In the last two weeks I have covered the naming of our private businesses, the types of car we should drive and now I want to finish this lighthearted triptych with what an interim manager should wear. The article below is based for men mainly, because when it comes to what female interim managers should wear, the subject is mighty tricky! (If I pluck up enough courage by the time I make it to the end of the article, I’ll give my opinion on that too)!
Now I am of the belief that all interim managers should wear a white shirt, tie, and a dark suit – good quality, nothing cheap and badly fitting. Quality is everything, like the Audi A6, it needs to be quietly stylish. None of these flashy shiny Italian silk pajama suits that might look great in a yacht club, but frankly silly in a board room in Brussels, or any other European capital for that matter. With a suit, you really should have them tailor made, or at least ensure they fit perfectly. An ill fitting suit is far worse than no suit at all. Find yourself an Asian peripatetic tailor, who will fly over to measure you up twice a year. He will get to know you, your tastes and preferences. Whether you want a custom made mobile phone pocket in your trousers or jacket. He can balance your wishes with your partner’s expectations. It can be very tricky. The great thing about tailor made is that for a little extra fee they will sew your name into the label, very useful after a champagne reception, that somehow drifted on a little longer than expected and the last remaining jacket hanging over the back of the bar room stool is not yours!
Never have colored shirts. First thing in the morning when you are preparing for the day, you should be thinking about the meetings ahead of you, your clients worries and how best to tackle them, not whether this tie goes with that shirt, or whether the trousers you want are back from the dry cleaners or not. I knew of a blind person who always looked great. He was single, and as far as I knew had no one at home to help him out. So how did he do it? Simple, he had his sister label all his clothes with a simple numbering system. As long as the numbers fell into the right sequence, he knew the colors and styles would look good. Stray away from the sequence and he immediately risked ridicule (although, I guess no one would ever be that insensitive)? It’s the same for me, if I stray away from the usual combinations (and if my wife is suitably awake) I am likely to get something like “not going to work today”? or “are you going to work looking like that”? The truth is, she is always right, what might look ok in the dull, tungsten lit bedroom, does not always stand up to the judgment of harsh sunlight.
So here’s the dress code. Always a suit (or at worst, a smart jacket and trousers), white shirt tie, black (or possibly brown shoes, as long as they are not with a grey or black suit). Two clean handkerchiefs, one neatly ironed in the left or right trouser pocket, the other in the right hand pocket of jacket. The one in the jacket, is for unplanned accidents, emotional staff or other unforeseens.
Unfortunately, however, not everyone follows my code. Where I am working now, some project managers, look like they have stepped out of the shower and walked directly into the office! I guess it’s the style, but some of them have hair styles that look like they have been electrocuted. This is normally accompanied with shirts hanging out of their trousers and color combinations and clothing styles that one might like to risk over breakfast on Sunday, or by the pool in a holiday hotel, but never in a situation where your client might expect to take what you say seriously!
Some companies adopt a rule that on Fridays you can (read should) wear ‘casual’ clothes. I hate this. It takes me five times as long to get dressed on a Friday morning than on any other day. I really struggle, trying to select the right combination from a collection of clothes that I inwardly feel were designed for someone else other than me. I guess I am just not interested enough in clothes, I don’t like shopping for them and I don’t like selecting them either. I have a few favorites that I would happily wear every day but that is not acceptable either.
However, I can honestly say that my career began to take off, when I realized that how I dressed and looked had a direct effect on those choosing to do business with me. My idealistic, student notions of ‘people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover’ was scrapped and replaced by a brand new look, after some wise advice from someone far older and more successful than me.
Now for women’s clothing. As I write this my hands are shaking out of trepidation at the possible wrath I might face from my female colleagues, especially from the delightful variety of women that I find myself working with! As Robert Palmer sang “you’re a distraction to a man” and so it is for many of us men when confronted by attractive women wearing revealing clothes in the workplace. At a party, or on holiday, revealing clothing can be a very welcome diversion, but in the workplace it simply gets in the way of the message.
There are two ways of looking at the dilemma. Blending in, trying to be seen as equal among men or standing out to be noticed. In my view, if a woman wants to be taken seriously in what she says in a meeting, she needs to use the same tools as men, i.e. to communicate with her eyes, face and hands. She needs to pull her colleagues into her debate. Eye to eye contact is extremely important and this can be difficult if a man’s attention is being constantly drawn in another direction!
I have noticed that most women who have worked their way into higher levels of management, seem to dress in similar ways i.e. roll neck sweaters, or shirts and or jackets with collars that rise very high to just under the chin. This brings the attention directly to their face, which is exactly where they want it during a serious debate.
The English Victorian women with their high collars and long dresses made them look very formidable indeed, and you only have to look at images from the Victoria and Albert museum’s incredible collection of clothes in London to see what I mean. On the other hand there are also women who bring color and life into the board room, that the men’s dull white shits and micky mouse ties, simply can not replace. (By the way male interim managers should never wear comical ties, this is an absolute no, it does not matter who bought it for you)!
Today fashion is so varied that women can, more or less, wear anything, and that is exactly what they do! There is a trend (especially with younger staff) to wear more than one T shirt and jumpers; multiple layers straddled over one another. I find these a distraction because I wonder what the thought process is that goes into the selection of each layer. I am a classical person, I like simple shapes and forms, blouses with jackets and trousers or skirts, clothes that don’t shout out ‘look who I am’ but allow the woman to stand alongside her male companions and be taken seriously as an equal and not an outsider trying to attract attention.
Although in some parts of the world it is getting better, for many women in business, life is still tough in comparison with men. A woman who feels the need to get their male colleagues to take them more seriously should do what I did twenty years ago, step into the mainstream business fashion way of life. They should realize that how you look is how you are perceived, and there is no way around it. At home or on holiday is one thing, work is something different entirely. For female interim and project managers, no jeans, no combat trousers, no gothic beads, no low cut T shirts with, or without, meaningless slogans. In fact nothing too original apart from colors, fabrics and shapes. It may sound dull, but it is what we do as professional managers that matters, not trying to show glimpses of who we prefer to be, outside in our private lives.