Sixty percent — or more — of our impact as business executives, corporate employees and simple human beings is dress.
Surprise, surprise! I thought it was my outstanding law practice, winning smile (and expensive dental work), or engaging conversational ability.
Yes, all those help somewhat — but these perception perks don’t even get into the awareness picture of your visual audience, if one singularly important element is overlooked: the overall image of how you present yourself, reflected in your choice of attire.
Presumably, the reader is over 21, educated, employed at something which contributes to society, and offers a service to life as a whole — you may be a bank president, teacher, medical rep or a small business owner who wants to attract and keep good clients and customers. If you wear a uniform to work — clergy collar, military blues or company jump suit with logo — not to worry, this is not for you. Your visual message problem is conveniently solved, and your useful function is clear to the observer at first glance. You’re already set.
But what about the rest of us? Not so lucky. We must choose among a daunting variety of executive clothing options, and these do vary with the climate, culture and city within which we operate.
Suppose you’re like me, having been in business awhile, and have sat in enough corporate meetings to develop an eye for what works, distracts, enhances and doesn’t, in executive duds in general. Remember, your colleagues need to experience contact with you first — not your suit, jewelry or great shoes. Dress is message, and you want yours to silently and firmly say “I’ve got it together!”
For men, the answers are simpler, and I profess no expert knowledge here: get thee to a competent tailor, and listen to his or her advice, which several great stores in Jackson and points north and south are happy to offer.
So what about the rest of us — the increasing cadre of executive women, particularly in the Southeast? What unconscious visual message are we sending, and what is the new code we want to convey that says: I have it together big-time, and I’m serious — deal with me! I’ve attended conferences over the years at which half the room was female business owners, and have observed an enormous spectrum of style choices, some smart — and others more suitable for a cottage garden tea than the boardroom. Martha Stewart-level corporate types have shown up in fussy prints and 30s hair bobs. (Leave the Lilly Pulitzer at Seaside, please).
While a combination of retro/techno chic and homage to mother may suit a very young woman, any female exec over 40 who makes an entrance in a splash-and-ruffles outfit has signalled clearly that she sees herself first as a girly-girl — not a high powered executive — and a company officer second. She hasn’t quite decided who the actual mature woman is, in front of you.
For once, I agree with Arnold the Governator’s scornful dismissal of frou-frou (His missus, you notice, prefers tailored by far!) It doesn’t go well in a planning meeting when billions in investments are discussed, unless you personally own every single option on the table, in which case you may stroll to your seat in a gunnysack and knock ‘em all dead.
So what does “go” in most high level settings in the expanding Southeast business corridor, since Scarlett’s velvet drape-dress beguiled Rhett (who probably now works for her)? Panache! It’s never gone out of style, and never will, just been updated. And it comes with knowing you belong where you are, and own the territory.
Years ago, I knew an elegant European woman, married to a med student, and my then-fella and I sometimes went out with them. On the teeniest of budgets, Kari still displayed smashing innate style. “It’s not the clothes she wears,” someone said of her, “but the way she wears them!” Absolute confidence is not a myth, and this young Scandinavian had it.
It’s not indefinable, either: she believed in her own value and abilities, and that is the first requisite for any positive impact, anywhere. Kari could actually have worn the gunny sack, tailored of course, entered the party with her usual confidence, and we would all have sworn it came from St. Laurent. The lady just liked herself enough, and was less concerned with making an impression than with being who and what she was — a savvy, sharp and cosmopolitan “medical wife.”
She played the role well. Like any actor who rehearses and knows the stage moves and script, she took the part and made it uniquely hers. No one could have copied her: she was an original. And so can you be, in the corporate sphere, with a dash of her easy attitude and chutzpah — if not socially, then intellectually; if not in brilliance, then in knowledge and skills. For the commercial world values what is unique.
And it values its players, and pays them, directly according to their information power — how much they know, can persuade, produce or cause profit to happen. We are accepted for our skill sets, and none of us does a perfect job on all fronts, all the time. But executive power dress, if properly done, broadcasts a subtle, strong message from the git-go that:
1. I value myself enough to keep fit and to look well groomed.
2. I’m prepared and serious about what will be said — I can deliver.
3. I respect you, as well — enough to dress “up” as if you were a really important person, and your (client or colleague’s) opinion counts.
4. Clearly, I can afford the best — but I ignore it. Understate, understate.
This last is more important than some executives ever realize — knowing you look well turned out is a self-esteem booster, of course — but being overly concerned with it is not.
In fact, the more you let yourself be aware of the expensive togs draped on your back, the more self conscious and truncated will be your interaction with others! Mental distraction, especially in self admiration, is deadly in the competitive corporate and political world. Your entire focus should be toward, and communicating with 1) the other persons, for their benefit, and 2) on the strength of your product or message — never on your outfit!
So, visit the local haberdasher’s and get their good advice. Then buy it, wear it, have it carefully and frequently cleaned (of course) and go to town in style. Your contacts will respect and appreciate the effort, and your workfellows will welcome some eye relief if you leave the slouchy slacks and stringy smocks at home.
Go to it, Mississippi! Get out there and look good!
Contact guest columnist Linda T. Berry of Jackson-based LBA International via e-mail at ” LBAInternl@aol.com.