I have hired hundreds of employees right out of school over the years as the founder and CEO of a Silicon Valley-based manufacturing company. However qualified—and they’re all highly educated and extremely talented—one of the most common mistakes I see is wardrobe choice, and this is true for both women and men.
It’s a shame, because no matter how good you look on paper, how you present yourself makes the most impact with a potential employer or new client. As cliché as it might sound, you have to learn to dress for success. Here are six tips:
1. Do your research… It goes without saying that, when it comes to professional dress, different industries have different norms, and what’s acceptable in the high-tech world would never fly in banking. That means you’ve got to do your research.
How does your target company present itself in its sales materials? How do its executives dress when delivering a keynote address? Does the company have behind-the-scenes video that depicts their employees at work? Take your lead from the corporate image a company presents (it’s very deliberate), and dress accordingly.
2. …but don’t ignore your gut. As I mentioned, what works in Silicon Valley (where jeans and flip-flops are the norm, and ties have gone the way of the dinosaur) would get you kicked to the curb on Wall Street.
Here’s where a little common sense comes into play. Sure, the idea of dressing like Mark Zuckerberg may be one of the reasons why you’re drawn to the tech industry, but showing up for an interview or to pitch a potential client dressed like Zuck may not be the best out-of-the-gate strategy, so enlist your gut when choosing what to wear.
3. Do dress to look your best… Whatever the clothing culture, nothing says success like maintaining your wardrobe. Obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many rumpled shirts, frayed collars and too-short hemlines I’ve seen come through my doors. You don’t have to spend a ton of money to look good, but you do need to invest the time. Run an iron over your clothes, polish your shoes and give yourself the once-over in the mirror to check for lint, fur or sticky kid fingerprints so you’re sure to put your best foot forward.
4. …but don’t dress sexy! Women, this one’s for you. And I get it—these days, unless you’re content to dress like your grandmother, it can seem nearly impossible to find something that doesn’t have a plunging neckline, a “slit-up-to-here” skirt or a too-high heel. But here’s the thing: If you want to be taken seriously, you have to dress appropriately. Fail to do so, and your wardrobe will serve as a distraction that takes the focus away from what you bring to the table.
5. Do dress for down the road… If you have your eye on a promotion, it often can be a good idea to model the dress of those in senior positions who already hold that position. After all, those at the top are always on the lookout for the company’s rising stars, and presenting yourself as someone who could easily fit that mold makes you easy to spot.
6. …but don’t overdress. Again, here’s where common sense comes into play, because if you’re going to land that next promotion, it’s crucial that you shine in your current position. What’s more, you’ve got to be seen as a team player first before you can be considered for a leadership position—something that can be difficult to pull off if your wardrobe is out of step with what your colleagues are wearing.
Although it’s true that, ultimately, we are free to dress however we like, keep in mind that what you wear matters. People form an opinion about who you are in the blink of an eye, and once they’ve made that unconscious decision, it can be difficult to overcome.
Whether you are a job candidate looking to land that ideal position, an employee with an eye toward that promotion or a business owner who wants to sell into that next company, think carefully about your goals and realize that what you wear can help or hurt you in achieving those goals in a big way. It’s your (wardrobe) choice.