In this article, focused on Direct Managers, the second in a series of three articles about professional image, I wonder…When did the leadership image lose its gravitas?
I'm not talking about fedoras and wingtips. Or neck ties, even. I'm talking basics... coordinated, pressed and tucked. Generally speaking... tended. If you were to walk into most business casual offices, would you be able to pick out the leaders just based on their physical presentation?
In some offices, perhaps. But in many others, you would have no way of distinguishing a leader from an individual contributor. Everyone may be very casual, in jeans and sneakers – vice presidents and all. Or in business casual – in any of its numerous and dubious incantations. Or some variation all along the spectrum.
This may actually be the intention, in some offices. A lax or nonexistent dress code may dissolve the lines of hierarchy and reinforce a flatter organization... think high tech, or the versions of high tech movies often portray, anyway. For that purpose, it actually sounds like a decent idea for direct managers to dress in accordance with the rest of the company.
But most offices and, arguably, most industries are less progressive and still follow a more traditional format where you would expect to see a more professional image commensurate with an elevated role.
Why is that important?
Ask your clients. Are they inspired with a feeling of increased confidence in your competency and your business or product's credibility if you look polished and collected? Wagering a guess, I would say that they are. They do expect, when interacting with a company leader, that you will be professional in all parts of the meeting – from your attire to your etiquette. And even if your customers are not keenly observing the fine details of your poised put-together self, they would likely notice if you presented otherwise.
Now, if you are a Direct Manager, you can also ask your direct reports why professional image is significant. They are, after all, clients of your leadership product. Does your leadership brand command their respect? Does it make them want to follow you? And just what does your image tell your direct reports about the company, since to them you are the embodiment of the whole organization?
It is true - as Direct Managers you are the front line of the company's leadership to your team in all things, including and beyond image. You are the communicator of the strategic messages, the one who adds the context for each individual you manage – the translator, if you will. This skill is not dependent on your image, though a consistent professional image may facilitate trust with those who rely on your counsel and guidance.
Think of this like hosting a dinner party at your home.
You invite the guests. Plan the menu. Buy and prepare the ingredients. Set up the table, complete with fresh flower center-piece. Ah, this is going to be great! But you skip cleaning the house. Don't bother taking out the trash or sweeping the floor. Pass on scrubbing the toilets.
Tidying up and "making the place presentable" is a simple gesture when you have company. You don't want them to come away with the idea that you are a slob that cares nothing for hygiene. You do wish to show your guests respect, which, in this case, means that they can be comfortable and at ease in a clean, pleasant environment.
Similarly, by looking professional at work, you not only command respect, you show it to others. That they are deserving of the time and energy it takes you to tidy up and look presentable. Your team is made up of talented, motivated individuals doing great work. Honor them by bringing your best.
YOU MAKE YOURSELF FEEL MORE PROFESSIONAL
There are days when you just don't feel like the responsible and accountable grown-up you are, much less the leader. On those days, you could opt to look like the college student you feel like, or you can get gussied up and look like the adult you need to be. You can trick yourself into feeling like that responsible boss you are by putting on his/her costume and walking around in it for awhile. As the day wears on, it can help you get back to feeling more leader-like.
That same technique is used in customer service trainings all over the world. They profess that a smile on one end of the phone can be heard on the other, even if the wearer of said smile is doing her job, offering polite service, more than expressing happiness. The smile, whether it comes from a place of true emotional joy, or one of customer service process, often makes us happier, just by putting it on.
You can do the same with a good suit.
Just having it on makes you feel more professional.
As a Direct Manager, you are visible to the leaders above you as well as the employees reporting to you. You have the unique opportunity to create a brand that transcends all career levels by looking poised and ready for anything. To earn respect, show respect and remind yourself of your role as ambassador of the company.
Misty Smalley is an HR leader and writer who actively pursues interests in executive coaching, organizational development and training design. A life-long learner, she joyfully strives to help others to explore the meaning in their own journeys, then to express it authentically.