Most academics may not consider style an important factor when contemplating a decision to do consulting work or start a business. Yet, how you dress and present yourself is actually one of the most critical elements to promoting your professional skills and intellectual abilities in the best manner.
Of course, it is a common stereotype that people who work in academe do not care about such “superficial” factors as fashion and style. In this stereotype, academics have eschewed unimportant things like appearances in favor of the intellectual rigor and substance of the scholarly life. While we all know people like this, I think it’s safe to observe that most higher education professionals possess a sense of appropriate attire for different situations.
That said, many academics may feel uncertain as to what to wear in a non-academic setting or, worse, may not understand why they should worry about their dress when doing consulting or non-academic work. After all, when you own your own business or do consulting, you have the freedom of not seeing your clients on a daily basis. So, why does it matter what you wear, as long as you complete quality work on time and on budget?
Based on my experiences as an entrepreneur, here are four reasons why I think style is important for academics entering the business world.
Look Like What You Know
When trying to build business and get new clients, the perception of confidence and competence is everything. Clients need to feel assured that you are not only experienced and qualified but that you are a good person to work with and thus capable of meeting their needs. This means that you need to look like you know what you’re doing. Even the best written résumé in the world is completely lost if you don’t present yourself in a professional and approachable way.
It’s a cliché to observe that people form an impression of you within the first few seconds after meeting you. Yet, as a higher ed professional, potential clients already have a perception of you and your abilities before they ever meet you. They know you’re smart and well-educated. But they don’t know you, your work ethic, or your interpersonal skills.
While personality and deportment carry you far, the way you dress gives an impression of your professionalism, your attentiveness to detail, and your confidence. Clients need to feel that they’re hiring the best of the best and that you’ve got their best interests at heart. In this case, what you wear reflects your mental acuity because it shows that you care about yourself and your work.
Ditch the Academic Interview Suit
The biggest piece of advice that I find myself giving former academics looking for a non-academic job is to dismiss the notion that all job interviews require a formal suit. I think that academic interviews have prepared us for a stodgy business world that no longer exists. This is not to say that you should dress casually for interviews, but simply that you should consider the company and job or type of project before donning a formal business suit.
To me, business attire is all about context. As a consultant or new business owner, you’ll encounter different types of client interviews. I have had initial client meetings in every venue imaginable, from ultra-modern offices to quick conversations at a busy coffee shop to chats over clothing samples in a local boutique. Whether you’re a man or woman, a suit is valuable for more formal discussions in an office-based environment. However, a more casual meet-and-greet over lunch or coffee may necessitate a less formal outfit, such as a pair of trousers and nice shirt for men or a skirt, sweater, and heels for women.
Also, make sure that you wear something in which you feel comfortable. Don’t go buy an expensive new outfit that makes you feel self-conscious or not yourself. It’s easy for others to tell when you don’t feel comfortable, which can affect the tenor and outcome of your business deal. When you’re talking to a client, the focus should be on them and the project at hand, not anything else. If you’re not used to wearing suits, then either don’t wear one or find one in which you feel confident. Ideally, your clothes should enhance you, rather than be a distraction to either you or your client.
Dress for Success
On the other hand, while too much formality is not a good thing, dressing too casually is equally a problem. Within limits, I generally prefer to be overdressed everywhere I go. This is not because I happen to do some work in fashion (along with education research) but because I never know when I’m going to run into a potential or current client.
However, again, it’s also a matter of perception. To some extent, as an entrepreneur, people expect you to fail. It’s not that they want you to fail. It’s just that such a large portion of business ventures do not succeed that people have begun to think that new business owners are doomed. This applies equally to consultants, who can be in a similarly precarious position when trying to get work and keep it flowing regularly.
So, don’t give clients or potential business partners an opportunity to not take you seriously by dressing inappropriately, whether too casually or too formally. I’ve actually gotten clients via random conversations in cafés, dinner parties, and even grocery stores. For the same reason that I always carry my business cards with me, I prefer to feel like I’m always prepared for a client meeting at a moment’s notice.
The Study of Style
Another myth about style is that it is difficult, costs a lot of money, and requires a lot of effort. Indeed, programs like TLC’s “What Not to Wear” have made a business of revamping people’s wardrobes. Yet, for most of us, it need not be that much work. You probably already have most of what you need in your closet.
I’m here to tell you that, despite my interest in fashion, I do not spend a ton of time getting dressed. Like most people, I simply am too busy. My time is literally money, since I run my own business. I have multiple clients and over 40 consultants to manage, so am all about donning outfits that are functional, easy, and stylish.
In this way, for both men and women, dressing for business is a simple matter of blending classic basics with more seasonal or trendy pieces. For men, business basics may be a solid navy or dark gray suit. For women, it may be a dark pencil skirt and white blouse or a neutral suit. The idea is to take these staples and pair them with more colorful and interesting pieces, whether a tie or patterned blouse.
In all, while you don’t have to wear your nicest shoes to pick up your mail, it is nonetheless important to consider that almost any random encounter can turn into a business opportunity. Being prepared and dressing appropriately as often as possible can do wonders to set you apart from the competition and showcase your talents as an experienced higher ed professional.
Jessica Quillin is owner of Quillin Consulting, LLC, a consulting firm in Washington, and author of the forthcoming Shelley and the Musico-Poetics of Romanticism (Ashgate). She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Cambridge.