How many of us heard this question when we were younger? Those wiser knew something important: first impressions matter. Even before opening your mouth, style -- and what you wear, specifically -- can impact the impressions you make on others and influence their expectations. While it alone doesn't ensure professional success, personal style can affect outcomes of meetings, networking events and job and board interviews -- virtually and in-person.
Picture two candidates interviewing at your company. The first appears neatly and cleanly groomed, wearing a well-fitting suit with a nice tie. The second is also cleanly groomed and sporting a trendy suit, but it's all wrinkled. In the absence of other information, who would you want representing your company?
Outward presentation affects how others interact with you and their assumptions about your credibility and qualifications. Sharp dress demonstrates that you want to set a professional tone and care about making good impressions. It signals to colleagues, potential employers, companies on whose boards you'd like to serve and new contacts that you're capable of representing them, their companies or shared interests. You'll of course need to prove you possess these sought-after qualities in conversation too, but why risk starting off with a negative first impression?
Select clothing that flatters your body type and is crisp, fresh and clean. Anything wrinkly or excessively worn-looking shows carelessness and distracts from the message you want to convey, especially in-person. Breaking the bank for a new wardrobe every time a key meeting is approaching isn't necessary, but with a little effort, you can wear something that makes a good first impression. Planning is key, especially for a high-stakes meeting or event. Decide what you want to wear a few days ahead of time, particularly if you need to fit in a load of laundry and ironing or a trip to the dry cleaners. Having an extra day to ensure you’re pressed and polished from head to toe can make a big difference in overall impressions.
What you wear in specific situations can have a lasting impact. Aim to find out the dress code beforehand, whether preparing for a job interview, meeting, networking event or conference, so your look befits expectations.
An interview outfit can make a strong impression on a hiring manager or someone who plays an important role in board recruitment. In addition to inquiring about a company’s dress code (helpful for both virtual and in-person interviews), as part of your preparation, learn a bit about the culture too. It’s great to have personality and your own sense of style, but also important to be attuned to the overall culture of the organization. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid being yourself, but sticking out too much may backfire (depending on the industry and role itself).
If company culture is very casual, you don't have to show up in person (or online) in a three-piece suit, but don't come in jeans and sneakers either (even if most employees wear that regularly). Elevate your look by a step up or two, such as a business casual shirt and trousers. The idea is to wear the right level dress for the right occasion and environment. Dressing too formally in a clearly casual setting may raise questions about your compatibility and lack of due diligence researching the organization, just as dressing too informally can as well.
When attending a networking event and you're unsure about the dress code, ask those who've attended before or the event organizers. You don't want to log on or walk into an event in a sweater when everyone else is in a suit. Being noticeably under-dressed for a particular setting may cause you to lose focus on your goals for attending in the first place and can impact your confidence. If the environment is one in which you’re meeting people for the first time, you really want to ensure that others’ first impression of your personal brand is a strong and positive one. No one wants to be known as the person who dressed inappropriately.
Industries and functional areas have different standards about what is an acceptable/appropriate dress code. This can vary by company and geographic region too. It can also vary if the company is doing business in-person or virtually. Again, you’ll benefit from researching and planning ahead. If meeting with the Director of Development at a leading university, for example, you shouldn't assume the casual dress of the college in general applies. Development offices are often quite corporate, and so your outward presentation should reflect that. Similarly, consider the regional impact on internal meetings. What you wear in Chicago may be very different from what colleagues wear in Houston. When building rapport with new contacts, you might be able to play off standing out as a conversation starter, but in the end, a fashion faux pas may be a barrier.
While many companies are giving employees more leeway to display their own sense of style, business leaders still set the tone for creating a consistent, positive brand impression on behalf of their company. So, take liberties in moderation. Elements of flair should accent your overall look, not dominate and cause distraction - especially in virtual settings. For example, show a hint of personality by pairing a bright scarf with a more muted shirt or wear a button down with an interesting pattern or in a unique color. Use accessories too, but be careful about flashy or noisy items. Large bangle bracelets, for instance, can clank together too loudly during a meeting or presentation. Similarly, eye-catching, overly sparkly jewelry might distract others from the substance of what you’re saying.
Dress to impress, not overwhelm. Ultimately, express style with a keen awareness of your surroundings.
Dress can communicate status, therefore choices should reflect professional level and age. In some companies, the culture suggests that everyone dress similarly, regardless of level, while elsewhere clear stylistic differences distinguish the leadership team. If you’re C-level, dress the part. Sometimes senior leaders want to fit in and dress like their junior colleagues, but seeking camaraderie by dressing down can negatively impact the respect others have for them (though of course there are exceptions). In general, leaders should set an example for others to emulate.
Dressing for the job you want, not the one you have, holds truth too. If you want to up-level your career, look at how people at your target level present themselves and adapt your style accordingly. This can positively influence how others perceive you.
In client-facing roles, presenting yourself with care is important to business success. As a direct representative of your company, impressions others have of you shape their impressions of your company too. By extension, when interviewing for client-facing roles, expect additional scrutiny in an interviewer’s evaluation of your outward presentation/style. This also applies if you’re seeking any job, strategic partnership or business opportunity in image-forward industries (fashion, beauty, luxury travel etc.).
Dressing for success can boost confidence and self-esteem, yielding better business outcomes than when feeling self-conscious. Putting care into how you dress sends a clear and confident message that you care about your professional life and take your work seriously -- and makes for better first impressions. When you show you’re invested in yourself, clients, prospective employers, strategic partners etc. will be more likely to invest in you too.