I was standing at my booth at a small trade show in October 1978 and heard the keynote speaker say, “The way you dress tells people whether you are the CEO, stock boy or a__hole. The way you dress creates your image.”
The speaker was John T. Molloy who wrote Dress for Success. The book was published in 1988, but he was a well-known image consultant ten years before the book.
His message was simple. The way you dress determines your image. To be taken seriously, you must dress right. He had rules for dressing which don’t apply today. In today’s startup culture, the rule for dress is supposedly that there are no rules.
I say, “Baloney.”
There were rules for dressing 30 years ago, and there are still rules. The reason is people still judge you based on the way you look. Like it or not, it is true.
Dress sloppy, and people think you are sloppy. Dress neatly, and people respect you and take you seriously.
I have entrepreneurs come to me looking for money all the time. Every once in a while, I have someone show up in a stained tee shirt, jeans and Tom’s shoes, needing a haircut and a shave. Would you invest in someone who showed up like this? Maybe, but it is a lot to overcome.
Molloy was onto something. The way we dress is an important part of our image. In the eighties, I was always dressed in suits and ties. For the past 20 years, I have dressed in slacks, button down dress shirts (or golf shirts) and shined leather shoes. I always have a shave and a haircut. That’s my image.
Like it or not, first impressions happen even before you open your mouth. This is your image. The good news is this: you are in control of their first impression.
Here are my three rules for creating a positive image in the marketplace.
1. Dress the same way every day
The way you dress crafts your image which helps make you memorable. You know this is true. Just think of Steve Jobs. He wore the same thing every day, a black mock turtleneck, blue jeans and New Balance sneakers. He was clearly casual but neatly dressed with a nice haircut and well-maintained beard when he had one.
This day to day consistency in dress works in not only crafting your image but also in creating trust. People don’t like surprises. They want you to be predictable. I had a friend who would dress like a redneck one day, a hipster the next, and a cowboy on another day. I never knew who he was, and this impacted our relationship.
2. Dress like the leaders in your market or company
Every industry has a dress code. Every company has a dress code. Forget what is published. Dress like the leaders in the industry or company. You can’t go wrong with this rule.
If you want to be a leader, then look like one.
In thinking through this issue of how to dress, I looked up images from some of the leaders of Silicon Valley. They all wear simple crew neck black or grey tee shirts and sometimes dress shirts with button down collars with properly fitted jeans. Most wear sport coats to presentations, except for Zuckerberg who wears a hoodie.
VC’s have their own success look. Google them. You’ll see what I mean.
3. Dress so your clothes disappear
Clothes should never make a fashion statement. You are not a fashion statement. Neatness in appearance is all that counts in making the first impression. You know you missed the mark when someone remembers you by the way you dressed the first time you met. You should be remembered by what you said, not what you wore.
Also in this category is cologne, skin creams or perfumed deodorants. Many people, like me, are allergic to scents or don’t like the odor of some fragrances. Why take a chance with a scent of any kind. It has very little upside with an enormous downside. This includes your personal scent. Bathe.
One final thought
Be sure always to have your hair trimmed properly. If you have a beard, it should look like you maintain it, even if it is one of those two-day growths. Leaders practice impeccable personal hygiene.
These image rules leave plenty of latitude for different ways to dress. When making your decision on your image, you can be sure people are watching and judging. I don’t care if they admit it or not. They can’t help themselves.
The old maxim holds true, even today: You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Also published on Medium.