If You Want to Be a Dominant Player, You Need to Dress the Part

This week was the 2015 Milken Global Conference, which brings together over 3,500 of the world’s most exceptional business leaders, philanthropists, journalists, scientists and scholars. I’ve attended it many times over the years and it’s been nothing short of transformational for me and my business. We’ll get into that in a future post, but for now there’s something else I feel needs addressing — something that affects each and every person who wants to create a brand that dominates.

If you want to be a Dominant Player, you need to dress the part.

Besides being held in Beverly Hills (the epicenter of wealth and prestige) and the lineup of luminaires from former Presidents to current industry titans, you’ll notice something very different the minute you enter the hotel lobby at Milken Global. It is a sea of men in dark suits and Wall Street power ties and women in suits, elegant business blouses paired with pencil skirts or modern sheath dresses (think Audrey Hepburn).

Aside from the Milken Global Conference, I rarely see people dressed this way — professionally — at conferences anymore. The largest offenders are men, but plenty of women are guilty of this as well. Yes, I get that the Mad Men era is over and a Zuckerberg hoodie is considered “acceptable” CEO attire in the tech industry, but what message are you conveying about your professional brand when you show up to an industry gathering in the same clothes you’d wear around the house? (Or worse, to the gym?)

I know we all believe you “shouldn’t judge a book by its cover,” but the harsh reality is that first impressions count, and how you present yourself to the world can have a huge impact on how seriously the world takes you. Studies have shown it takes an average of 7 seconds for people to form a first impression upon meeting you, and when people are gauging you in those 7 precious seconds, your external appearance is, for better or for worse, one of the main things they’re considering. You can’t blame them; that’s all they have to go on, initially.

You can have all the confidence, experience and credibility in the world, but if you don’t look the part, it will be hard for people to see you as the capable, successful professional you really are. That’s just the way it is, and if you aren’t aware of that — and don’t hone your look the same way you’d hone your brand message or logo — you could find yourself making all the wrong impressions.

Case Study: Greg

Greg was a tall, lanky “millionaire-next-door” type. He had lived in the same house for many years, drove an older car, wore lived-in clothes and generally didn’t give off the appearance of a millionaire, although he was one. A client of mine from 2002-2006, he had just launched a new company, wrote a new book and created a conference when I met him. I was in charge of positioning and branding his company, creating the packaging for his book and creating the brand and all brand assets for the event.

Greg was launching into a brand-new (for him) industry, and the first impression he created was going to be crucial. Unfortunately, the first impression he was currently making was less than impressive.

For all of his wonderful traits, one thing Greg didn’t have was any sense of style. He was perpetually in slightly rumpled, baggy Docker walking shorts and short-sleeve shirts — fine for hanging out out at home, but not for business meetings. He knew he was lacking in the style department, but he just didn’t care about clothes or the image he presented.

As we discussed the photos we were going to need for his big launch, I gently asked what he was planning on wearing for the photo shoot and conference. He rather sheepishly rattled off the “dress” clothes he had in his wardrobe. They sounded like something from the ’80s. (The word “corduroy” was mentioned several times, which is never good in a business setting.) He clearly needed a wardrobe intervention.

While Greg didn’t personally care much about his appearance, he got it as I explained to him my concern that his wardrobe would hold him back and impact his new brand and, therefore, his future success. And he had the good sense to put his ego aside and let me give him a personal image transformation.

Greg had no current girlfriend or wife to take him shopping and wasn’t comfortable with the idea of hiring a stylist, so the job was up to me. Having been a department store buyer in a previous life and in charge of catalogues and advertising for several companies, I was more than qualified for the role (and would have told the stylist what to get him anyway), so off to Nordstrom and Saks we went.

After a day of shopping, a new wardrobe and a professional haircut and styling, Greg was finally ready for his big moment in front of the flashbulbs. He looked handsome, approachable and successful. The Hugo Boss blazer, melon-colored shirt and gray dress slacks we bought were classic and have stood the test of time. In fact, Greg recently released another book, and when I ventured over to his site to read more about it, I saw that same polished photo smiling back at me from his homepage. He’s also using it in many places to promote his new book.

Without getting into the argument over whether you should update your photo every few years (that’s a post in itself), the fact is that Greg continues to use the photo we took because he feels it’s the perfect representation of his professional self and his brand.

Can you say the same about your image?

Does Your Professional Image Need an Intervention?

You don’t need to spend a fortune to create an image that’s polished and professional and shows you and your brand in your best light. A few classic, timeless staples (a blazer, button-down shirt, black slacks or skirt) can be all you need, along with a professional haircut. For women, professionally done makeup is also a must.

If it’s been awhile since you’ve taken an objective look at your wardrobe, make sure to have a stylist review your wardrobe choices before a photo shoot, conference or other major business event to make sure it’s on point and doesn’t need an update. If corduroy is a fabric you have in your “professional wardrobe,” torch that wardrobe and start over.

Remember, in the business world, as in the world at large, perception is often taken for reality. If your image conveys professionalism, you’ll be perceived as successful, knowledgeable and experienced. If it conveys sloppiness or a lack of caring, people will think that’s the way you treat your business, clients and associates (even if you’re actually the best at what you do).

Show people you mean business by dressing like it. It can make all the difference in the world.

Image source: AMC’s Mad Men