While conducting research for my first book, I had the opportunity to interview a true military hero, Commander Matt Eversmann. He teaches leadership at Johns Hopkins University. Eversmann led troops into battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. The fierce battle served as the inspiration behind the movie Black Hawk Down.
I asked Eversmann, "What's the secret of leadership?" His answer puzzled me for a moment. He said it starts with how a leader wears his "uniform." Eversmann said the first time he meets a subordinate, his whites are whiter, his shoes are shinier, and his pants are better pressed. Always dress a little better than everyone else, he advised.
After my initial conversation with Eversmann, I filed those words away without giving them a second thought. A few weeks later I interviewed a man who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan. Funny thing about Reagan, he said, the former President always looked a little better than everyone else in the room. I realized we were on to something. Listeners will size you up before you say a word. Pay attention to what your wardrobe says about you.
LOOK SHARP. James Citrin runs the global technology and communications practice for the world's largest private executive search company, Spencer Stuart. The outfit is responsible for 60% of Fortune 500 CEO placements. He knows what to look for in an executive.
Citrin and I have had long discussions about leadership communications. "How much emphasis do you place on packaging, especially how one looks?" I asked him.
"Nobody would talk about it as important, but it's important," Citrin said. "The proper way it's discussed is, 'She has executive presence,' or 'He has a command.' But what they're really saying is, Do they project neatness? Physically, are they what you expect? Do they dress appropriately to fit the culture? Are they well-groomed? People respond to all these things."
Citrin and others tell me if someone looks the part before they say a word, it mentally allows their audiences to check the box that says, "This person looks like a leader, someone I should listen to." It allows your listeners to be more receptive to the message.
TALK IS CHEAP. Several weeks ago, I worked with a very wealthy financier to help him prepare for a major conference. We worked on his message, presentation, and body language, but when it came time for the dress rehearsal he had on a worn-out dress shirt (the kind where the collar is so old it starts to turn up on the sides), a tie that looked as though it came off the under-$2 rack, and a coffee stain on his white shirt. Do you really think people in his audience are going to look past his wardrobe to focus on his message? Probably not.
Since your listeners will form first impressions -- and, in many cases, make up their minds about you -- in the first seven seconds, it pays to look your best in any type of presentation. "The way we dress says a lot about us before we ever say a word," Donald Trump writes in How to Get Rich. Trump used to wear inexpensive clothes because he didn't think it made a difference. He later learned that his attitude was "wrong-headed."
Trump now buys "very high-quality shoes, and they seem to last forever, whereas the cheapos wear out quickly and always looked as cheap as the price I'd paid for them. The same is true for suits."
Take a look at other great business leaders. They dress remarkably well: Oracle (ORCL) CEO Larry Ellison, GE's (GE) Jeffrey Immelt, eBay's (EBAY) Meg Whitman. They all have style. They all wear high-quality clothes that fit well. They also pay attention to the color combinations that complement their hair and skin color.
PROFESSIONAL HELP. To learn more about shopping for suits, I turned to a mecca of fashion: Barneys New York on Madison Avenue. Tom Kalenderian is Barneys' executive vice-president and general merchandise manager.
Kalenderian believes a business professional who's well-dressed in "better products," as the high-end category is known, will feel better, have higher self esteem, and exude a "sense of comfort and confidence in their presentations."
Kalenderian recommends that customers find a retailer whose styles they like and establish a relationship with the sales professionals in the store. The merchants are paid to be aware of styles and trends. Few of us have the time to keep up with all the fashion magazines, but if you find someone you trust, he or she can make sure you always look professional, contemporary, and your best. It's critical to winning people over.
IT'S YOUR TURN. Thank you for all the great feedback on this column. Now I would like to hear directly from you for future topics and profiles. Please feel free to send me examples of men and women you admire as great business communicators, especially if they inspire their audiences.
In addition, if you have faced professional communications challenges, I would like to hear from you. We can tackle the subjects from time to time. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for your support.