  This is back to wanting the attention on what you are saying, not distracted by what you are wearing.
  • Close toed shoes with a 2 inch heel are ideal.   Any higher is slutty and lower is too casual.
  • Material matters.  Dockers or other slacks of that material are fine for casual Fridays, but if seeking an executive image?  Typically a wool or polyester material is preferred.
  • Your weight matters.  If you are overweight, studies have shown that people lose confidence in your ability to lead.  You can’t manage to keep yourself fit, how are you going to keep the company fit?
  • Long sleeves portray a more professional image than short ones.

If you follow these guidelines are you guaranteed to project an executive image?

No.  It will get you in the door though.

I once hired a man that followed all of these rules.  He dressed professionally, was articulate, and carried himself with confidence.  Eighteen months later I let him go.  Why?  Because once the flash wore off, once we were able to see beneath the exterior image, it became clear that he was a “yes” man.   He wouldn’t challenge an idea or admit when he didn’t know something.  The courage to do the right thing even when it isn’t the easiest is a character trait that I look for and admire.  I will not follow someone that doesn’t have this, nor could I continue to ask the junior staff that he worked with to continue to do so.    Ultimately your attire will get you in the door, but what you do once you are there is the true mark of a leader and ultimately the core component of projecting an executive image.

Do you have any thoughts on these guidelines?  Questions that I didn’t cover or a contradicting point of view?  Please comment!  I love a good discussion!

Note:  Some readers have asked specific questions regarding attire that I will answer in tomorrow’s post, so stay tuned!  It’s not too late.  If you have specific wardrobe questions that aren’t answered, please leave them in the comment section and I will answer them in tomorrow’s post.

34 Responses to Week 6: Secrets of Executive Image – Appearance

  1. This is excellent advice. I can honestly say that’ been my dress code guideline at work forever. Thank you for this great guide.

  2. Haha…I violate so many of these. I don’t wear earrins, don’t wear make-up, and don’t wear heels. I don’t deny that any of those (and the rest on your list) can make you look better, but I choose to focus on this sentence: •You want the attention on what you are saying, not on what you are wearing.

    That’s been my motto for over 16 years and it still works. You just have to have something worthwhile to say. :)

    And thanks for pointing out these tips are good ideas to enhance an image, but not enough to create one outright.

    • Hi Jen,

      It is important to recognize that although the comments were about actual wardrobe questions (and I agreed to provide tips), executive image is made or broken on your actions more than your wardrobe. This is key throughout all the other posts, so I did think rounding out with an appearance discussion was important – but the message is in the Series, not any one post.

      Thank you again for contributing!

  3. Wow, I can’t believe this awesome series is almost coming to a close =/ Ive really enjoyed this group effort, and you did a great job with it!

    There is so much good information here, yet you are right on when you say, as the ladies in this series have so admirably explained, that dressing the part is just the first step. As complex as it is, one must also note it’s the easiest.

    Thanks for this series and this post, my friend!

    • Margie, I too am feeling bittersweet about the end of this project. It has made Monday mornings worth getting up for! I really appreciate your insight that wardrobe really is the easiest of all the components of executive image. It is the only aspect that truly comes down to a pretty clear equation…the rest are all attitude and actions, which involve taking a much closer look at our weaknesses & strengths as a person. As our resident therapist, I imagine Linda will have some grea5 advice about that next week!

  4. You’re so right…that “image” word is a slippery slope. That said, I got a huge charge out of your scenarios, especially “•Attorney arguing before the Supreme Court vs. Attorney taking the deposition of a cattle rancher” because one of my secret careers was to be a cattle rancher…or at least a cowgirl. I know how to dress for that!

    But your point is correct, in my view. We dress for our audiences, since they’re the ones who decide whether or not we fit their executive image. We dress to make them comfortable with us because our dress is an initial statement about how we regard them. We dress for others when we’re not dressing for ourselves.

    Like Jen, I’m not one for much makeup but make a big effort to present myself in ways that validate what comes out of my mouth. So far so good!

    Thanks for a terrific post with lots of great suggestions

    • I thought this, but realized it never made it into the post. Being an effective leader is much like the rules of engagement for being a good host. And yes, I am blending the Image with leadership again. :) in both roles we need to make others comfortable, which means dressing with our audience in mind. Too casual shows a lack of respect for who you are meeting with, too formal can put an artificial barrier between you that stifles conversation and relationship building.

      • I agree! Dressing for the audience is a big part of executive image. As a therapist, I have to make sure my appearance makes me seem open and accepting, but at the same time experienced and professional… If I’m working with teenagers – I’ll wear nice jeans.

        Dress one step better than your audience – is such an important piece (I’d love to be able to wear sweats and flip-flops like me clients…)

        • Elizabeth highlighted the fact that dressing too much better than your audience can put a barrier between you and your audience. I agree completely! I concur that sweats and flip flops – or even just flip flops would be my ideal wardrobe… hmmm, how do I find that job? :)

  5. I agree that it’s best if a person dresses for her situation/job/culture particularly because a snap-judgment on someone else’s part could mean that s/he doesn’t give you the time of day to then see your abilities. That being said, are rules of dress as strict as they use to be? Wearing earrings matters? Or not having matching shoes and belt matters? Frankly, I don’t think I’d be paying that much attention to those issues when I’d work with someone or even interview them.


    • Thank you Cherry for chiming in! I love that you bring different views up. In this case I do think that each of these do matter. I agree that you can get away with not following these guidelines and I certainly don’t every day! But if you are preparing for a presentation that could make or break your company, or some other situation where you don’t want to take a chance or push the stereotypes, then this is where I recommend you go.

      Ultimately what you say and do IS what matters, but for icing these are pretty solid guidelines. In my opinion :)

  6. This was a very interesting post for me to read because teachers are not expected to adhere to any specific dress code. Over the years I have seen teachers dressed in everything from jeans and sneakers to three piece suits. I personally feel that your attire should match your professional position. Although, I don’t follow your advice to the “T” I tend to make sure that I am always neat and professional. I’m pretty sure that I have some areas that could use some work but I know that I am on point with regards to knowing how to do my job well.

    • I can tell from your blog that you are a great teacher! I have no doubt that you inspire confidence from your principal and parents. I think teachers are in a unique situation. On the one hand your audience is the kids, so what you’d choose that is one step up from them is pretty casual. On the other hand you have parents that range across demographics so how do you pick a style that makes everyone comfortable, while inspiring confidence and professionalism? I guess I picture slacks and a blouse or sweater as a good typical? But, there are a whole lot of variables!

    • Thank you Sarah, and welcome! I am an engineer and have often found myself the only female in a room of men. I also manage construction projects as part of my job and have found myself going from a construction site to meeting with a board of directors and even state senators occasionally, all in the same day! Only way around that is to change clothes :) But, in general I find it easier to dress when it is only men. For one, there aren’t other women to be compared to; however on the flip side I often feel I have to prove myself twice as much as a man my age to overcome a lingering gender bias at times. That feeling may be part of why this is a topic I am interested in!

      • I concur. I believe that it is easier to dress when it is only men. I always attribute that to there are a much smaller group of choices for men to look professional and they tend to stick to it.

        Women give themselves too many choices and just end up confusing ourselves.

  7. I may stir up the fur here, but I think MIM’s comments are spot ON. I don’t think we should wear a suit for everything, but I DO think we should dress appropriately to our positon. As teachers and business leaders, we should never wear jeans and sweatshirts to work unless we’re doing a communty service project. We’re supposed to be role models. I don’t care if you’re comfortable, you look like you’re in college at a fraternity party. And as for earrings, keep a pair of gold and silver in your desk drawer. You’ll always be prepared. XXOO Penny

    • Thanks Penny! I don’t by any means intend to imply I never wear jeans to work or go with bare ears. While there are plenty of variations to this topic, I am trying to provide a “formula” if you are trying to portray a more professional image or are looking for a promotion and don’t quite know how to dress for that extra edge.

      However, I hadn’t considered the idea of setting an example as it relates to our kids. I had only thought of it for junior staff. Great point! I found myself thinking of how my mom dresses quite a bit when developing these guidelines. She has always been one of the best professionally dressed women that I’ve met. That example made an impact on me. I don’t choose to follow it necessarily, but I have the components in my back pocket when it really matters.

  8. Daria,
    I am glad to say that I follow most of you advice. I think about who my clients are and dress accordingly. If I see a 9 year old child, and I know we are sitting on the floor in my office playing a game and talking. Or if I see a couples for the first time, I am aware of how they see me, but also prepared to give them everything they need on at a first appointment.

    • Thank you for commenting Irene! Again your job like Maria’s has such a diverse audience. I suppose if concerned about image, I would recommend Dockers as a casual slack for sitting on floors, yet more professional than jeans. What do you normally wear? Just curious if I am on track or off base…

      • Daria,
        I personally think I look great in jeans and a very nice jacket, earrings, blue high-heels – not to high. If I see a new client or a client that dress up themselves right after, I will choose slacks. My floor has carpet, so that is okay.
        Another point that I want to make is that I don’t want to dress too nice to distract the client/couple/family! Neutral, professional, comfortable are the keywords.

  9. I think dress is such an important conversation and with the casualness of our society, we can get stuck right before a job interview, or preparing for a meeting and not have what we need in our closet!

    In talking to a friend once about why Tony Robbin’s show was a total bust, she thinks that beyond it basically being a big infomerical for his empire, he was too formal in a suit. She argues that all the other big guns have altered their dress over time to fit community standards, rather than “being higher than thou.” She used Deepok Chopra as one example of someone who doesn’t wear suits and knows he can alienate and distance from his audience if he’s too polished.

    With no more corporate life, babies, massive body changes, and an upcoming career as a mental health therapist, I’m in desperate need to “find my true fashion.” Where my personality fits fashion is what I need help with!

    • Great point Elizabeth! A lot of attention is given to dressing too casually, but too formally is almost more off putting. I wrote nearly the exact words you did in tomorrow’s post. I’ll add to it to take a stab at your question too. Tune in tomorrow :)

  10. Hi Daria–

    Great tips–I need to take note!

    Thank you for being brave enough to mention the weight issue. While some are just born with a stockier build, it is important to convey physical, mental, and biz fitness.

    That said, I’ve seen some very large women pull it off by dressing appropriately, professionally, and by accentuating their assets.
    Of course, being from Los Angeles, it’s all about the image!

    • Absolutely Linda. As a woman needing to lose upwards of 65 pounds, weight is a sensitive issue for sure. While plenty of people do overcome it, I would prefer not to put another challenge in my path along with being female, relatively young (let me keep my fantasy please), and a mom. Did you read my post titled “Does this salary make my butt look big?”

      It refers to a few studies correlating an average of $13,000/year lower wage if you are 25pounds or more above average. That is real money.

  11. Spot on, Linda. As much as we’d like to be accepted “just as we are” – that first impression, the image is so important, you are so right. It is a non verbal communication that speaks loudly and says a lot about you, thus, you cannot give to much attention. Powerful post, enjoyed it, thanks!

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