Fashion Cents

Investing in your image can pay off professionally and boost your self-confidence

By Tina McFadden, For The Calgary Herald March 18, 2012

Kim Lawrence began her career at a software company where she says colleagues wore pyjamas to work. A self-professed “fashion victim,” Lawrence, never thought too much about outfits, she didn’t like shopping for clothes, and with two young children, she never had time to shop anyway.

So, when Lawrence recently landed a new role on the senior leadership team at the University of Calgary, she turned to an image consultant for help.

“It was about making an impression in a new role,” says Lawrence, 44. “This, for me, was an opportunity to intentionally take a look at the image I was presenting physically.”

Professional appearance and the way a person carries him or herself are two important factors when it comes to hiring and career advancement, says Andrew Ward, director at Diversified Staffing Services, an employment agency.

“If you’re trying to advance in your career, first things first, would be to improve your grooming habits and style of dress,” Ward says. “I think, in a city like Calgary, it’s still quite conservative, and people still look for conservative, professional dress . . . for a professional industry. . . . You don’t have to wear expensive clothing, and it doesn’t have to be fashionable; it just has to be neat and well presented.”

Image can have a great deal to do with a person’s career path, says Adam Legge, president and CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. However, image is about more than just looks, he says. “It’s about attitude and perspective, and that all comprises someone’s image.

“The image an accounting firm is looking for is very different from an Internet company,” he adds.

“A person’s image is a reflection of their own personal brand, and a company wants to hire someone who aligns with their own corporate brand,” Legge adds.

This past November, Lawrence updated her personal brand with the help of Camille Kim, a Calgary image consultant and owner of First Impressions Image.

Lawrence’s “image development” program began with a 90-minute consultation, which included a body-shape analysis, a colour analysis and discussion of lifestyle-appropriate clothing. The program also included a complete closet inventory and two trips to the mall. After the second shopping trip, Lawrence emerged with 10 new professional outfits.

Lawrence believes image is directly linked to self-confidence.

“I think it’s projecting yourself in the way you would like other people to view you,” she says.

The changes to Lawrence’s wardrobe have had an effect on her self-confidence in the workplace, and she believes the improvements she’s made to her image will pay off professionally. “It makes me feel much less self-conscious in a room full of people,” she says. “And for me, that gives me the confidence to be myself, as opposed to being so concerned about how people are viewing me.”

Like Lawrence, a number of Kim’s clients were in the process of changing jobs or looking for new jobs. In other cases, clients have come to Kim because they believed they were overlooked for a promotion because of their professional image.

“We all know that image plays a big role in how we’re perceived, and also how we’re treated in the world and especially in the workplace,” Kim says.

“So, if we present ourselves puttogether, looking organized and confident and capable and credible, that can really open doors and bring us respect. It can also bring opportunity in the form of promotion or better pay or opportunities within the company to travel or train.”

If you want to be taken seriously, you have to look the part and look professional, says Larry Rosen, CEO and chairman of Harry Rosen Inc. “I think that there’s a huge correlation between personal success and personal image,” he says. “Great clothes aren’t going to make a dumb person smart, but great clothes are going to make a smart person more effective.”

In business, we want to stand out for the right reasons, says Sue Jacques, the Civility CEO, an image consultant and professional speaker in Calgary. “A solid professional image is of value because it shows people, subliminally even, that you’re a leader, that you know about attention to detail and that you take care of yourself. When businesses, business leaders and even clients and colleagues … see that you take care of your own brand, they’ll be more likely to trust you with theirs.”

About 80 per cent of Kim’s image consulting clients are women. However, it’s not just women who can use some professional image tweaking, Kim says. She recalls one male client, an accountant at an oil and gas company, who wore khaki pants, a collared shirt and beat-up old shoes to business meetings.

“Studies show that we do look people up and down, and the last thing that we see is their shoes and the bottoms of their pants,” Kim says. “It almost becomes a focal point from your face to your shoes, and the shoes leave a lasting impression on people.”

Quality shoes and watches are key status items for men, Kim says. Other men judge a man by those items, she says. For women, the status accessory is a quality handbag.

The men that Jacques has worked with have got into a rut of wearing the same thing. “And they’ve reached a point in their lives where they want to beam with pride and show others their professionalism,” she says. “They’ve earned it, they’ve climbed the ladder, they’ve graduated from the program, or whatever it is.”

At the same time, the standards for professional image in Calgary are changing, Jacques says.

They’re becoming a lot more casual.

“People will come up to me and say, ‘Sorry, I’m dressed so casual, but it’s casual Friday. I hate having to wear jeans to work, but everyone else does, so I don’t want to rock the boat.’ ”

For those clients, Jacques advises: “Set your own standards and set them high.”

Oftentimes, companies’ dress policies are vague and employees don’t understand what they mean. In those cases, employees often look to business leaders for guidance, Jacques says. “Well, usually, if there’s three at the helm, they’re dressed in three different ways, too. So what’s lacking is a sense of certainty and consistency about what that image is.”

Professionalism and image don’t just apply to executives, Jacques adds. “Anybody who goes to work – no matter what it is that we do – has an opportunity in every moment to show up representing yourself and your profession with pride.”

And representing yourself with pride by improving your image is not self-indulging or vain, Lawrence insists. “I don’t think you have to stretch to justify it,” she says. “I had been for a while.

I thought, as mothers, we’re all martyrs, and we’re always at the end of the list of people who need attention. And as long as my kids are dressed … and my house is fine, and as long as I get out the door and get to work on time, we’re good. But at a certain point in time, I think you have to say, ‘It’s time to make that investment and take yourself seriously.’ ”

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald