Everybody knows Lee. You either are him or you know someone like him. He’s that smart, handsome, generally affable gay in the office that everybody loves or at least enjoys living vicariously through. He wore pomade when everyone else was still rocking gel. He flung himself into the fancy sock trend like a midwestern mom with a Beanie Baby obsession—must. collect. all. Be it his perfectly waxed caterpillar eyebrows or his general defiance for any outfit that might seem “regular” the dude has balls, if not actually any definable style.
Despite all this “character” and attention, Lee has been in the same position in his career for more than five years. At 36 years old he’s frustrated with the fact that he can’t seem to get past the #2 role on his team. He has stood by and patiently watched his coworkers get promoted to positions that he knows should have been his. Instead he trains his new bosses in the intricacies of the industry and quietly waits his turn wondering why that couldn’t have been him. Time and time again, Lee gets praised for his efforts and passed up for the job.
No one would want to believe that a guy like Lee was passed up for a job because of the way he looks. The truth is—he probably was—at least to a more significant degree than he thinks. While Lee’s constantly changing hair styles, ever shrinking T-shirts, bright socks and over-all edgy attire fit right in with the playful and wild personality he bares on the weekends with friends, they say nothing about the hard working, generally serious and passionate man he is at work. His office world sees Lee as a sort of little brother-best friend—great to have around and totally likeable, but not necessarily the guy who is going to lead us into battle. Whether he knows it or not, his fashion is undercutting the message he is trying to tell about his professionalism.
As a style columnist I am very aware of people like Lee. They are everywhere. These are great, hard-working guys who deserve to be taken seriously but who are constantly being overlooked because they don’t see the real implications of not placing enough importance on the image that they put out. Your personal style at work needs to say so much more than what your tastes are in fashion. Your clothes are the packaging in which you wrap your professional brand.
This isn’t to say that every man needs to go out and invest in Hugo Boss suits and Bruno Magli shoes in order to appear competent. If Lee were working in graphic design, then his fashion-forward hair, tight T-shirts and colorful pants would tell exactly the right story: “This guy is on the cutting edge, he’s creative, cool and confident.” If he were to be in finance, it would tell a different story: “This guy is delusional.” It’s all about honing in on the right message.
Take Steve Jobs for example. Steve stood at the helm of one of the world’s most successful companies and wore jeans, a black turtleneck and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses in nearly every public appearance he ever made. Believe me when I tell you that this was no accident. His look became iconic—a clear and defined indication to the world the he and his company were about simple, relatable experiences that pushed the status quo. What he wore mattered.
If you want to be recognized as a smart, serious yet energetic ad sales manager, dress in clothing that reflects this. If a serious, dedicated and traditional type is the man you aspire to be, mold your appearance to more classic and tailored styles. Equally important, as with any good branding campaign, consistency is key. You can play with style but be sure to stay on message when at work. If you show up as a rock star on Monday and a humble book worm on Tuesday, the only thing people will think about you is that you suffer from multiple personality disorder. You’ve got to commit.
This will help psychologically as well. Mama Oprah talks about envisioning yourself in the space you want to be. You have to act as if you are the person you want to be until you actually are that person. Just as actors tell of not being able to fully get into character until they put their costumes on, and audiences are unlikely to believe an actor in the role of Hamlet if he shows up in jeans and a T, if you aren’t dressing the part in your real life you can’t expect anyone to believe that you are the right guy for the job.
The answer to Lee’s troubles isn’t just in putting in more hours or waiting his turn. It isn’t switching companies for more opportunity either. What Lee needs is to recognize the importance of investing in himself and his personal brand. By reclaiming his public identity Lee will be able to brand himself as the person he not only is but wants to become. We should all take inventory of our professional attire at least once every six months. Are you sending the right message?