Dress for Success

Last week I blogged on Leading a Great Meeting. Giving a successful presentation can be part of this. As you continue your leadership journey, it is likely you will give more presentations and each one puts your leadership on display.

At first, your audience is the people you work with, whether it’s a lesson you are delivering, speaking to grade, or working with subject level teachers. Over time, your audience will grow, and you won’t know everyone in attendance. Beyond the 5 “P’s” from last week’s blog (to ensure the content, structure, and format will be powerful), you need to look professional. Like it or not, as soon as we step up to make the presentation, the audience will judge us.

Participants make assessments about our knowledge even before we speak. How can we have our audience see us in the best possible light? Although it may sound superficial, dress makes a statement that sets the tone for how we and our message are perceived.

If this is something you’re unsure about, Nick Morgan offers these five tips in What Should a Speaker Wear in 2023?:

  1. Dress slightly better than the audience – If you have ever attended a conference, you may have observed the vendor representatives dress better than attendees. They are making a sales pitch and are dressing to show competence. So are you when you make a presentation.
  2. Dress to fulfill your brand – This is a bit tricky, and you may not want to concern yourself about this tip. The last thing you want to look like is the stereotypical librarian. Think about your audience, what they might expect, and what might make the strongest impression. For example, if your expertise is around building advocates, an appropriate pin might work.
  3. Dress to feel wonderful – Wearing a great outfit changes how we feel and, by extension, how we present ourselves. Select clothes that are not only appropriate but that make you feel terrific and you will send a more upbeat and approachable vibe. Remember to be aware of your surroundings. If you are presenting on a large platform, Stone cautions you to consider whether the lights might make an article of clothing more transparent.
  4. Dress to look good against the backdrop –If possible, find out in advance what you will be standing in front of. If it’s a black background, you don’t want to be wearing black. And if you’re working in front of a green screen for some reason… remember not to wear green! Also remember, many presentations are recorded. When people are watching that later, you want them to be able to see you.
  5. Dress for the moment – After so many Zoom meetings where everyone became more casual in their dress, Stone believes there will be a move toward elegance. Whether or not that prediction is correct, this is a great time to wear a presentation piece of jewelry if you are a woman (not distracting but noticeable) or a bold tie if you are a man. Enjoy the chance to stand out.

My own recommendation is to take this in the spirit of fun. You want to be bringing new possibilities to the audience. If you choose your presentation wardrobe as an exciting part or to reflect you, your joy in the moment will be communicated. Making presentations can be out of your comfort zone. Dressing in a way that makes you feel comfortable and empowered can be a great first step when taking this leadership move.


ON LIBRARIES – Dress for Success

dress-for-success-1I am taking on a somewhat controversial topic.  Not everyone sees this as necessary, and it’s not the most important thing you can do to promote your leadership.  However, with so much at stake to keep library programs and librarians visible and vital, I believe we should use every tool available to us.

You know that you communicate a great deal without words. When you walk into a room, before you say anything, you have sent a number of messages. Some are totally unfair as people will make judgments based on arbitrary prejudices such as age, weight, and any number of other irrelevant criteria.

body-languageIn addition to visual clues, body language tells a lot about what you are thinking and how you are feeling.  Arms crossed signals you are closed.  Whether you look at people or away from them reveals how secure you are feeling. Tight lipped smiles shows you are hiding something or feel insecure. You make these decisions about others.  They do the same about you.

How you dress also sends messages. I go to every ALA and AASL Conference and I am always amazed at how easy it is to distinguish between the vendors and the librarians in the halls and elevators.  I know many librarians feel they can relax and dress solely for comfort, but I have a feeling that many of them dress that way when they are in their schools.

wonder-womanLook around your building.  Notice how the teachers dress.  Is there a difference between those who are well-regarded and others?  The dress of the secretarial and clerical staff is rarely the same as what teachers wear.  Paraprofessionals and aides mostly have their similar dress “code.” This is not a hard and fast rule.  There are always exceptions, but in general this holds true.

Now look at how administrators dress.  Compare that with what you wear.  Where are you on the scale?  If you look like some of the less-regarded teachers you are opening yourself up to being ignored or not valued highly.  If your clothes are similar to teachers who are highly regarded you are in a better position.

But you want more than that.  You want to be viewed as a leader.  Increasingly you will be in the presence of administrators. If you look as though you are one of them, you will be treated as though you are.  It may seem shallow, but it’s effective.

I have known a few librarian leaders and one administrator who didn’t “dress for success” who are highly respected, but they are rarities.  They are incredibly skilled at showing their worth and so were accepted by everyone for the leaders they are. You, on the other hand, may still be at a place where you want to prove yourself and emerge from how you are currently perceived.dressed-professionally

Dressing for success is much discussed in the business world, but hardly ever mentioned in education. Indeed, in some corporations a person who is being primed for promotion to higher levels of management might be sent to a personal shopper to be able to present a more polished, successful appearance.  Unlike the corporate world, in a school system, upgrading your wardrobe doesn’t mean you will be purchasing clothes with designer labels, but being mindful of the message you send with what you are wearing is important.

A reality check is necessary here.  If you are at the elementary level, skirts and dresses for women and suits for men are impractical.  You frequently get down on the floor to work with kids.  However nice pant suits or their equivalent and ties and such for men are a subtle change that will be taken in subliminally as part of your message.

While you are unlikely to work on the floor with students in high school, the same suggestions can hold.  Most important at any level is to feel comfortable with what you wear. Jewelry that is too flashy and earrings with long dangles are generally to be avoided as they are distracting.

shoes2Shoes are another consideration.  High heels for women are impractical unless you are very accustomed to moving with them on. Sneakers, on the other hand, need to be carefully thought out.  Some are far too casual. Others might work depending on what the norms are in your building and district.  Although it’s not fair, men are more easily able to get away with them.

In becoming a leader, it pays to be mindful of things big and little.  You show your leadership in what you do and how you are and that is what is most important. But you don’t want the small things to take away or diminish in any way from how you are perceived.

Are you mindful of how you dress? Do you think it matters in your building and district?

(EDITOR’S NOTE Based on a section of Hilda’s forthcoming book Leading for School Librarians: There is No Option.)