Your Leadership Presentation for Every Audience at Work

Dress shabbily, they notice the dress.   Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.

-Coco Chanel

First, a disclaimer:  I’m not a professional stylist, or, by a long shot, the best-dressed professional I know.  Nor would I compare myself to Coco Chanel.  I learned the quote from one of my all-time favorite movies, Working Girl.  I’m just another blue-collar girl from Queens who acts on her dreams using her smarts.  Like most of us, I learned from experience to dress professionally enough for each situation to the extent where the focus was on my smarts and not on what I was wearing.

Which is why I loved working at the GE plant where the main manufacturing ingredient was a diluted acid running in pipes overhead.  In that environment, the only practical uniform for men and women alike was safety glasses, metal-toed safety shoes, dirt-streaked jeans, polo shirts and hard hats with our last names on the front.  I felt right at home; and my Granddaddy Nat, a skilled electrician who passed away before I graduated from college, would have been proud of me.

The Vice President of Human Resources for my GE business, not so much.  I had been invited to attend a meeting for promotable women managers at Headquarters facilitated by the VP of HR.  I did have enough sense at that point in my career to wear clean clothes (dress pants, no jeans), regular shoes and glasses sans my beloved hardhat.  We were told that the dress code for the meeting was business casual.  However, the Headquarters version of business casual was clearly a step up from our plant-level definition of business casual.  They all wore blazers.  I wore a sweater.

My beloved boss and mentor Bill coached me the very next day, displaying minimally the discomfort of a male-to-female dress-code coaching discussion.  “The VP of HR liked you,” Bill began.  “Great!” I said, starting to leave.  Bill waved me back into the chair.  “However, he didn’t know how smart you were until you opened your mouth.”  I was puzzled.  “What do you mean?” I asked.  Bill paused.  “He liked you a lot, which is why he asked me to speak to you about your executive presentation, in the spirit of supporting your career path and ongoing success.”  I was still confused.   “So he liked the way I talked but he has an issue with my executive presentation?  I don’t understand.”  Bill got to the point.  “He had an issue with the way you looked.”  Great, here I am back in high school.  I started to pick up my planner to leave.  “Bill, if this is going to be a discussion about my weight or the fact that I’m no great beauty, let’s please not go there.”  Bill was a bit taken aback.  He down-shifted into Queens, my native vernacular.  “Stop being a pain in the ass and sit down,”  he directed.  I sat, subdued.  He leaned over the desk.  “When is the last time you wore a blazer to work?” he queried.  Oh, I wasn’t wearing the right uniform for that group – that was the issue.  “When I interviewed for my job here,” I replied sheepishly.  Bill smiled.  “Point taken,” I continued.  “I will take care of it immediately.”  Bill leaned back in his chair, relieved and proud.  “Thank you, I knew you would.”    I hightailed it to the store right after work that day and bought four new suits.  A bit much, but I needed to make up for lost leadership presentation / credibility.

How you dress at work demonstrates your vocational choice as well as your situational leadership:  whether you dress so you’ll be noticed for your talents or skills; or whether you dress like the executives because you aspire to be an executive; or whether you proudly wear your hardhat so the guys in the plant won’t think you’re a stuck-up elitist.  Or Madonna.


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