Senior decision makers and HR executives constantly confide in me that high potential candidates for promotions and leadership positions just do not exude the kind of image that will let them keep moving onward and upward. But they don’t know how to explain this to these employees without the risk of embarrassing them or stepping over the line into extremely sensitive personal territory. They will often ask me to come on board as a consultant to address these delicate issues and have these rather awkward conversations. They know that I can broach the subject in such a way that the person receiving this value and potentially career-saving feedback can accept it as constructive – and that I can also give them specific tips and guidance on what to do to enhance and improve their professional image in response to the evaluation.
As a certified image consultant and a former top executive in one of the largest department stores I can tell you that these days there is no one-size-fits-all answer, solution, or “dress for success” formula. That may have worked in the 1980s but today you have to take an approach that cannot be found by thumbing through your company’s dress code or HR manual. There are 5 principle rules that are unspoken and unwritten, and to be a successful leader and advance your career in 2011 you have to follow them, despite the fact that nobody in your company will explain them to you. Pay close, careful attention to these and you will begin to understand how “image is everything” while you also capitalize on that concept and leverage it to your advantage – not your silent detriment.
Rule #1: Consistently Look Your Ultimate Best Day-In and Day-Out
What your overall appearance communicates is the outward expression of your internal self-image. If you value yourself and are confident and want others to perceive you in a positive light, you have make the way you look resonate with who you are and what kind of leader and professional you want to be. Be memorable not just for your performance but for the strong presence you convey. Don’t let visual appearance be the one thing that stands in your way. Look your best every day – in every business situation – to fully leverage your personal brand.
Rule #2: Develop an Authentic and Highly Visible Leadership Brand Package
To distinguish yourself from the competition in a positively outstanding way, create a uniquely authentic leadership brand image that is conveyed through a strong external package of appearance, communication, and behavior. Personal brand attributes broadcast silent messages to attract your ideal audience – whether that is the HR team, senior executive decision makers, or an ideal clientele. Leverage your brand and image through various elements including your wardrobe and signature style, the fabrics and accessories you wear, your hairstyle, and overall grooming to ensure that your look is distinctive, relevant, confident, innovative, and polished.
Rule #3: Dress as an Ambassador of Your Organization’s Unique Culture
While I do teach the four basic levels of business dress to large organizations, if an individual asks me how they need to dress there is never one answer that is appropriate to everybody. To determine what look is right for you, first ask yourself some key questions in order to better define your company’s culture and what role you play as a representative of the organization. What are the culture, philosophy, and mission statement trying to convey? What are the company ideals and who are the types of new clients you are you hoping to attract? Who is good role model for the kind of professional image your organization wants to exude? Sometimes there are persons within the organization you can look to for exemplary standards or maybe you need to look to icons of your industry or even celebrities outside the industry. What image and dress code challenges does your organization face? You need to feel authentic in how you dress but also coincide and resonate with the corporate brand and culture. Become a role model for others and that will give you greater career acceleration as you rise higher within the organization – where every detail of your appearance will come under constant daily scrutiny by those you lead.
Rule #4: Make a Visual “Impression of Increase”
Many professionals I coach want to tell me all the reasons why they shouldn’t have a top-notch image. “I don’t want to dress better than my boss,” they’ll say, or “I don’t want to overdress and intimidate a new prospect or seem too formal when interacting with my regular clients.” They worry that others in the office will perceive them as “trying too hard.” But here are the hard facts, based on my 30 years of experience working with people who want to accelerate their careers. People want to work with, and for, those who project an attitude and image of success. Whether you are in a sales position, a top executive role, or you are a high potential emerging leader, your outer image is a direct reflection of your professional confidence, poise, and grace. People make judgments about you in two seconds based entirely on external image. Do you look successful? People who put you down for dressing nicely don’t have an issue with you – they have a confidence issue with themselves that they haven’t faced up to. I use the term “impression of increase” to describe the ability to exude a successful image through your overall appearance and silently communicate that you are a natural leader and high performance professional.
Rule #5: Leverage Your Image for Greater Visibility by Looking the Part Now
In order for your career to progress predictably in these unpredictable times you have to prepare now for the role you want to occupy after your next big promotion. Senior executives are looking for role models who can entertain a client with poise, grace, and persuasive charisma over a power lunch or speak at a convention on behalf of the entire company. They want to promote those who can be the face of the organization and meet with the media to convey credibility and professionalism when things go awry. Don’t unconsciously hold yourself back from greater visibility. Look your absolute best at all times. Then they will want you to be their representative and you’ll be noticed, valued, and promoted.
Sarah Hathorn, AICI CIP, CPBS is an internationally distinguished executive coach, corporate consultant, professional speaker, and the founding CEO of her own company, Illustra Consulting. A career acceleration and leadership presence expert, Hathorn created the innovative Predictable Promotion System™, a 10-step proprietary process she uses to coach managers aspiring to be directors, directors seeking vice presidential promotions, and VP’s eager to ascend to the C-suite. Hathorn served as a senior level executive for a Fortune 100 company for 25 years, and she has more than 30 years of experience mentoring high potentials for rapid career advancement and extraordinary success.
Copyright © 2011, Sarah Hathorn, AICI CIP, CPBS
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