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How you dress really does matter

How you dress really does matter

I remember my first job out of college as a marketing coordinator for a global construction company. The transition from classroom to office was significant, and I suddenly had to navigate my way through a hyper-codified environment. I made blunders along the way, from showing up looking like I slept in my clothes to choosing outfits that didn’t match the company culture. Part of it was because I was clueless, part because I was careless, part confused, and part because I was broke. Why didn’t anyone talk to me about creating a budget for my work wardrobe early on in college? If someone would’ve coached me, I would’ve listened.

Starting out in a male-dominated industry 20 years ago, I was especially intrigued with the women in senior positions and spent a lot of time watching their collaborative style, examining their business knowledge, and studying how they presented themselves. Although I couldn’t find one style that was exactly who I wanted to be, I learned a lot from these women. They weren’t just smart and impressive in their work, they looked  smart and impressive. They were keen in their dress, which was respectful to their career goals, the work environment, and their teams who depended on them to have a seat at the table. How could I take their strong style and innovate it as my own? At the time, I didn’t realize what I was observing was a large part of the often-talked-about executive presence. I remember receiving plenty of well-meaning advice about blending in: “Don’t stand out too much if you want to be taken seriously.” But I loved fashion, and color, and I sought out to create my own version of power dressing. It wasn’t about being appropriate; it was about being confident, determined, and respectful.(2)

Two decades later, I’ve found my own authentic look combining strong workwear apparel with standout style. The old advice suggesting success comes from a compromised personal style in order to look like the bunch, has died. The point is, we should minimize distractions that take away from our expertise, and well-executed personal style is a complement to one’s gravitas. One size does not fit all, and your workplace culture sets the direction, but you get to determine the result. Whether it be casual, business casual, or business formal, managers want employees to look like they’re trying. Now, more than ever before, we can explore power dressing in terms of what is authentic to us. 

In one research study, senior leaders were asked what is most important to them when considering executive presence; appearance got a whopping 5 percent behind gravitas (how you act), which was ranked most important at 67 percent, and communication (how you speak) was at 28 percent. Take a look at the qualitative data, however, and you will see appearance was typically the lens through which gravitas and communication skills were evaluated. It’s easy to dismiss this topic as superficial; however, if you can’t get this appearance thing right at least in the short-term, you likely won’t even get to play. (1)

What does well-executed personal style mean to you? How do we best navigate the filters people look through when considering us as part of their team? Lastly, how do we overcome the challenges of looking the part: time, money, and the fact most women do not like to shop? These are topics I write about in STOMP -- personal brand, appearance, fashion at work, and the innovations that are happening as we all re-write the rules at work. Join me each week as I explore the challenges of looking the part and why how you dress does matter.

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Vanessa Zambo, CPSM, is currently a senior principal and the senior vice president of marketing and communications for Terracon, a national engineering firm with more than 4,000 employees and 140 offices, headquartered in Olathe, KS. She has an MBA with an emphasis in International Business and a Master's in Journalism from the University of Kansas. She has lived in Kansas City for 20 years and has two sons, Stone and Blue (age 8 and 6) and a husband, "my true partner in crime," named Justin. 

Article references:

(1) Executive Presence - The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, Sylvia Ann Hewlett

(2) Sorry, What You Wear Does Matter, Marisa Bate, April issue of Glamour Magazine

“You don’t look the part.”  6 Steps for Discussing Appearance at Work

“You don’t look the part.” 6 Steps for Discussing Appearance at Work

Whatever You Do -- Get Uncomfortable

Whatever You Do -- Get Uncomfortable