Why fashion matters in the boardroom

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Did you hear about the engineer who wore a wrinkled polo shirt to a meeting with President Barack Obama? In fairness, he didn’t know the meeting was with his Commander-in-Chief, and he was told to dress in business casual attire. But his fashion fail is a lesson any business leader should heed.

The trend to dress down in the office is not a new one, but when CEOs like Mark Zuckerberg are wearing hoodies to meet with investors, one has to wonder if fashion in the workplace even matters anymore.

“We have more visibility in what we do than we think, you are the ambassador of your company; your image does matter,” says Lynne Mackay, founder of the Mackay Byrne Group based in Ottawa.

Mackay has over 20 years of experience helping C-Suite executives reach their power suit-potential. “People have to understand that their appearance is a form of communication,” she says. “If you want to be taken seriously and you want to build that credibility and that image, then your appearance, how you dress, how you groom yourself, your choice of colour, your choice of accessories, your choice of footwear, everything will impact the opinion that person has of you.”

Studies about how the clothing makes the self and the impact of workplace attire on employee self-perceptions reinforce the notion that clothes do make the man (or woman of course). How we dress is not only a reflection of our personal style, but also a factor in how people interpret those choices. For senior executives the stakes become higher when it comes to how you present yourself to your employees and to clients.

A study from  Harvard University titled The Red Sneakers Effect, examined how people react to nonconforming behaviors and discovered that, “while unintentional violations of normative codes and etiquette can indeed result in negative inferences and attributions, when the deviant behaviour appears to be deliberate, it can lead to a higher rather than lower status and competence inferences.”

So what is an executive to do? Is a bespoke suit with a colourful pocket square the way to go? Or can everyone just focus on their work and forget about the clothes they’re wearing?

To Christa Dickenson, the Executive Director of Interactive Ontario, a not-for-profit industry trade organization committed to the growth of the Ontario interactive digital content industry, proper style in the workplace for executives is crucial. “It reflects the person you are but also your standards and your professionalism and at the end of the day, your values.”

For Dickenson, being presentable to a point where she can be pulled into any situation and feel comfortable is key. When she’s polished and put together, “I feel more confident, I feel like people are noticing me for what I want to be noticed.”

Adhering to the working environment in terms of clothing and appearance is what makes the difference between an executive who commands the boardroom and one who distracts from the company’s core message. “Everything in small doses applies to all aspects of life,” says Dickenson. “Everything I own can be dressed up or down quickly and easily, it’s not a matter of wearing a suit, but wearing something that is a blend of professionalism with a flair of creative in it.”

While much effort should be going into what you wear and how you present yourself, both Mackay and Dickenson agree that the greater importance and focus should be on who you are meeting with and tailoring your outfit to that audience. “Clients have expectations and today the world is very competitive, there are many choices, therefore your image becomes something that can differentiate you from the competition,” says Mackay.

Dickenson echoes those sentiments, especially when it comes to standing out. Her best advice is to own a signature look. “I have a signature short dark haircut…it’s easy to maintain, but it stands out, it’s not excessive and it’s not distracting. Embrace who you are, find what works for you and don’t deviate.”

And just as runway fashion trends come and go and repeat themselves over and over again, so do workplace dress codes. “What drives image is economics, when things become lean and mean, you typically see companies become more formal again,” says Mackay. In recent years some companies like Newsweek have reverted back to more formal dress policies, while others like Google maintain no standard dress code policy.

Since there are no hard or fast rules for fashion in the workplace, when it comes to putting your best designer shoe foot forward, Mackay concludes, “If you look good, you feel good, if you feel good, you do good.”

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Kareen Madian

Kareen Madian

Kareen Madian started her business journalism career as an intern at CNBC. As the Web Editor for MoneySense.ca and Senior Web Editor for CanadianBusiness.com she created and produced content on all matters of business related news. Whether it be personal finance, daily market activity or interviews with some of Canada’s top CEOs, Kareen’s desire to make business news exciting and entertaining for her readers is always her top priority. Kareen is based in Toronto, and in her spare time she enjoys helping the Canadian economy by shopping for shoes. Find her on Twitter here
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