Coaching Tips: How to Dress for Success

John Molloy’s 1980’s classic Dress for Success spawned a generation of workplace climbers who fashioned their work wardrobe around his advice. While 30 years later his advice lingers: some of it unfortunately  (e.g. yellow power tie, or manlike power suits for women ) and some of his advice that is spot on. The gist of Molloy’s advice? If you want to be more effective in the workplace, think about what you wear.

A deeper question? Even if you want to, can you dress for success?

Short answer? Yes.

First the big grain of salt: like anything (over-engineering resumes comes to mind), you can overdo and overthink this stuff. It’s important, but the person inside the clothes is going to be the thing that creates success. Clothes and dress are just a topping. Second, ask 100 people and you’ll get likely 100 answers: I just have the experience of coaching senior execs regarding how to be more effective and successful, as well as sitting on the other side of the candidate selection desk thousands of time. I may know a thing or two.

My advice as a first step it to think about what you’re trying to accomplish. Clothes – apart from providing cover from the elements – are simply part of your toolset. And like any other toolset, it helps to use the right tools for the right job. And there are times when you pick one tool by design for the effectiveness it will have over another tool you could also use. As I mentioned in a recent post, you are your message. Dress and clothing is very much a part of what you communicate.

You need to play a little bit of cultural anthropologist in this regard but you’re likely up for the task. If you job is internally facing (e.g. no outside contact), notice not just what people wear who work at your company, but when they wear it. Are Mondays the same as Fridays? Are quarterly review sessions treated different than day to day “regular” work. If you have external contact, the same rules apply: how do the people with whom I interact dress, and what’s the best way for me to dress to communicate the message I want them to have?

If the goal is to “fit in,” then observe the clothes of the people you’ll be working with and adjust your wardrobe accordingly. Investment bank ” neat” if you’re working at a place like BlackRock or Goldman Sachs in San Francisco, slacker comfortable if you’re working at Google in Mountain View on the engineering side.

If the goal is to standout, then think about ways to dress differently. Whomever’s at the top – or perhaps the exec team – signals what the cultural dress code is in an organization. Dress more formally than they dress and you’ll stand out in a way that may not help you much (e.g. “oddball”).  Dress similarly and you may get seen as one of them.

Sometimes, by the way, it’s not the clothes per se but the colors you choose. I had a client, who had pale skin and dark hair, wear crisper colors (whites and blues) for shirts because the shirts he tended to wear (blacks and grays) caused him to fade and get lost in meetings. The added contrast helped to to make him more visible. With a shorter, smaller client who was female, I asked to think about colors that helped her show up (not show off) as well: less black and dark blue, more solid red or purple, to help her not get lost in a crowd and to be experienced as present.

Here are some examples:

  • CEO Steve Jobs sets the tone at Apple, and apart from some administrative types (CFO and the General Counsel), there is a neat, almost hip sense to their exec team dress. Jobs has carved out his uniform of mock black turtleneck and jeans, but you can see by this post from Fortune that tho’ people dress differently, the look and feel is mostly the same. Oh, note no ties.
  • BlackRock CEO Larry Fink and his senior staff are dark suit (and tie if male) types as seen here.  It is what you might expect for a New York based financial services firm, and the world’s largest money manger. Notice the picture of the morning staff call: jackets off, ties option – but in long sleeved white or blue shirts.
  • Adobe execs, profiled here, are like a hybrid of BlackRock and Apple, and dress in what is almost Investment Banking “neat.” Lots of jackets and collared shirts for men, darker, more serious jackets (note the absence of any hint of the dreaded manlike power suits) in darker hues for women. The look says professional, and businesslike.
  • Last, Caterpillar, Inc.’s  (as in tractors) officers are pictured here. It’s a little of what you might expect for a global firm headquartered in Peoria, Illinois: men in suits and ties, the very few women in more formal dress. Wear an Aloha shirt to work an you’ll likely be noticed but not for any good reasons.

It helps, as a general note, to wear clothes in which you’re comfortable. If a tie is optional – and like me you’d prefer not to wear one – then figure out how to look sharp and professional without the tie. Birkenstock-type clogs? I save those for the second day at off-sites, and then only if I know I have the respect of the group and don’t have to worry about getting dinged for wearing them.

If, like a friend I recently visited at Adobe, you cross over  and work with a number of different types of people (sales, marketing, engineering, project management, etc.) through the course of a day, wear clothes that give you the flexibility to “dress up” if you need to, or dress down when warranted. For women, it might be something as having a nice cardigan you can add over a shirt with the jeans you’re wearing.  For men, it might be something like wearing a long sleeve button down shirt whose sleeves – a la President Obama – you roll up when you want to be less formal, and roll down and throw on a sports coat when you want to dress up a bit.

One last example.

Monday I had a chance to meet with Arturo Cazares, Senior Vice President for Worldwide Sales for networking firm Silver Peak Systems, and over lunch Arturo by example could have given a clinic on how to dress for success. He arrived in a sports jacket, slacks, and collared long sleeve shirt with a darker undershirt when we met in Santa Clara. The look said professional, relaxed, and not stuffy.

Upon seeing that I was wearing khaki pants, loafers, and something I call a sweater shirt (Brooks Brothers calls them a Country Club Polo) – Arturo took off his sports jacket as he sat down, effectively down dressing to match the more casual nature of what I was wearing. He still looked professional, but looked less formal. Post lunch, jacket went back on and he was back to looking more formal, and still professional.

In short, Arturo (probably unconsciously unless Stanford B-School, which he attended, has it as part of their program) was using the clothes he wore as an added tool – in this case to create effective rapport with me.

You can dress for success. It takes a little bit of cultural anthropology and a little bit of thought, but it’s worth the effort to increase your effectiveness.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub.