Why dressing for success (still) matters

Last week, a group of low income students visited my consulting firm to participate in a day-long business skills program. I hadn't met the other volunteer coaches before, and was impressed by a junior staff member who kicked off the program by addressing the room with the poise and perfectly tailored outfit of a seasoned partner.

As the day progressed, that same consultant was called to present to the group again - and it was only then that I was surprised to learn that she wasn't a colleague, but one of the students who had come for the coaching! She told the group about her challenged family background, her struggle to balance supporting herself on a low wage job and attend classes part-time at a community college, and how one organization opened doors for her that she hadn't thought possible. 

The organization was Dress for Success, a nonprofit you may have heard about before. They hooked her up with a suit (complete with heels and a bag) and two weeks of professional outfits that enabled her to land not only an interview and ultimately a position that lined up with her professional interests, but the confidence to show up at that job every day looking the part.

It's easy to forget the impact that our appearance has on those around us, and I'm grateful to that sharp young woman for reminding me and inspiring this post.

"How you do anything is how you do everything" - a wise person, who was not wise enough to copyright this statement

Have you ever heard that quote before? It's one that I think perfectly articulates why "dressing for success" matters in the workplace. There are some fundamental behaviors and characteristics that translate into success for any job, in the history of all jobs. These are the things that your parents were attempting to instill in you when they made you brush your teeth, go to church, do yard work and practice the piano - activities that require conscientiousness, discipline, and attention to detail. These 'success factors' are simply habits that we develop in our personal lives, and they tend to dictate how we approach literally everything we do - including our work.

Whether you like it or not, others tend to determine whether you've got those successful habits locked down by evaluating your outward appearance. The image you choose to portray expresses a little bit about who you are, what you care about and pay attention to, and how you approach life - in essence, how you approach everything.

If you're disciplined, conscientious and detail-oriented, you likely have a good routine down for taking care of yourself and your well-being and regularly invest time and resources into how you present yourself to the world. This translates into a healthy, rested person who's taken time to do her hair and makeup, invested in quality clothing that fits well, and feels good about herself and her abilities to do other things, too.

If you work a full-time job, approximately 70% of your decisions about how you choose to present yourself are for work. Paradoxically, it's the area where many of us struggle for a few reasons:

  • Dress codes can be hard to interpret, especially for women: even if your company claims to embrace a specific dress code (business formal, business casual, creative, etc.), it's important to figure out how to interpret that particular dress code in the way that works for your company's culture and for your personal style.
  • Closets and bathrooms usually present an overwhelming amount of choices that we are not prepared to make at 6 o'clock in the morning: rummaging through dresses, trying to remember if we picked up our favorite pants at the dry cleaners, and staring at our bedhead in the bathroom mirror without a plan for wrangling it into submission eats up valuable time and leads us to be late and look harried.
  • Work days tend to be treated as something to suffer through, rather than embrace and enjoy: hitting the snooze button on your alarm five times, dreading the day, and allowing yourself to indulge in a negative mindset about how much is on your plate, how frustrating your co-workers are, or what you'd rather be doing saps energy, lowers self-esteem and demotivates you from doing the necessary things to be successful.

Even if you've got some work to do on your own personal habits, it's easy to overcome the daily conundrum of getting ready for work with a little bit of thought and planning. Understanding your dress code, organizing your closet and bathroom to support a streamlined morning routine, and re-thinking your workday as a gift rather than insufferable torture are the basic steps to showing up at work every day looking, feeling and performing at your absolute best.

My 80% travel requirement for work has helped me to refine the art of getting ready, and doing it as efficiently as possible. It has required me to learn how to quickly assess and understand the culture and dress codes of my various clients, plan (and pack) my outfits ahead of time, and find ways to get excited about my work and show up as my best self even on days when it's easy to feel stressed, exhausted and negative. Although there are still days when I forget my own rules and struggle to get out the door, refining a system has truly helped me to build a work wardrobe - and a daily routine - that truly works for me.

You may have already mastered the art of getting ready for work, so if that is the case I salute you and hope you'll leave some of your habit-building and time-saving tips in the comments. If you're one of the many of us still struggling in this area, I've put together a short guide (really, more of a bonus post) to dressing for success that includes:

  • How to interpret your company's dress code - and the key pieces you need to dress for it
  • How to organize your closet and bathroom to get you out the door faster every morning
  • How to establish a successful mindset every morning to perform at your best

If you're interested in my 7 Step Guide to Dressing for Success, join my email list for access!

P.S. Current members of my Rolodex, I so appreciate you! You can access this guide at the same link, or just sit tight and I'll be sending it out to all of you with my next email update.

P.P.S. You may have noticed that I've started a little campaign to collect all your emails. This is because I secretly want to drop off all social media one day and need to be able to reach you from my cave.

P.P.P.S. Can I just say that Dress for Success, the actual organization, is amazing? I think we should all figure out how to give a little bit of our cool, overflowing closets to help them help others. And at the same time absolve ourselves of guilt over poor past purchasing decisions.

Ok, end of post scripts... would love to hear your thoughts on some of the challenges you've had (or seen others struggle with) when it comes to this topic!