Using show and tell, Q&A and videos, we walk leaders at Bates Communications’ Leadership Open Enrollment programs through our firm’s highly effective 5-step process for using style and professionalism to drive business results. The conversation is rich and action orientated, motivating participants to take steps right away that put them more in control of how perceptions about their leadership and business acumen are being communicated before they utter a word.

Over the years that we have been involved in these programs with Bates, there has been a significant shift in the marketplace when it comes to how executives dress. While only a handful of participants had a business casual option more than one day a week when we began delivering our message five years ago at these forums, today almost everyone who attends is either practicing business casual daily or struggling to relax their personal code without taking it too far. 

So how do you relax your look while still showing up in a way that sets a business tone and honors your position in your company? Read on. Here are 3 common questions we are asked about the state of business casual with answers to help you use the trend effectively:

Q:  All my younger colleagues wear jeans daily. As a leader in my department, I don’t feel comfortable wearing them. Is this old school thinking? What is your point of view?

A:  Although all jeans are not created equally, they have become a staple in corporate America. Incorporating them into a professional wardrobe while still remaining true to yourself can help you connect with others while signaling a contemporary mindset. For men, start with a pair with a dark rinse, they are more professional than light rinses, and then pair them with a brown belt and brown, more casual footwear. A dress shirt that is a step down from one you typically pair with formal suiting (think shirts other than white with a slight or bold pattern) and a fresh sports jacket that connects to the weight of the jeans are the final pieces for transitioning into a jeans look from more formal business attire. Women, if you don’t feel comfortable in jeans, don’t wear them. While they can look great on female leaders who do like the look, there are other clothing options that can help you achieve a more relaxed appearance when you need it. Regardless of your body size or type, skinny jeans or leggings with a long jacket or top, are an easy way to wear casual bottoms for work. The stretch in these styles allows many to wear them well. Long scarfs, well placed jewelry, and either flats, heels or boots/booties all compliment this style of dress well. No matter what you choose to wear to work, remember that the fit, fabric and quality of each item is critical to showing up polished and professional.

Q:  My team recently made an important presentation to the SLT. I was horrified at the overly casual dress choices most made. When I addressed it with the group, there was much resistance with the majority saying that dress no longer matters, and we are a business casual tech company. Am I missing something? I was embarrassed, and I felt the presentation came across as amateurish despite several weeks of hard work in preparation of this meeting. 

A:  I am always saddened to hear that people were dismissed or their ideas were not as effectively presented because of something that is so easy to control – how you show up. My advice to your team: no matter how casual your office is on a day to day basis, on days when presentation matters most, it is common courtesy to dress in a way that unquestionably sets a professional business tone that honors the importance of the moment. This doesn’t mean that you need to dress completely differently than your normal work attire. Being mindful of eliminating the distractions often caused by sloppy and overly casual choices is the suggestion. A layering piece over a shirt or blouse, wrinkle free items, grooming, how everything fits and works together to complete your look, and the current state of your shoes, are a few examples of things to think about as you prepare to present.  If this group is young, also share that knowing how to step it up at the right times shows maturity of thought as well as respect for oneself and others. People experience you in many different ways. In a meeting like this, they pay attention even more. Dressing one step up makes you stand out in all the right ways. 

Q:  Are sneakers at work professional?

A:  In some industries yes, in some industries no. Much of their popularity is being driven by their makers and the millions they spend promoting them. Having said that, a modern sneaker can do wonders for your feet, back and psyche. If you work in a conservative industry, try a sneaker-shoe “hybrid,” just don’t wear them with traditional attire. Your whole look should be modern and relaxed when sporting sneakers. If you are in a creative or tech environment by all means flaunt them with pants, jeans and even some skirts and dresses.  I recently had an executive in a Bates session that worked at Nike. He had on beautiful black track pants, a zippered Nike jacket, a standard dress shirt and a gorgeous pair of very modern Nike runners (as he called them!)  At lunch, he sought out my opinion on his outfit, wondering if it was ok to wear in downtown Boston at a professional conference with other leaders. I smiled and told him he looked great. Not only was he representing his brand well, but the track pants were close in style and fit to dress pants (the black color helped), and the fact that he had a dress shirt peeking out of the zippered jacket was brilliant. In his late 50s/early 60s, his salt and pepper hair was cut well and his eyeglasses with a thin metal frame complimented his casual yet modern and sophisticated vibe. I still think about him. In my opinion, he was the best dressed guy in the room that day.

Editors’ Note:  There is more to the executive image conversation than wardrobe. Hair styles, makeup, and facial hair also factor into the equation. Mary Lou Andre recently shared her insights with the Business Insider on how hair can potentially sabotage your success at work. Follow this link to read the article.   

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