Imagine yourself walking — or Zooming — into the meeting of your life. This is a career maker or breaker, the one chance to elevate yourself to superstardom, or to fall into benign mediocrity. In other words, this is a big deal. So, what are you going to wear?
Apologies if this seems like a shallow question; it’s actually an important one. How you present yourself speaks volumes before you utter a single word. The way you look and how you behave is called your image, and it’s a very powerful tool.
In the 1970’s John T. Molloy published two books about dressing for success, the first was for men, the second for women. In their day, the books offered a “uniform” to help you elevate your image. For women, it was business suits, white shirts, and little silk ties that you wore like an odd, floppy bow tie. If you wanted to be successful, you wore the uniform.
I began my career years after the book’s publication, but the look was still in vogue. When I made it to the head office, I wore dark Brooks Brothers suits, silk tees, and those weird little silk ties. I had them in every color. In retrospect, I must have looked like the men in the office, sans the skirt, but that was the work dress code.
Supposedly, it was the IBM dress code. Women would wear dresses or skirts, not more than one inch above your knee, closed-toe shoes with heels no higher than 2 inches, pantyhose, and clear fingernail polish. I was never sure if IBM actually came up with this or not, but it was the expected image. I still remember sweltering in the summer heat, waiting for the subway on the platform in New York. That silk tee and funny little tie wilted before I even made it onto the train. My Brooks Brothers suits were well constructed but hot. It was challenging work, this image thing, but I made an effort to succeed, and I knew my appearance was important.
Keep your image authentic, but current.
Appearance definitely counts, but your image encompasses more than how you look and what you wear. The way you speak, move, act, respond, communicate, and present yourself are all wrapped up in your image, and you need it to shine if you want to succeed. But first, you have to identify and understand your image. What do you think about it? How do you see yourself?
What is your self-image?
Your self-image is the version of yourself you see when you look into a mirror. As with our image, self-image is much more than physical appearance, and it may or may not reflect reality. Your attitude, emotions, and values are also visible in your mirror.
Self-image is the culmination of your life experiences, formed in part by childhood interactions and feedback from parents, teachers, and peers. What were you told as a child? For me, I heard that I was chubby. “Why eat that brownie? Why not apply it directly to your hips?” It took years for me not to see a chubby little girl looking back at me in the mirror.
Take a reality check, and ask close family and friends how they perceive you. Then compare that to how you see yourself. If you find discrepancies, explore why there are gaps, and begin the work to fill them. A positive self-image is essential if you hope to be appealing to others in your work and home life. If you genuinely like what you see in the mirror, others will too.
Next, identify what is your image at work? Do you feel you are advancing as you should, or have you been passed over for a role that you are equally, if not more qualified, to do? If so, then maybe your image needs some polish.
Executive presence matters in the workplace
Your appearance matters, and I’m not talking about being physically attractive, although frankly, it doesn’t hurt. It’s more about being appropriate, being neatly groomed and well-dressed. Your image counts. According to research from Center for Talent Innovation, appearance is only 5% of your executive presence, a fascinating topic, and something you want to exude.
Executive presence, or EP, has been called the “it” factor. You’re not quite sure what it is about someone that’s so appealing, they just have “it.” Briefly, EP is divided into three, but not equal groups; gravitas, communication, and appearance. The research reveals that how you act and what you say make up 95% of your EP. But while appearance, being well-groomed, neat, adequately dressed, attractive, and physically fit are only 5% of your EP, appearance determines who gets considered for promotions and senior-level roles. In other words, if your appearance is terrible, you won’t make it to the consideration level for high-level positions. Your significant gravitas, high performance, and fantastic communication skills won’t see the light of day. Your image is critical.
Don’t take first impressions for granted
Your image is on display, especially when meeting someone for the first time. How many times have you heard, “You have one chance to make a good first impression”? It’s true. There are no do-overs. Did you know that you can be sized-up in 1/10 of a second? Research by Princeton psychologists Willis and Todorov reveals that people judge strangers in 100 milliseconds by merely looking at their faces. Interestingly, taking a longer look often confirms their judgment. Opinions are formed about your attractiveness, trustworthiness, and dominance by only looking at your face. It’s superficial, yes, but it’s also reality.
Appearance counts, but your image
encompasses more than how you look.
So, what can you do to help your first impression image—in-person or virtual? If you are interviewing for a job, the good news is you have more time to make a great first impression. Instead of 100 milliseconds, you have anywhere from 5 to 90 seconds to let your image shine and land that dream job.
There are a few simple tips to improve a recruiter’s perception of you, and to ensure that your image is polished. Look the part, make an effort, and dress appropriately for the organization and the position. Be neat, clean, and pressed—simple things that are commonly overlooked. Be confident, make eye contact, and speak with a tone and volume that is respectful and easy to hear. Sit up straight — it’s a metaphor for how you should conduct yourself — and be authentic. In other words, be your best image.
I have an acquaintance who helped facilitate highly coveted job interviews at a major tech company for a few students from his alma mater. These were kids who did not have the luxury of travel or much exposure outside of their home state, yet they were all brilliant and capable.
The students arrived at the tech company and met with a senior-level executive, a friend of my acquaintance, who immediately decided not to extend a single job offer— he was offended. The students arrived wearing torn jeans, flip flops, and hoodies, and when they spoke, the situation further declined. The students did not make any effort to look the part or prepare. In their defense, they didn’t know any better; no one offered help or advice. It hadn’t occurred to them that they would need any, and it was a massive failure all around. The students’ atrocious image robbed them of an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
You also have an image online
The image you portray online is just as important as your in-person image, maybe more so because online content lives forever.
A 2018 CareerBuilder survey revealed that 70% of employers research job candidates’ social media presence, and 57% found material that thwarted a job offer. Be mindful of what you post on social media. The major turn-offs to recruiters included inappropriate pictures, posts involving excessive drinking and drug use, and discriminatory, off-color, and bad-mouth comments.
Instead, use your social media posts to your advantage. Some recruiters hire candidates when posts confirm their qualifications, show a professional image and a wide range of interests, and a personality fit for the organization.
Also, it’s important to note that these online judgements begin long before you’re in the job market. College applicants should keep their online images pristine as well. Your student image is critical as you begin your academic and professional life. Colleges are looking for smart students who will be a good fit for their communities. So, before you post something, consider the repercussions. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers reported that 11% did not accept students due to harmful social media content, and 7% rescinded offers.
The connection between image and morality
The way you live your life, the good and the bad, is etched within your image. Further, public perceptions vacillate with your actions. Your image is very personal and precious, and possibly fragile, so nurture it. The stakes are high for each of us to mind our image; it can be our currency, facilitating our entry into a better world.
Since the early days of Hollywood, image and perception have been paramount. Studios went to great lengths to make sure an actor’s image matched the studio’s version and the public’s perception. Imagine the suffering some gay actors like Rock Hudson endured years ago to “keep up their image.” Eventually, studios added morality clauses to talent contracts. Today, many celebrity endorsements and arrangements also have a “morals clause” because image equals value.
If a celebrity was to have a fall from grace, their image would suffer, and so too would their value to the organization, thus a morality clause helps to encourage them to maintain a positive public image. Think of all the high profile people whose lives were drastically altered due to an adverse change in their image. Similarly, you don’t have to have a morals clause to suffer a devastating blow to your image, think #MeToo.
How you present yourself to the world, how you comport yourself, that is your image. It is invaluable, vital and unique to you. The way you manage your image can either build your success or destroy it.
So, have pride in who you are. Be authentic, and live your best life by being respectful, kind, and consistent. You won’t even need a nanosecond for someone to judge you; your image will be unmistakable.
As Elenor Roosevelt once said, “No matter how plain a woman may be if truth and honesty are written across her face, she will be beautiful.”