Tip 18: Dress to Impress
This is the third installment in a series I’m writing about career success. Each month I am counting down my 20 tips for career success. This article explores the importance of professional appearance and how it relates to career success. In this article, we will review why what we wear matters, what to wear in various situations we may find ourselves in, and how what we wear can even change how we feel about ourselves.
Why What You Wear Matters
Picture this! You are asked by your boss to interview a potential new hire (or maybe you are the boss and you choose to conduct the interview yourself). You walk in the room to meet this potential new coworker, and you see a guy or girl sitting at the table with their favorite pair of jeans on and an untucked shirt. Your first thought may be, “wow, they look very comfortable”; however, eventually the thought will cross your mind, “who comes to an interview dressed like this?” It’s a fair question and it is why most of us will never have this experience. Everyone knows that you’re supposed to dress up for an interview. Why? Because we need to be able to impress the person or people that are interviewing us. Yet, how many times do we see the person that landed the job while dressed in their nicest suit start showing up to work in jeans only a few short months later? Or for those of us in the consulting world, how many times do we or our peers show up the first day at a new client (which in our World is sort of like the interview day equivalent) with our shirt untucked? We only get one chance to make a first impression, so it is important to do all that you can to make that a good one. In the professional world, what we wear speaks volumes to others about how much we care about ourselves, our work, and them.
In my first job out of college, I noticed that a lot of people on my team (an IT team) would wear jeans. So, naturally I began to wear jeans. After a few months of this, I noticed that one of my colleagues (and very close friends) would always dress to impress: dressed to the T’s with new slacks, sweaters over dress shirts, and the occasional tie mixed in. I asked him why he never wore jeans, and his answer has stuck with me ever since. He told me that he wasn’t dressing for the job he had, but he was dressing for the job he wanted. I switched from jeans at work the next day to slacks and button-ups with the occasional tie or sweater mixed in, and I never looked back. Coincidentally, at the same job, another close friend used to show up every week or two in a full suit and take a long lunch break. I asked him the same question about why he did it, and he jokingly replied, “I like to keep them on their toes”. While I think that friend actually just enjoyed looking nice, it says something about our work cultures if someone wearing a suit to the office instantly makes you think they have an interview somewhere. Maybe it isn’t a bad idea to just dress up some days for the sake of dressing up.
Regardless of the instance you have seen someone dressed up, it stands out to you in a positive way. It’s an easy way to make a positive or negative impression on people, so why not put in the small amount of effort and make it a positive one?
What to Wear in Various Situations
Later, when I was consulting I received additional advice in this subject matter. I was heading to a meeting and running late, and I arrived at the same time as my boss. As I was accustomed to at the time, I had called ahead to find out what the dress code was, and it was business casual. This was my first time in a meeting with my new boss, and I was surprised to see him getting out of his car in a suit. So, I asked him if he had gotten my email that they were business casual. His response was this, “I always like to dress at least one level above my clients the first time that I meet them to show that I respect them and their choice to work with me and to stand out as the professional/expert in the room”. His advice continued to detail how if a place was casual, he would never dress below business casual at the client (regardless if it was the first meeting or not). If it was business casual, he would throw on a tie or jacket (but not both) for the first meeting and may eventually begin wearing just nicer business casual. Finally if it was business, he would wear a suit and tie (not just a sport coat) for the first meeting and would continue to wear that level of attire for all visits.
While the above may be a bit extreme, I know that he was always well-respected and I have no doubt that a lot of that had to do with appearance. Inevitably when I give someone this advice, there is always an excellent example of an exception: the prodigy consultant or expert in their field who shows up every day in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt yet their brilliance still demands the utmost respect. Those people definitely exist (and I know some of you, because I work with you). Regardless, genius or not, appearance tells a story about who you are and creates a first impression. The advantage the super-genius has is that he or she can overcome that first impression easily with their skills and intelligence. However, it is always easier to make the first impression a good one and maintain a positive perception, and that is what dressing well can help us to do. So, whether you’re a common person like me, or a super-genius like some of my peers, why not grab the button-up shirt or blouse, tuck it in to slacks or a skirt, and throw in an occasional tie or sweater to make that extra-positive first impression.
Dressing Nice Makes You Feel Nice
In my previous job, I had a coworker that reported directly to me but worked remotely. Soon after hiring him, we decided to start weekly one-on-one meetings that we would conduct via a video conference call. In these meetings, I noticed that he was always wearing a shirt and tie, and we would joke about how I could only see his upper body, but he really had his swim shorts on and was taking a break from the pool. Eventually, he shared with me that every single day he would get up, take a shower, put on a suit, and go to his office in his house. Every. Single. Day. I couldn’t imagine going through all of that effort to walk to the basement. To me, this felt like overkill, but to him it was an important habit. He said that going through that routine was the only way he could separate work life from home life. He went on to say that even though 95% of his meetings during the week were just phone calls with no video element, dressing nice made him feel better about himself and more prepared to have the conversations with executives that he was frequently having. He dressed nice, because it made him feel nice. He put on his power suits, because they made him feel more powerful. That was one of the first times that I realized the importance of how what we wear can impact how we feel.
If I think about this more, I find it funny that I had not thought about it before. We all have that favorite shirt or dress that when we put it on, it makes us feel good. Maybe it’s the one that makes you feel stronger or slimmer or just looks more stylish, but we all have it. Similarly, we have all been given a compliment at some point by someone saying, “I like that shirt”, “I like that blouse”, or “I like that _________ (fill in the blank)”. Therefore, we all know how good it feels to receive that compliment. Recently, I had just bought a new sports coat for a conference that was coming up and had received a new shirt and slacks as Christmas gifts, and I decided to wear the full, new outfit to a client. I happen to be very close with the IT Director at this client, and when we were waiting for others to arrive to the meeting, he said, “Dustin, you look really nice today, but I feel like you always dress really nice”. It was a simple compliment, but it made my day. What’s funny is that it has made me more aware of how I dress when I go to that client now. There is something about being recognized as someone that dressing nice that is rewarding, and I now want to further that impression. It makes me feel good. And that’s just what dressing nice can do: it makes you feel good.
To recap, what you wear matters: people notice it. What you wear should vary based on the situation you are in, but it doesn’t have to be hard. What you wear can change how you feel about yourself. So, go out there, and dress to impress!
Reference Guide for How to Dress to Impress
Please note that I am focusing on guys’ clothing here simply because I will not even pretend to know anything about how women should dress.
I hope you found this article about how to dress to impress and why it matters helpful. I would love your feedback on this series and this article in the comments below. Please check in next month for Tip 17: Be Punctual. You can get more career, and analytics insights on our blog and e-newsletter. If you haven’t already, be sure to subscribe to the PMsquare Journal for more technical articles and updates delivered directly to your inbox.
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