Business Attire

Here Is How You Should Upgrade Your Professional Image

Here Is How You Should Upgrade Your Professional Image
Image credit: Olu Eletu |

Today's leaders should take note: Your professional image still matters. No matter how formal or informal the work environment, the way you present yourself has an impact. This is especially true in first impressions. According to research from Princeton University, people assess your competence, trustworthiness, and likeability in just a tenth of a second, solely based on the way you look.

The difference between today’s workplace and the “dress for success” era is that the range of options is so much broader. Norms have evolved and fragmented. In some settings, red sneakers or dress t-shirts can convey status; in others not so much. The desired professional image for a 50-something executive at a manufacturing company in China may be completely different for a young ad agency CEO in New York City. Plus, whatever image we present is magnified by social-media services like LinkedIn. Chances are, your headshots are seen much more often now than a decade or two ago. Millennials, it seems, face the paradox of being the least formal generation yet the most conscious of style and personal branding. It can be confusing.

Related: What Your Profile Photo Is Telling Employers 

So how do we navigate this? How do we know when to invest in an upgrade? And what’s the best way to pull off one that enhances our goals? Here are some tips:

Decide if the time is right.

As an executive coach, I’ve seen image upgrades be particularly helpful during transitions -- when looking for a new job, stepping into a new or more public role, or changing work environments. If you’re in a period of change or just feeling stuck and in a rut, now may be a good time. If you’re not sure, ask for honest feedback from trusted friends, colleagues and professionals. Look for cues about how others perceive you. Maybe there’s no need for an upgrade and that’s OK.  

Know your goals.

Get clear on what impact you’re hoping to have. Are you looking to refresh your image or pivot it? For one person, the goal may be to be taken more seriously and enhance their professional image. For another, it may be to be perceived as more approachable, or more modern and stylish. For someone moving from finance to advertising, maybe they want to look more “SoHo.” (It’s OK to use characterizations like that.)

Understand the context.

Look at your work environment like an anthropologist. What are the norms of your environment? What conveys status? Who are your most important audiences? How do the people you respect and look up to present themselves? The better you understand the cultural context, the more control you can have over your impact.

Work with professionals.

Enlist the support of professionals and share with them your goals and context. Hire a personal stylist, or use the free styling service of a store like J.Crew. Try a hair stylist instead of a barber. Work with a professional photographer instead of your spouse or friend. It’s not as expensive as you might think.

Related: 5 Affordable Ways to Make Your Online Profile Stand Out

Make it efficient.

The point of a style upgrade isn’t to become more vain or to spend more time fussing over what to wear. Instead, use it as an opportunity to reduce decision fatigue. Pick a standard work uniform or a few go-to options. Buy all your clothes at once with a stylist instead of shopping alone, one article of clothing at a time.

If you doubt the impact, consider Tim Williams, the Berlin-based pitchman for the travel website Trivago. In a matter of months, the consensus on "The Trivago Guy" has gone from creepy to crush-worthy. The Twittersphere remains abuzz. Who would've thought a man's style would become central to the marketing of a travel website?

Or consider my experience. I hate pictures of myself but decided to up my image about a year and a half ago. I hired a professional photographer, who then referred me to a stylist at a J.Crew Men's Store.

Working with a stylist was a game changer and didn't cost as much as you might think. Seeing my "new self" reflected back to me boosted my confidence and self-image. The photographer made the most of a snowy, grey day. For men, another place to look is the Alpha M makeover videos on YouTube.

As superficial as it may seem, the impact of an image upgrade isn’t just how others perceive us but how we see ourselves. It’s worth bringing some consciousness and intentionality to style to grow your impact as an executive and leader.

Related: The Do's and Don'ts for Taking the Perfect LinkedIn