Growing up in a small town where opportunities to climb the ladder of corporate success were limited, I dreamed of having a job that was "important" enough to wear a business suit. To me, a job that required me to wear a suit equated to success. By the time I went to college; however, my interest in suits had declined and I was perfectly happy to cap my professional attire at business casual. Suits were an expensive investment for a college student and the options available in my price range were limited to black pantsuits from a trendy retailer that made me look like I was going to a funeral.
In my first few years as a professional, I found myself defaulting to smart business casual. Only when the occasion required did I don a suit. Otherwise, I was content to dress on the casual side. While I recall feeling underdressed at times, I rationalized it by telling myself that the quality of my work was more important than whether or not I was wearing a jacket.
In a perfect world, my rationalization was correct. As Ms. Landrum questions above, “Do we prize the content of a person’s soul and the quality of their ideas more highly than we do their wardrobe choices?” For some people, the answer is yes. But in my experience, I believe that the majority of people form a near-immediate, unconscious perception the minute they meet someone, with much of this based on their appearance. I think it is human nature. So, rather than fight human nature, I decided to embrace it and use it to my advantage.
After finishing my MBA, I had the opportunity to start a new team that would be responsible for the implementation of our commercialization efforts. My goal with this new opportunity was to not only generate a profit for the organization but to also transform myself into someone people saw as a leader. While I believe great leaders achieve success because of their character, not their wardrobe, my plan was to combine quality of character with characteristics that projected the image of a leader. Wearing a suit started as a way to match my attire with my colleagues and customers, but it became my uniform.
During my first year in a customer-facing role, I heard the same concerns over and over from customers about the youth of my team. I realized that we were at a bit of a disadvantage (perhaps unfair, perhaps not) from the beginning. The people with whom we were meeting often had more years of professional experience than we had lived and were skeptical of how a group of people the age of their children were going to help their organizations save money. Regardless of this perception, we had to be successful. We had substance, but we also needed the style to match.
At that point, I decided to go all-in and intentionally cultivate the image of a leader. My attire was easy to fix, but it was only the beginning. After purchasing a few suits, dress shirts, and accessories that elevated my wardrobe to be on par with my peers, I started practicing my delivery and working on my image. This was about projecting confidence without arrogance, speaking boldly, and selling people on my ideas through emotions and stories. I practiced presenting in front of the bathroom mirror, visualized how I would handle challenging meetings while I was sitting in the airport, and practiced lines in my head while I ran in the morning. Over time I swapped out the habits and style of my youth for someone with experience.
I mentioned that my suit became my uniform. While I did not go to the extremes of Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein and wear the same outfit every day, wearing suits simplified my wardrobe choices in the morning. I eliminated the time and mental energy required to select an outfit every day. Instead, my suits were easy combinations to choose from and gave me an immediate boost of confidence. It also eliminated one decision point, freeing my brain to focus on more complex decisions and topics. In the beginning, when I prepped for meetings I felt like an actor putting on my costume and practicing lines before a performance. After a few months, it became natural, and turned into a security blanket of sorts. I felt a sense of pride and thought about my childhood dream of having a job where I had to wear a suit.
Right or wrong, when I dress up, I walk differently. I behave differently. My attitude is one that is ready to take on the day and whatever challenges come with it, and a 2015 study on the cognitive consequences of formalwear affirms this. While this confidence comes from character, practice, and preparation – not from clothes – I still find myself reaching for my tried-and-true navy pinstripe suit for a presentation or putting on my favorite navy dress and pearls before an important meeting. And while wearing a suit may have been my childhood dream, my dream now is that it is my character that people notice.