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.
- 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.