One Powerful Hack to Leadership
What are you wearing to work today? Does it truly reflect you and your personality? Or does it make you feel uncomfortable, buttons strained, and arms too short (or too long)?
If you’re in the corporate world, I’m guessing you’re squeezed into a suit that you secretly loathe but feel obliged to wear because…well, it’s expected. In many companies, especially in financial services and the legal profession, there is an unspoken dress code – a dark suit, a mid-length skirt, a white shirt, and sensible pumps.
In some organisations it isn’t even unspoken. A dress code is often contained in a lengthy employee handbook that no-one ever looks at, that was probably written twenty years ago. It was all created in the spirit of professionalism.
It makes me shudder. In effect, spoken or unspoken dress codes hark back to the 50’s, when women were tolerated in the workplace, and if we were going to insist on being there, we needed to dress like a man, and sit quietly. Effectively, it was our male bosses telling us, “OK – if you MUST be here,…be invisible!”
Recently, the CEO of General Motors company, Mary Barra (woot! A woman!), tore up the organisation’s long-standing 10-page dress code, replacing it with ‘Dress appropriately.’ She went on to say that there is a need for managers to be empowered and that “if they cannot handle ‘dress appropriately,’ what other decisions can’t they handle?”
Beautifully said! Last week on LinkedIn, I saw a photo of a group of professionals, all “suited and booted” in dark suits, standing proudly in front of their company signage at a conference. Except some of them weren’t standing proudly. Some of them were visibly ill at ease.
It was the women. These three women in the image were wearing dark suits, too, and they looked SO uncomfortable. It was clear they were squeezing themselves into a box to conform. To ‘compete’ with men to be leaders, they had felt the pressure to “don the drab”, feeling like a square peg in a round hole. The problem is they’re fooling no-one.
You see, when you are not being YOU, when you are trying to conform to the expectations and rules of others, we all know. It seeps from your every pore. When I started my corporate career, I tried to conform to start with. I was so eager to please my bosses (people-pleaser, right here!), and to be seen as authoritative, that I toed the line, investing in suits that made me look like a house. Hey, they were designer suits, but they weren’t…ME. I tried to tweak the ‘uniform’ to feel more me, by buying suits in bright colors, but I still didn’t feel at ease.
“when you are not being YOU, when you are trying to conform to the expectations and rules of others, we all know.”
Something didn’t jive with me – to fundamentally change who I was so I was accepted or approved of by my male bosses and peers. It didn’t feel authentic. So I stopped investing in suits that made me look like a Sherman tank, and I started wearing colors, and soft or structured blouses and sweaters, skirts and trousers with sleek lines, without a hint of box-like structure. It was my womanly take on the corporate uniform.
It served me well because I was being me. People could see that. They could see I was creative in a generally uncreative industry. It made me interesting. It was my point of difference – my Unique Selling Proposition (USP), if you like. Just as I differentiated myself in my style, I did in my work, as well – doing things differently. I was recognised for taking old problems, breaking them down, applying my creativity to look at them differently, and finding new solutions.
Listen, I am no stylist; and this article isn’t about styling. It is about authenticity, and bringing more of yourself to what you do. It’s also about boundaries, about being “intelligently disobedient,” by being prepared to push back so that others do not dictate your decisions or behavior.
My UN-stylist advice is to start being “intelligently disobedient” in small shifts:
Wear colorful accessories with your dark suit to lighten it up and demonstrate your YOU-ness and creativity.
Invest in statement pumps
Ditch the suit jacket and top with a sweater and cardigan combo.
Our Beauty Editor, Megan LaRusso Chenoweth, has much more to say on the subject of styling than me. By standing up for your sartorial individuality, you can be more effective as a leader, by being more YOU. Styling is just one small but significant way of demonstrating your authenticity.
And people LOVE authenticity in a leader.
For more on how you can strengthen your personal leadership skills, be sure to subscribe to Helen’s podcast here!