They say that a suit and a clean shave are vital in business. After all, if you are dressed too casually, you will give off the wrong impression. Really? Apparently so; they also say that if your face does not feel like a baby’s butt, you will not be taken seriously. It is not a fallacy to assert that looking your best is important in life, let alone in business. This is all very true, but business is about the bottom line and the bottom line is simple: acting the part is more important than looking the part.
Professionalism is a very broad term. For some, it is about how you look, for others it comes down to how you speak, and yet for many, it is about how you present yourself — and presentation is about far more than a book’s cover. It is about manners, communication skills, ideas, and demeanor. It’s about your presence.
Be environmentally friendly
The reality is that professionalism depends on where you work. The environment is key. Lawyers and accountants go from seeing clients to stepping into courtrooms and boardrooms. As a result, making that first impression is important. While some wish to present themselves in outlandish garb, many simply try to remain conservative in their demeanor. After all, would you trust a lawyer with an earring, an eccentric hairdo and a tattoo of a snake wrapped around a rose on his neck?
Probably not — you would wonder why he’s not the defendant . On the other hand, if you were to hire a graphic designer, you would probably be alarmed if he showed up in a corporate suit. Ultimately, the lesson is not so much what you wear, but the context in which you find yourself.
So instead of wasting your time specifying what constitutes professionalism, here are some general guidelines to keep in mind in your quest for the throne, or as I like to call it: corporate maneuvering.
Sticking out is a good thing…
The first rule in “corporate maneuvering” is that if you wish to rise, you need to stand out. Someone might be square, yet perform well. His results, in black and white, reinforce that he should be taken seriously and is therefore a star.
If your results are off the scale and make your peers look like amateurs, then you can be invisible because your results will do the talking for you. But if your results are ordinary, then you will need charisma and electricity in order to move up. After all, some leaders were poor operational executives, but their vision and leadership skills helped them rise to the top (you know who they are).
But even if your results are stellar, standing out can make the difference between being an associate and being the big cheese.
As cited in previous articles, Henry Blodget was an analyst like many others while at CIBC Oppenheimer. The main reason he stood out was because he made bold claims thanks to his journalism background. He moved to the big bull itself, Merrill Lynch. Was he professional when he claimed that Amazon.com’s stock would hit $400? Yes, he may have been bold, but his analysis was extremely sound and professional. While Blodget’s appearance and behavior were largely normal (well, as normal as a dot-com analyst could behave), his calls were unconventional.
…Being an oddball is not
People in general are full of it. There, I said it. People prefer those that look, speak and act like themselves. Individuality is prized in most corporations — weirdness is not. But weird is a very relative term, hence why context is key. Many so-called alternative magazines and media companies have fairly “weird,” unofficial policies, and being too “normal” might make you stand out, alienate colleagues and miss out on opportunities, both socially and professionally.
The risk of wearing Hugh Hefner’s robe…
Speak the truth
I will be the first to admit that there is some inherent double talk in this advice, but remember that there is hypocrisy in everything companies do. “We like innovation” is a common chant yet someone that deviates from company goals is labeled a troublemaker. That is why you must understand where you work, what the culture is and how you can stand out in a healthy way.
Steve Case was never “a suit and tie” kind of guy, but this did not stop him from becoming a powerhouse in media and technology. This made sense for him and his clients because of AOL’s culture. Hugh Hefner has built an empire in his garb; who can say that he is unprofessional? He took a magazine that featured naked women and turned it into a cultural icon and billion-dollar industry. That’s all fine and dandy, but if you had an interview at Mr. Hefner’s company (no, not as a model), should you show up dressed like Hugh?
No — and not because it would be unprofessional (it probably is), but because you would be copying him. Imitation may be the ultimate form of flattery, but it could also be misconstrued as mockery.
I’ve never been a big fan of shaving, at least not every day. Don’t get me wrong; proper grooming is vital, but there is something about the idea of removing layers of skin early in the morning that makes me say, “maybe tomorrow.”
Arriving at work with a cleanly shaven face seems to be of the utmost importance in business, yet Larry Ellison and Philip Knight are just some of the legendary (and bearded) CEOs in the business landscape with apt facial hair. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen also has a beard. Are these men unprofessional? Not at all, but is it also a coincidence that they have founded their own companies? The lesson? If you choose to opt out of shaving, at least keep it well groomed and try not to let things (your facial hair and the rest of your appearance) get out of hand.
Serve your skills
Believe you me, in business, being professional broadly means keeping your word, as well as being fair and respectful. Loosely speaking, it means being on time and putting the team’s interests very high on your list of priorities.
And if you wish to get something pierced, go for it, just keep the context of your job in mind and remember that people will jump to their own conclusions.
All jokes aside, we know that looks matter in business, but we also know that looks alone cannot get the job done; the right outlook and set of skills does. So try to look your best, but mostly, deliver the goods and you’ll get your just desserts.
Ash Karbasfrooshan is also the author of Course To Success, available at www.CourseToSuccess.com.