Last Updated Sep 28, 2010 12:20 PM EDT
The question is this: Does how you look when you leave the house affect how others perceive you? Clothes make the man. But do clothes make the manager? My early bosses certainly thought so. After a few heated confrontations, I finally agreed to clean up my act. And yes, that made a huge difference in my career.
On the other hand, as a wise PR executive once said, "Just because you wear a mock black turtleneck, blue jeans, and sneakers doesn't make you Steve Jobs." Well said.
Those conflicting anecdotes aside, the truth is that people notice how you dress, consciously and subconsciously. Actions may speak louder than words, but until they get to judge your behavior, which can take a while, people will inevitably trust their initial impressions.
How you dress matters. How much it matters really depends on how clued-in or clueless you are about this sort of thing. It also depends on what you've got under the hood in terms of brains, experience, and reputation. If you've got all that, you don't need no stinkin' clothes.
For example, one of my former CEOs only owned one tie which he wore with what was presumably his only suite. No kidding. Six months ago he was pegged to run Nanosolar. Guess it works for him.
On the other hand, when I quit working full-time and became a consultant I started dressing a little differently. People noticed and commented. One CEO said I looked more like a rock star than an executive. Another said I should stand closer to my razor. And that's just what they said. Who knows what they were thinking.
The point is that people notice. They also have preconceived notions about people who dress a certain way. I know I do:
- When someone's smartly dressed in business attire, I think sharp and savvy. Unless of course he turns out to be an idiot. Then he's just an idiot in a suit.
- When an individual wears jeans and an untucked shirt to a business meeting, I think guts and self-confidence. Unless he turns out to be an idiot. Then, that's right, he's just a sloppy idiot.
- When folks wear business casual - khakis and polo shirts - I think mindless drone or middle manager who won't take risks.
- Early in your career, spiff it up a bit. Later, when you've proven yourself, you can relax.
- Dress for your audience. If you're presenting or in an important meeting and key people will be wearing business attire, you should too. If you're not sure, play it conservatively.
- Dress the way you feel comfortable. Otherwise, it'll show. No, it's not okay to wear your pajamas. You've got to grow up and put on a suit sometime.
- In most industries, super-fashionable attire is overdoing it. There are ways to stand out without looking like you're trying to stand out. Get it?
- Don't dress like a drone or a clone, i.e. like everyone else, unless that's really you or you've got so much under the hood that it doesn't matter.
- I don't care how bright and cheerful you feel that morning; work isn't a circus so don't dress like a clown, i.e. the large woman from the old Drew Carey Show.
- If you're not Steve Jobs, don't dress like him. He can pull it off; you can't. Get your own damn uniform.